The Longest Congressional Campaign And The House Leadership Battle
We have grown used to long presidential campaigns. Those begin the day after the “off-year” election ends, and we ought to expect “exploratory committees” and even formal declarations of a campaign for the presidency to pour forth in November and December of this year.
GOP Chairman Reince Priebus may hold off the onslaught of presidential primary debates by pushing out an official schedule of 2015-2016 RNC-sponsored debates in late summer or early fall of this year, which would allow top tier candidates to waive off all other invites, but even if sanity returns to the debate process the new schedule of primaries and the ever-present need to raise big dollars for a long campaign means you can hear the engines being turned over on possible presidential campaigns already.
We are used to that. What we aren’t used to is a long Congressional campaign like the one already begun. Take a look here at Tom Cotton’s wonderful ad against Mark Pryor which released yesterday. This is wonderfully effective 30 second spot (especially when you consider that Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor is himself the real “entitled” candidate having inherited his Senate seat from his dad), and it is the sort of ad that used to emerge after Labor Day when campaigning picks up in a steadily growing crescendo. But it isn’t even Memorial Day yet. It isn’t even May! Cotton is out raising and hammering Pryor like an anvil with six months of sprinting left ahead. So it is in many other Senate and House races. So it will continue to be.
The primary reason why the 2014 race is already begun is because to the 2014 legislative session is already done. Really. Very little in the way of important issues will be voted on or even make it to the House or Senate floor unless Justice Ginsburg retires (and one Beltway lefty, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank doesn’t think that is happening.) There isn’t a “must-pass” piece of legislation left since the “doc fix” was passed in late March, and while the details of the various appropriations bills matter a great deal, they won’t to the public beyond a few headline grabbers and one day stories.
There just isn’t much to do or see happening in the Congress, and if you are in a safe House seat or not running in a Senate campaign, all there is is the routine of constituent service, key hearings –more on this below– and of course conspiring to advance your own interests within the House GOP Caucus.
Thanks to House of Cards season one, there will be greater-than-ever public interest in the House GOP leadership contest that will follow any announcement of a step down by Speaker Boehner –now or in the new Congress– or after the election should the Speaker wish to try and hang on to his gavel. (That would be a messy, terrible start to the new legislative year, but it is possible.) Few folks outside of DC and the hard core politicos ever used to pay attention to such proceedings, but new media and new television has changed that. Caucus doings can fuel an entire three hours of radio programming on a regular basis, with lines jammed and interesting guests and callers weighing in.
I interviewed Robert Costa Monday about the looming House leadership battle —the transcript is here— and Costa believes the Speaker hasn’t decided to retire yet, and that a return of Senate control to the GOP would incline him towards trying to keep his Speakership going. I think that would be a disaster for the GOP, even if he was successful in the internal battle to not be embarrassed by the balloting. The party needs a new face and a new agenda, one worked out quickly and put forward rapidly in coordination with the new GOP Senate majority if assembled –very early in 2015 —very early– if it is to have a chance against Hillary. That is why the Speaker would help the GOP greatly if he announced his intention to step aside after the election and let the incoming caucus begin now to figure out its new leader.
For reasons Costa discussed, the front-runner to succeed Speaker Boehner is Majority Leader Eric Cantor but Texas Congressman Jeb Hensarling, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, could mount a very credible challenge to Cantor, and here is the default bottom line on where the spring and summer will be spent in the House: In a dance of positioning between those two and their camps. Which brings us to hearings.
The House GOP has lacked a strategy on everything over the 18 months since President Obama’s re-election –or rather, it has been the victim of too many agendas, from the various approaches to opposition to Obamacare, to the debates over the shutdown and the debt battles, on how to handle the Benghazi investigation and the IRS abuse oversight hearings, to what to do about immigration. The Caucus leadership could not get organized to put a plan in place so a score of plans bloomed. That’s where we find the House GOP still: in the ditch without a coherent plan on getting from here to November.
A schedule of recesses is not a plan. There is no ready-to-roll-out set of hearings on Benghazi, the IRS and especially Obamacare, no planning for the months ahead that would reflect a commitment to coherence between now and then. What ought to have been published months ago still doesn’t exist.
The paralysis within the House Caucus isn’t going to resolve until at best November after the election and leadership voting. But couldn’t the Speaker, the Majority Leader and Whip, the Conference Chair and NRCC Chair get the key Committee Chairs –Issa, Camp, Upton, and Hensarling– into a room and the nine of them agree on a “hearing of the week” to hold on Wednesdays when they are in session between now and November, with a story line attached and a clear presentation? This isn’t hard to do: Status of Obamacare rollout, week 1 (Energy and Commerce), Status of Benghazi investigation, week 2 (Oversight and Government Reform), Status of IRS investigation week 3 (Ways and Means), Status of Unemployment and Weak “Recovery,” week 4 (Financial Services), Status of IRS and Obamacare investigations, week 5 (Oversight and Government Reform).
Then repeat. The repeat again. Three hearings on each subject between now and the fall recess. Each hearing with a review of the key storyline and data and new witnesses and serious questions.
Repetition, repetition, repetition. Focus and execute. Schedule and prepare. Leave the hollowing out of the military and the collapse of the Obama foreign policy to Senate voices like Kelly Ayotte and Marco Rubio who have already taken leading roles on the crises that American weakness has engendered. The House should focus on those issues they want to drive the November election.
This isn’t hard to do, but it hasn’t been done. If it is done, the longest Congressional campaign will have energy and focus overarching its hundred different battles and the leadership fight may fade from the headlines a bit.
But if there isn’t a plan, gossip and scheming will fill the void. Which would you prefer?