If one thing is clear as November draws to a close, it is that the Republican Party is on probation.
In the wake of the election that handed the GOP the House earlier this month, there is a sense in Washington that new Members are being watched — carefully. Congressmen half-suspect there’s a black Buick parked at the river’s edge just across the Potomac, staking them out. A fresh pile of cigarette butts sits next to the driver’s side door and each move on Capitol Hill is being recorded, committed to a file that will be opened in November 2012 and beyond.
Every move matters. Each vote is scrutinized and the House Republican Leadership’s only challenge, right now, is to not pull a Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi promised “no new deficit spending” upon being handed the gavel in 2006 and inside of four years jacked that deficit by $5 trillion. These four years were like asking your spouse to pick up a few groceries on the way home — just the essentials since the credit cards are maxed — and seeing her walk through the door with a forearm wrapped in Hermes bracelets.
The election wasn’t about party preferences, it was a rebuke: “When we said change we didn’t mean get even crazier.”
As Republican leaders decide how to reflect the will of the people, right the ship of state and put a fresh face on Congress, committee chairmanships are now at the center of the debate.
The contests are occurring below-the-radar. It is further evidence of the disconnect between the country and its capital. While 41% of Americans can’t name the Vice President of the United States, in Washington young staffers will get into shoving contests to secure some face time with a House committee chairman. Committee chairmen are to Washington what senior cardinals are in the Vatican.
No chairmanship in the next Congress carries more weight than that of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Whoever leads the panel will be responsible for overseeing the effort to de-fund Obamacare and also, more importantly, combat the FCC’s attempts to regulate the Internet — a terrible prospect.
Three candidates are being considered as we enter the Thanksgiving weekend. Fred Upton of Michigan has the seniority, but is under fire from the very conservatives who just put the Republicans back in power. Illinois’s John Shimkus is marketing himself as Upton’s socially-conservative counterpoint; and Florida’s Cliff Stearns is being reported as the business-savvy “dark horse” candidate. (A fourth candidate, former Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton, is term-limited out and would need a waiver from the Republican leadership to serve another term.)
This offers a telling moment in the early speakership of John Boehner. He must show that he “gets it” — that he not only counted the votes of November 2nd, but that he understands the cultural forces that led to the outcome of that day. The spirit of this November bodes well for the “dark horse” candidate for two very important reasons.
Florida’s Cliff Stearns is the leader of the Republican delegation in a perennial swing state. His state is the Kentucky Derby of American politics. It is no longer just America’s orange juice repository. In the 21st century, Florida’s chief export is electoral votes.
It is the maker of presidents — the panhandle where political fortunes meet the frying pan and either rise or fall flat. For the future political prospects of the Republican Party, Speaker Boehner would be wise to tap Florida’s senior Republican to lead Energy and Commerce — particularly given the committee’s jurisdiction over healthcare — a crucial issue in the vote-rich state commonly referred to as “Heaven’s Waiting Room.”
Furthermore, Stearns’ supporters have suggested that it might be useful to have a small businessman running Energy and Commerce. Stearns is not a lawyer, but an Air Force Veteran who built a chain of hotels from the ground up. He has had to make payroll. As Americans watch for any indication of common economic sense in government; as many pray that Washington will be the proving ground for a wiser Republican Party, it may be time for Republican leadership, when selecting someone to lead Energy and Commerce, to tap someone who has actually created commerce outside of Washington.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.