If you’ve been following the doings of Congress over the past few months, you’ve probably noticed that the newly empowered Republican majorities in both the House and Senate are not especially good at getting things done. The dysfunction typically follows a familiar pattern: the GOP leadership in one or both Houses tries to follow through on some basic task – funding government agencies, for example – but runs into opposition from conservatives. The leadership tries to accommodate the right, but finds that the right’s demands are unreasonable and inflexible. The whole legislative process derails, and then the Democratic minority steps in to save the Republicans from themselves.
There are a wealth of examples of this dynamic playing out stretching all the way back to the GOP’s 2010 takeover of the House: the government shutdown, the fiscal cliff, the fight over Homeland Security funds, etc. A new paper from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center offers a compelling explanation for why this keeps happening: conservative media keeps derailing the GOP’s agenda.
The paper, by New York Times correspondent Jackie Calmes, explores the influence that talk radio, Fox News, conservative online media, and well-funded activist groups have on Republican legislators. As Calmes notes, right-wing radio hosts and bloggers have the attention of the people Republicans fear most – the conservatives who can be reliably counted on to join activist causes, flood their congressional offices with angry phone calls and letters, and vote. Legislators understand this, and a toxic, self-reinforcing dynamic emerges in which the conservative media demand legislators take more extreme positions, legislators accede to those demands to curry favor with influential media personalities and their audiences, which imbues those media personalities with still more power and influence. The end result is a race to the right in which everyone is terrified of betraying the slightest hint of compromise.
And as Calmes demonstrates through a series of interviews with Republican lawmakers and their aides, this relentless quest for conservative purity is frustrating to people who are themselves plenty conservative, but also want to actually get things done:
“This is by any measure the most conservative Republican caucus in my lifetime,” said [House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Tom] Cole. But for most in conservative media, “The idea of getting half of a loaf and moving down the road is just anathema to them. It’s got to be good guys and bad guys, and if our side doesn’t win it’s got to be because there’s something wrong with our side,” he said, not the Democrats. “They’re looking for fights to pick with, quote, establishment Republicans, unquote.”
Calmes makes a key point about how this game is rigged in favor of the radio hosts and bloggers who take it on themselves to define what “conservative” means when it comes to policy battles. “They and their audiences repeatedly get to set the agenda, to provoke a confrontation in defense of what they see as conservative principles. And when the fight fails – well, that is Republican leaders’ fault for not fighting hard enough.” That is precisely what happened with the two high-profile government funding fights we’ve seen in the Obama era: the 2013 government shutdown over Obamacare and this year’s attempt to block President Obama’s executive actions on immigration by withholding Homeland Security funding. In both cases, the cause championed by conservatives in the media was doomed from the start, but Republican leaders in Congress caved to pressure from the right and tried to force the president to abandon two of his domestic policy achievements. They took a beating in public opinion before finally giving up the lost causes, at which point they were flensed by talk radio (and by Republican lawmakers who pander to conservative media) as RINOs and sellouts.
This unworkable situation has left Republicans who actually care about governing thoroughly exasperated. “Of the establishment Republicans among several dozen conservatives interviewed, nearly all were flummoxed about how to moderate the party,” Calmes writes. “Most expressed despair.” And they’re right to be despondent. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has proven only slightly less inept at corralling his members than House Speaker John Boehner. They’ve already given up hope on any real legislative achievement and are instead focused on repealing the Affordable Care Act (something they still can’t seem to figure out how to do).
The persistent dysfunction will in all likelihood come back to hurt them later this year, when Congress will have to once again vote to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling. The threat of a government shutdown and/or default on debt payments is an ideal opportunity for conservative legislators – egged on by the right-wing media – to make any number of unrealistic ransom demands: Repeal Obamacare! Defund Planned Parenthood! Deport all the immigrants! And, once again, the Republican leadership will be forced to choose between keeping their base happy or keeping the government’s lights on.