The Cabal That Quietly Took Over the House

For 40 years, the Republican Study Committee has prized ideological purity over partisan loyalty. That mindset now dominates the GOP.
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The Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol done is silhouetted by the rising sun on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

On a frigid Wednesday afternoon in January, Speaker John Boehner sat in a conference room at the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va., acknowledging the limits of his authority. For the past two years, the Republican Study Committee--a caucus of the most conservative representatives--had defied his leadership, plotted against his policy proposals, and, just two weeks earlier, organized a revolt to dethrone him. A group of RSC malcontents, exasperated with Boehner's stewardship of the House Republican Conference during the previous session of Congress, persuaded 12 members to oppose Boehner in an effort to replace him with a more conservative leader, just five shy of the number necessary to force a second ballot. This would have legitimized the putsch and provided cover for nominal loyalists to abandon their chief.

Boehner survived, battered and humbled, but there was no time to hold grudges. The internal wounds opened in the 112th Congress were bleeding into the 113th, and Boehner knew he wouldn't last long as speaker (let alone help his party block the agenda of a commandingly reelected president) unless he sutured those wounds. Tomorrow, Boehner would appear before the entire fragmented GOP conference at its annual retreat to set the next year's agenda. But first he needed a plan to win back the trust of conservatives. So now, on this winter afternoon, he was meeting with five RSC leaders not to gloat about his reelection but to secure their support.

Four of the guests had at some point chaired the RSC: Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Tom Price of Georgia, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who had taken over the committee just weeks before. The fifth attendee was House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a longtime RSC member and the recently defeated vice presidential candidate. They were putting the final touches on a deal with the speaker, weeks in the making, to hide ideological divisions by agreeing on a legislative strategy for the new Congress.

Not long ago, it would have been ludicrous for the House speaker to approach the Republican Study Committee on bended knee, much less to depend on it to restore harmony to the conference. The committee's philosophy of governance would vex any speaker: Members consider themselves conservatives first and Republicans second. They did not come to Washington to play for the Republican team; they came to fight for conservative principles. If that means voting against party interests, so be it. For core RSC believers, ideological purity trumps legislative accomplishment. Period.

For decades, the group was seen as a parasitic anomaly--a fringe organization of hopeless ideologues surviving off the perception of undue moderation among Republican leadership. Several previous speakers had bullied or ignored it, and one even dissolved the RSC in a quest to squelch internal dissent. For decades, the committee's membership rolls were thin, and internal GOP debates didn't matter much anyway, because the party was in the minority.

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But the 2010 midterms--thanks to an influx of ideologically charged lawmakers converging with an increasingly conservative GOP--changed everything. More than 60 of 85 GOP freshmen joined the Republican Study Committee, giving the group a record 164 members. The committee known as "the conservative conscience of the House" was now, for the first time in history, a majority of the House majority.

As a result, its influence grew geometrically, and, today, no single subgroup drives the legislative agenda like the RSC. When its members rally against a bill, it usually fails; when they join to push a proposal, it almost always succeeds. Indeed, since 2010, the RSC's embrace or rejection of any legislative effort has become the surest indicator of whether it will pass the chamber. With 171 members today, the Republican Study Committee is the "largest caucus in all of Congress," as Scalise puts it. If Boehner and his conductors make the trains run, RSC members are the soot-soaked boilermen shoveling coal into the furnace.

Or refusing, as they sometimes do, to shovel. In the last session of Congress, they made life miserable for Boehner as he attempted to exert authority over his caucus that he did not possess. Opponents of the RSC--including some within the GOP's ranks--now see it as a mob of conservative kamikazes willing to hold the government hostage until their demands are met. During the debt-ceiling negotiations of 2011, Vice President Joe Biden allegedly labeled these lawmakers "terrorists."

Everyone knows Washington's policy: No negotiating with terrorists. But back in January, Boehner had no choice. By seeking the RSC's assistance, he was accepting its de facto control of his conference. Supplication was the only way to salvage his speakership. The defenders of the faith--the ones who argue that principles are not bargaining chips--had finally penetrated the innermost sanctum of power.

