Will There Ever Be A Conservative House Speaker?

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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John Boehner lives! But was the outcome ever really in doubt?

Boehner was reelected speaker of the House Tuesday, despite the number of Republicans voting against him more than doubling to 25. Florida Rep. Daniel Webster, Texas Rep. Louis Gohmert and Florida Rep. Ted Yoho were among the conservative alternatives.

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, Virginia Rep. Dave Brat (who defeated Eric Cantor), North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones and Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp were among the prominent no votes.

Modern House speakers are generally not conservative. Boehner is obviously not Chairman Mao, but he’s not Barry Goldwater either. His predecessors are almost uniformly to his left: Tip O’Neill, Sam Rayburn, Tom Foley, Nancy Pelosi. Even Republicans like Dennis Hastert unleashed the appropriators and ran a Congress that created the biggest new entitlement program since LBJ was president and spiked discretionary spending.

The biggest recent exception was Newt Gingrich. In fact, the bulk of his leadership team was conservative. House Majority Leader Dick Armey was a free-market economist who told the truth about Social Security and had more than an abstract commitment to the Second Amendment. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay was a major Christian right figure and easily the most conservative whip in recent memory.

The fourth member of that leadership team was Boehner, then chairman of the House Republican Conference. In 1998, he was booted from his leadership position and replaced with Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts. So far, that’s the only successful conservative challenge against him.

Team Gingrich’s supporting cast included Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Walker and committee chairmen like Ohio Rep. John Kasich at Budget, Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston at Appropriations and Texas Rep. Bill Archer at Ways and Means.

This was a group that should have taught conservatives to be careful what they wished for. The Knack had one good album, the Gingrich Congress had two, maybe three good years. Only during 1995-96 did they seriously try to cut spending, including a plan to restrain the growth of Medicare spending (pushed by Kasich, who today as governor of Ohio is a leading Republican apologist for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion).

In 1996, the Gingrichites finally passed a welfare reform bill President Clinton would sign. A year later they passed the first across-the-board federal tax cuts since the Reagan administration and the first balanced budget since 1969. They enacted a plan that, if followed, would have put farm subsidies on the glide path to elimination.

But it didn’t take long for this conservative leadership team to lose its edge, especially after losing the public relations war over the government shutdowns. Gingrich clashed with the Republican freshmen. Tom Coburn later wrote, “From the perspective of many members of the class of 1994, it was Gingrich who had drained the lifeblood from the Republican revolution with some of his political decisions.”

Gingrich once tried to upbraid the “eleven geniuses,” all conservative Republicans, who had thwarted leadership on a vote. Mark Sanford, then in his first stint as a Republican congressman from South Carolina, protested that he had never heard of lawmakers being forced to explain their votes. Oklahoma Rep, Steve Largent, a former NFL wide receiver, was even more confrontational.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said. “I am not intimidated. I have been in rooms much smaller than this one when I was on the opposite side of teammates during a player’s strike against the NFL. The guys in those rooms weighed 280, 320 pounds and not only wanted to kill me, if they had gotten hold of me they probably could have. This isn’t the case here tonight.”

Another conservative freshman was booted off an Appropriations subcommittee for being too tough on spending. He was reinstated after his fellow freshmen staged a revolt. But who was the establishment figure suppressing these conservative backbenchers? Gingrich.

Soon the Republican Congress was outspending Clinton on key domestic programs. Later it helped grow the Department of Education. Conservative Tom DeLay helped ram through the deficit-financed Medicare prescription-drug benefit and denied there was any more spending to cut, a budget “victory.”

By the Bush administration, a Republican Congress was increasing discretionary spending at twice the clip that prevailed under Clinton, all but seven GOP lawmakers voted for the $1 trillion Iraq war and earmarks were run amuck. So much for conservative leadership.

Since then, conservatives have barely been able to sniff the leadership. Fresh from helping to pass No Child Left Behind, Boehner defeated Indiana Rep. Mike Pence for minority leader by a vote of 168 to 27 after the 2006 elections. He dispatched California Rep. Dan Lungren with similar ease.

After Eric Cantor lost his congressional seat to a conservative primary challenger, he was replaced as House majority leader by a Republican to his left.

What’s gone wrong? Many conservatives don’t want whip positions, which require them to win votes for legislation they disapprove of. No conservative has seriously tried to lay the kind of groundwork Gingrich once did.

The conservatives who dare to challenge the leadership, but do so at the last minute and with no real strategy, only mark themselves as people the establishment can blackball from key committee assignments. All this makes conservatives even weaker than before.

Republicans could have the majority for quite some time. It would be nice, if conservatives could figure out how to get a piece of the action.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.