The Biggest Conservative Group In Congress Is Breaking Up

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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The Beatles broke up. So, eventually, did Led Zeppelin. The biggest conservative caucus in Congress appears to be next.

House conservatives are planning what National Journal described as a “mass exodus” from the Republican Study Committee. The departing lawmakers complain that the RSC has stopped fighting for its founding principles– much like the Republican Party itself.

Unlike the Beatles, the RSC isn’t going away. But dissatisfied conservatives are going to start a splinter group of their own.

Membership in the RSC has exploded from 7 percent of the House Republican Conference to more than 70 percent. As late as 2000, the group had just 40 members. After the 2010 elections, it received over 60 new members from the GOP freshman class alone.

But all that growth didn’t make the RSC more conservative, dissidents complained. In fact, some questioned how a group that included a majority of Republican legislators could really be an effective conservative caucus inside the House. The founding members had always worried that if they loosened their grip, leadership would infiltrate.

After Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan stepped down as chairman, disenchanted members complained that the RSC became too conciliatory toward leadership. Several conservative Capitol Hill aides told The Daily Caller its agenda was diluted and indistinguishable from the GOP conference as a whole. Longtime Executive Director Paul Teller was let go for working with outside conservative groups against a two-year budget deal many on the right — but not as many RSC members — opposed.

One former chairman, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, moved effortlessly into a leadership role as House majority whip. Tom DeLay notwithstanding, that’s never been a favorite role for conservatives, who worry about whipping to pass bills they dislike. The current chairman, Texas Rep. Bill Flores, had just a 71 percent Heritage Action score in the last Congress.

Flores made waves by telling reporters not to expect any public fights with Speaker of the House John Boehner or the rest of the Republican leadership. He told Breitbart News that holding the Republicans accountable wasn’t in the RSC’s mission statement. Politico described him as taking “a softer tone at RSC.” Roll Call said Flores would “minimize fights.”

And those were just the headlines.

Flores had just beaten more combative conservatives, like South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney and Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, for the chairmanship. For some members, this was the final straw.

Complaints about drift at the RSC go back much further, however. RSC alternative budgets based on spending blueprints that in the 1990s passed the full Republican-controlled House were struggling to win support from study committee members in the 2000s.

Barely more than two dozen House Republicans voted against the deficit-financed Medicare prescription-drug benefit, meaning that the biggest new entitlement since the Great Society passed with majority of Republican — and RSC — votes. A December 2006 Reason magazine story labeled them “The budget cutters who couldn’t stop spending,” claiming, “Being in the RSC is sort of like wearing a varsity jacket signifying that a congressman is an athletic budget cutter. There’s not much evidence the RSC as a whole is serious about fiscal issues.”

That’s probably not what longtime conservative activist Paul Weyrich planned when he helped found the Republican Study Committee in 1973, or what Newt Gingrich feared when he defunded it along with predominantly liberal groups like the Congressional Black Caucus.

Now conservatives like Mulvaney, Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows and New Jersey Rep. Scott Garrett will start their own group, yet to be named, to the applause of some outside conservative organizations. Some think a smaller, more unified caucus would find it easier to influence the debate.

“The RSC used to be a source of big ideas and bold policy reforms that offered a constructive alternative to the often milquetoast agenda of the leadership structure,” FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe told TheDC. “This is a vital role that is no longer being filled by the RSC. Liberty loving, small-government conservatives need to reform as a caucus that takes principles seriously.”

Other conservatives take a different view. One former RSC staffer told TheDC that the committee should exist “not just to advocate conservative policy but to make it happen. For that, you need 218.” The staffer argued that it’s better for the RSC “steer the leadership to the right,” which requires “engaging members of leadership rather than antagonizing them.”

Previously, the staffer added, “a lot of time the RSC talked about conservatism and what conservative policy should be rather than making them see the light of day.”

Less than two years ago, National Journal ran a story about the RSC headlined “The cabal that quietly took over the House.” In its telling, after a closer-than-expected race for speaker Boehner “approach[ed] the Republican Study Committee on bended knee.” But even it contained foreshadowing of what was to come.

“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,” the magazine reported. “It’s still a fragile relationship, likely to shatter at any sign of ideological betrayal.”

The breakup could at least make for a good episode of “VH1 Behind the Music.”

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.