KINDLING

Before becoming president of Washington's premier conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, Ed Feulner was a congressional aide to Republican Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois. One day in 1972, Feulner says, his boss was meeting with several fellow House conservatives, including Ed Derwinski of Illinois, John Rousselot of California, and Ben Blackburn of Georgia. The discussion turned to a club of liberal House members who convened weekly and called themselves the Democratic Study Group. "Look at what they've done in terms of making sure the Democrats in control of the House are always under pressure from the left," one member said. "Why can't we do this on the right?"

An idea was taking shape. These conservative House members decided in the long term to target Minority Leader Gerald Ford, whom they saw as a moderate deal-maker rather than a principled conservative. (Ford, foreshadowing the frustration to be felt by future House leaders, fancied himself a conservative but found it impossible to earn the trust from his right wing.) "We said, 'If Jerry Ford isn't getting any pressure from the right, the only way he's going to go is left,' " Feulner recalls.

First, though, the conservatives went hunting for bigger game. President's Nixon's welfare plan contained a provision to guarantee Americans a certain annual income--a notion that horrified right-wingers in both chambers of Congress. So Crane had Feulner reach out to conservative aides in the Senate in the hope of joining forces to defeat Nixon's plan. Soon, Feulner was working with Paul Weyrich, a young staffer for Sen. Gordon Allott of Colorado, and other conservative Hill aides. The group persuaded the governor of California--a popular conservative named Ronald Reagan--to testify against the plan before the Senate Finance Committee. The measure eventually failed, and Reagan rewarded Crane by coming to meet with him in the Capitol. Looking back, Feulner says his work with Weyrich, who later founded the Heritage Foundation, laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the Republican Study Committee.

In the months following the welfare episode, Crane and company worked to formally launch the group. But members soon realized that pressuring leadership required real resources--staff members to churn out studies, charts, and memos, and to organize the logistics of a new, independent caucus. To accomplish this, Crane and his staff designed a system to hire apparatchiks for their new organization by putting them on multiple payrolls. That way, say, five lawmakers might split the cost of one operative. In 1973, the RSC launched with this model. "Sharing staff members was easily done under House rules then," says Feulner. "By the time I became executive director in 1973, I was on, like, four different payrolls at any one time."

The group quickly won adherents. When other conservative members saw the sharp materials RSC researchers produced, they asked to join. What began as an informal club ballooned within a few years from four members, to 12, to 20. The new strength in numbers allowed the RSC to contemplate how it might shape the broader GOP agenda--and, by extension, the national one.

But that wouldn't work with Republicans out of power. At best, the RSC could have only as much influence as the House GOP had. When the conference is weak and stuck in the minority, the RSC becomes an afterthought on Capitol Hill. "The mission of the RSC is always more important when you're in the majority than when you're in the minority," Hensarling says. "In the majority, you're actually passing legislation; in the minority, you're mainly in the communications business."

This helps to explain why the committee was irrelevant during the 1980s. Between the group's founding in the 1970s and its resurgence in the 1990s, longtime RSC observers say, it had a negligible impact. Democrats controlled the House, and President Reagan was a kindred spirit whose policies they had little cause to protest. Eventually, the tide of history would turn and conservatives would reestablish their reputation as predators. But first they would become prey.

DEATH AND RESURRECTION

To fathom the psyche of Congress's most conservative lawmakers, it's useful to study the ferocity with which they protect the RSC's autonomy. Whenever the House leadership has even hinted at meddling with the group--rumors swirled last fall that Boehner would try to oust Executive Director Paul Teller at the start of the next session--the reaction has been swift and sharp. In this case, conservatives successfully lobbied to keep Teller on as a counterbalance to Scalise, whom some RSC members saw as too cozy with leadership. This history of insulating their group from external interference dates back two decades, when someone the committee considered a friend betrayed it.

After Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 1994, ending a four-decade stint as the permanent political underclass, the ambitious new speaker, Newt Gingrich, planned several shake-ups. Among his first priorities was to get rid of the Republican Study Committee, which he viewed as a threat to the harmony of the House Republican Conference. To eliminate the RSC--while avoiding the appearance that he was singling out conservatives--Gingrich devised a plot to abolish all Legislative Service Organizations, the 28 groups that functioned with the "shared staff" model perfected by groups such as the RSC and the Congressional Black Caucus. The new speaker spoke craftily about the need to save taxpayer money and eliminate unnecessary expenses, but the message was clear to every conservative in Washington: Gingrich was determined to eliminate the group that could endanger his speakership.

He began immediately after the 1994 election by convening a meeting of the next House Republican Conference--all returning members, plus the incoming freshmen. Numerous newbies, having heard about the RSC, were devastated when Gingrich's staff announced it was going away. Two of them, John Shadegg of Arizona and Steve Largent of Oklahoma, spoke up. "The entire freshman class was there, and we were taking over the majority," Shadegg recalls. "Largent and I got up and argued it ought to be saved."

When the meeting adjourned, Majority Leader Dick Armey yanked Shadegg and Largent into an adjacent room. "Nice try, but it's gone," Armey told them. By abolishing the RSC, the new speaker neutralized a potential menace. But in doing so, he also provoked some GOP members who were incredulous that their self-styled conservative leader would attack a bastion of conservative activism. One of them was Ernest Istook, an outspoken sophomore from Oklahoma, who whispered to a colleague during that meeting, "It can't be healthy for all the resources to be concentrated in the hands of party leadership." Istook wanted to know where rank-and-file members would turn for objective analyses on leadership-endorsed legislation.

He wasn't alone. Having arrived in Washington together in 1990, GOP Reps. John Doolittle of California and Sam Johnson of Texas shared a friendship and political philosophy. RSC members both, they were stunned by the power play. Almost immediately, they began plotting to revive the organization. To circumvent Gingrich's restrictive language, they needed someone with intricate knowledge of both the old RSC infrastructure and the House itself. No one was better qualified than Dan Burton of Indiana, who was RSC chairman at the time of its dissolution. Burton, too, had been scheming to resurrect the committee.

As these three began strategizing around the new House rules, they recruited Istook. He suggested that rather than spend House resources on RSC employees, lawmakers should instead hire part-time staffers who could roam between offices working for different members on RSC projects. "We set up a structure of rotating the payroll for these employees from one office to the next, so that everyone was, in effect, sharing the cost but working within the new rules," Istook explains.

Now the four members could reboot the RSC, but they wanted a fresh start and a new name to emphasize aggressive ideology over passive partisanship. Istook suggested CAT, for Conservative Action Team. The others approved, and soon Istook was printing lapel pins featuring a roaring mountain lion and distributing them to conservative members curious about rumors of the RSC's resurrection. The rechristened group had returned--with a new generation of leaders.

This foursome, known since as the "founders," nurtured the group with weekly meetings to discuss policy and strategy. (Today, the weekly RSC meeting, which is still part debate forum and part strategy session, is considered the cornerstone of conservatism on Capitol Hill.) Each of the four founders served as chairman on a rotating basis for four to six months. But that proved too chaotic. "It got to the point where we felt it had become an organizational weakness that we didn't have a single chairman," Doolittle recalls. Their unanimous choice as CAT's first chairman was Rep. David McIntosh of Indiana, who had earned a reputation since arriving in 1995 as unafraid to challenge party leadership. But when Republicans lost seats in 1998 and Gingrich stepped down, McIntosh retired to run for Indiana governor and passed the chairman's job to his class of '94 colleague, Rep. John Shadegg, a combative conservative with a talent for taking the temperature of his colleagues.

Shadegg had, in his first term, become an invaluable resource for Gingrich, who liked to summon him and ask, "What are conservatives up to?" But everyone knew where Shadegg's loyalties lay. He had not come to Congress to advance the Republican agenda but to promote conservative principles. So when the founders approached him, Shadegg jumped at the chance to become the de facto leader of House conservatives. "I was a natural," he says of their choice. He took the group from 40 members in 2000 to 72 in 2002. He also carved out an antagonistic new role for the chairman, fighting party leaders over everything from budgets to committee assignments. And he restored the group's old name, the Republican Study Committee. "The people who founded it [back in 1973], they created the Republican Study Committee to study the issues," he recalls. "I thought it should have more gravitas than it had by calling itself CAT."

The founders continued to fret over conservative fealty, so they had retained the power to choose their group's chairmen. Elections, they feared, would allow "moderates" to infiltrate the organization at the behest of leadership and push a party loyalist for the chairmanship. But after the controversial pick of Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina, their choice to succeed Shadegg in 2003, they tweaked the selection process to include RSC members. Now the founders (expanded to include all past chairmen still serving in Congress) would nominate a candidate, and any member could challenge them with signatures from 25 percent of the RSC to force a group-wide vote. After the tenure of Rep. Mike Pence--who took the RSC in an assertive new direction on fiscal policy and famously proposed steep domestic spending cuts to offset new government outlays in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina--they got their first challenge. Members had expected Pence's right-hand colleague, Jeb Hensarling, to get the nod; when he didn't, he rounded up signatures and defeated the founders' choice, Todd Tiahrt of Kansas. The Republican Study Committee was now run as much by its members as by its founders.

And as everyone soon found out, that didn't mean backsliding: Hensarling, who took over as Democrats won control of the House, chaired the group during some defining moments for the conservative movement. Under his leadership, the RSC rankled the Republican establishment by opposing major policies being pushed by President George W. Bush, such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the automaker bailouts. After Hensarling's chairmanship came Price, whose task was made doubly difficult when Republicans, still in the House minority, lost the White House in 2008. Price describes his tenure as "exhilarating" because the RSC was in attack mode. Members pounded President's Obama's policies, such as the economic stimulus and health care reform, and spoke for conservative orthodoxy. Still, Price says, "we were not able to blunt many of the horrendous policies coming out of the administration." When 2010 arrived, they would get their chance.

VIEW FROM THE TOP

"I'm always asked back home, 'Are there others up there like you?' " Price pauses and smiles, savoring the punch line. The fifth-term lawmaker, who occupies the seat once held by Gingrich, says his constituents are curious about the culture of Capitol Hill. Specifically, they wonder if he's lonely as a Republican working in a town dominated by Democrats. They want to know, Price says, "you got any friends up there?" That's when Price tells them about the Republican Study Committee.

The RSC today is much more than an affinity group; it's a fraternity, a place where "kindred souls" come together to trade political ideas and share life experiences, Price says. Members go to dinner, play golf, and attend Bible study--activities that strengthen relationships forged by former strangers with a shared political philosophy. It's a clubhouse. "The thing I like most about it is, you get a chance to work with people who believe in the same things you do," Jordan says. "My best friends are in the RSC."

In theory, this was a great setup for the 112th Congress. House conservatives had formed bonds. Reinforcements had arrived in abundance. Boehner was taking back the speaker's gavel. And Jordan, a Boehner ally who represented a neighboring Ohio district, was taking over the RSC. Yet the bonhomie wouldn't last.

Traditionally, the leadership initiates incoming members, but with so big a freshman class, this was easier said than done. Besides, these rookie lawmakers weren't interested in the "how it's done in Washington" speech. They were intent on shaking things up, not playing the pawns in Boehner's chess game. When more than 60 of the new Republican members enlisted in the RSC, it became clear that Jordan, not Boehner, would have to corral them (even though two former RSC chairs--Hensarling and Price--worked on Boehner's leadership team).

Soon, two warring factions had formed: the "moderates" loyal to Boehner, and the conservatives led by Jordan. They collided in increasingly ugly fashion, climaxing during the July 2011 debt-ceiling negotiations. Boehner pitched a plan to offset debt extensions with spending cuts. But many conservatives thought Boehner's cuts didn't go far enough, and some RSC staffers began e-mailing outside pressure groups, such as Heritage Action, to turn committee members against the deal. The e-mails leaked; Teller, who hadn't written them himself, was nonetheless identified as the chief culprit. Furious conservatives felt betrayed by their flagship's own crew. At a conference-wide meeting called the next day, some members chanted, "Fire him!" at Teller.

Jordan, who remembers the incident as "pretty heated," apologized for the e-mails but remained opposed to Boehner's proposal. "Look, it's politics," Jordan says of the episode. "It's a game for grown-ups. It's supposed to get intense." Teller is unapologetic about the incident--or about the RSC's other run-ins with leadership. "We're not there to smile and nod," he says of his group.

The internal acrimony reached its zenith with an end-of-session failure to rally behind Boehner's "Plan B" for avoiding the fiscal cliff, which proposed to extend the Bush tax cuts for those earning $1 million or less. Conservatives argued against raising taxes on anyone. That episode ended in December with Boehner reciting the serenity prayer--"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change"--to members of the GOP conference. Republicans had reclaimed the majority with a mandate to fight the Obama agenda, but they had spent as much time fighting each other. Two weeks later, in the opening days of the new Congress, 12 RSC members attempted to overthrow Boehner.

That's when the speaker convened the Williamsburg summit on that cold January afternoon.

WINNING WAYS

RSC chairmen are always surprised to learn about the guidelines for the job--namely, that there aren't any. The supremo enjoys what Price calls "a lot of latitude" to determine the group's strategic direction.

Scalise knew that full well. The group's current chairman, a soft-spoken man of Sicilian heritage who carries a fava bean in his pocket for good luck, had a front-row seat for the internecine battles of the 112th Congress. He knew Republicans could not effectively battle Obama until they called an internal cease-fire. So when he met with the founders last November to ask them to nominate him for the chairmanship, Scalise posed a simple question. "As conservatives," he asked, "how do we define victory?"

His message was straightforward: The RSC should focus less on preaching conservative values and more on passing conservative policy; it should emphasize actions over words. He ran for the chairmanship of the group against Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia (the founders' choice) as the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, the sequester, and the continuing resolution all loomed, and he won by promising RSC members that he would work to secure a series of "victories," giving House Republicans momentum and putting Senate Democrats and the White House on the defensive.

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At the annual retreat in Williamsburg, after conservative leaders had come to terms with Boehner, Scalise lobbied skeptical RSC members to join the ideological armistice. In exchange for approving a temporary extension of the debt limit in January, Boehner's leadership team would support a series of conservative policy solutions to the upcoming list of legislative challenges. Many RSC members doubted the durability of this agreement--since dubbed "the Williamsburg Accord"--but were persuaded to give Boehner one final chance to earn the trust of the conservative rank and file.

Four months later, both Boehner and Scalise have delivered. Consistent with the Kingsmill Resort compromise, the sequester cuts went into effect; the continuing resolution was passed with lower spending levels; and the House's proposed budget would balance in 10 years. Meanwhile, thanks to the RSC-favored "No Budget, No Pay" provision attached to the debt-ceiling deal, Senate Democrats were forced to come up with their first budget in four years. "We're not a think tank," Scalise says. "We're a group of 171 legislators who all came here to fight to pass conservative policy into law."

The Republican Study Committee has, throughout its history, been ideologically pure yet often impotent to achieve legislative results. In the minority, it lacked power or numbers to drive the agenda; in the majority, it focused on infighting over policy. Now, for the first time in its 40-year history, the stars have aligned. Not only is the RSC still emphasizing ideology over partisanship--and passing conservative policy in the process--but it is also pulling the entire conference rightward. "We're hitting our stride," says Teller, who's worked for the group since 2001.

There is, of course, a certain irony. The Republican Study Committee has gained size, strength, and influence by preaching that leadership must always be pressured and never be trusted. Now the RSC finds itself more powerful and accomplished than it has ever been, mainly because its members decided to set aside their suspicions and strike a deal with leadership. It's still a fragile relationship, likely to shatter at any sign of ideological betrayal. But, according to many conservatives, Boehner has finally earned the trust of the Republican Study Committee. "God bless the speaker," says Jordan.

Somewhere, Gerald Ford is smiling.

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Tim Alberta is editor of Hotline Last Call!, the afternoon newsletter of National Journal Hotline.

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