Speaking Of America

An insurgency in the Republican Party

A Speaker of the House has fallen victim and the 12-nation TPP free trade deal hangs in the balance

WASHINGTON • Ordinarily, you would expect politicians to be trampling over one another to be Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.

As the leader of the 435-member legislative body, the Speaker is one of the most powerful politicians in the land, and stands behind only the vice-president in line for the presidency.

Right now, however, the Speaker post has become the pariah of political jobs - a poisoned chalice no sane person seems willing to grasp.

Current House Speaker John Boehner is supposed to vacate his seat in just over a week, but no successor is yet in sight. The heir-apparent, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy - a man who just two weeks ago seemed a shoo-in for the job - has dropped out of the race and now the Republican Party leadership is practically begging Representative Paul Ryan to run.

The former vice-presidential candidate has said he would run only if the entire party unites behind him. The path seems clear for him for now, but it is a race that has thus far been full of surprises.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The turmoil in the Speaker race - or rather non-race - is probably too esoteric for anyone living outside the Washington beltway, but the issue is underpinned by a disunity that has wide-ranging repercussions for the Republican Party as well as the White House agenda for the rest of President Barack Obama's term.

The Republican Party has been split open by an attack from the inside, and nobody is quite sure how to put it back together.

INTRODUCING THE HOUSE FREEDOM CAUCUS

While there has been simmering unrest within the GOP for some time now, the tensions have really come to a head this year.

And the blame for nearly all of its troubles has fallen on a single hereto-fore almost unknown entity known as the House Freedom Caucus.

Little factions and offshoots are certainly not new to large political parties. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have multiple factions, each pushing their own agenda. The Republicans, for instance, saw the rise of a Tea Party Caucus in the past two election cycles that was determined to push the party's agenda further to the right.

But in the Freedom Caucus - which is in many ways an offshoot of the fading Tea Party - the Republican leadership now faces the most potent, extreme faction in its history.

In its relatively short life - the caucus was officially founded in January - the invite-only grouping of some 40 Republican lawmakers has made its presence felt.

The group was the driving force behind the recent push to hold government funding hostage in order to try and deny funding to a women's health organisation known as Planned Parenthood. It also launched semi-successful strikes against a key trade Bill known as the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and attempted to renew broad surveillance programmes under the Patriot Act. In both those cases, its obstructionism slowed the process down but failed to ultimately scupper final passage.

Its current attack on the Speakership, though, has seen it come of age as a political force.

In late July, caucus member Mark Meadows stunned the Republican leadership when he filed a motion in the House to vacate the chair, akin in some ways to calling for a no-confidence vote.

The motion was never likely to pass, but doing so sent a warning to Mr Boehner that the caucus was about to become even more uncooperative. What made it worse was the fact that the caucus effectively blindsided the leader of its own party with the motion, filing the motion without giving the Speaker any warning.

The move was said to be a factor in Mr Boehner's ultimate decision to step down.

Then, two weeks ago when the Republican Party was due to back the selection of Mr McCarthy in an internal vote, the caucus revolted and said it would be voting as a bloc for a different candidate. Mr McCarthy duly stepped aside.

It has not launched similar objections to Mr Ryan's thus-far reluctant candidacy but it has done enough to put anyone off.

Entering a key presidential election year, whoever takes on the role of Speaker knows he needs to somehow manage this unruly faction while also convincing a voting American public that a Republican majority has not lost its ability to govern.

A FACTION LIKE NO OTHER

What makes the Freedom Caucus so powerful, given its relatively small membership base?

It comes down to two things: mathematics and a surprising willingness to torpedo its own party leadership.

First, the mathematics. The magic number in the 435-member House is 218. If we set aside the other legislative impediments like filibusters, 218 is the minimum number of votes needed for a simple majority. Any candidate for Speaker can be elected if he hits that magical number of votes.

The Republican majority in the House is 247. Take away the 40 votes and the party no longer has the majority it needs. Without the Freedom Caucus, a would-be Republican Speaker's hopes of getting elected would require the unimaginable situation of courting votes from Democrats.

At the moment, all signs point to the disunity worsening the already terrible gridlock in Congress. An insecure partner is less likely to want to compromise. But there is also the chance that the overhaul the Freedom Caucus is forcing may actually create a stronger, purer, more consistent party.

Hence, as long as the small group stays internally unified and politically strategic, it can be kingmakers.

Of course, in order to extract maximum leverage, the caucus has to behave not so much as an unruly faction of the Republican Party, but as a party in and of itself.

And that's one thing that makes the Freedom Caucus somewhat special - while other factions may jostle and bicker, there always remains a sense that they are ultimately all part of the same team.

That's not necessarily true of the Freedom Caucus. It has shown time and again little regard for the welfare of its parent party.

Its members have shown that if it means occasionally voting along with Democrats just to punish its own party leadership, then so be it.

For instance, in June, though caucus members were predisposed to supporting free trade, they voted against the Trade Promotion Authority anyway because they disliked how Mr Boehner had cast aside their amendments.

Its stated goal isn't just to lobby for conservative policies, but rather to reform processes. The group wants the rank and file of the party to have more say and leave fewer of the decisions up to the leadership. They have long argued that Mr Boehner gives in too much to the Democrats and doesn't listen enough to his own base.

SO WHAT NOW?

In the short term, the primary concern for those outside the US is what all this tumult means for the remaining agenda items during the rest of President Obama's term.

Given the nature of American election campaign cycles, it is unlikely that there will be any new policy breakthroughs to come. The President has already spent a considerable amount of his political stock pushing through a controversial Iran nuclear deal.

The one big outstanding item left is the 12-nation free trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Logically, the odds should be in its favour. Congress needs a simple majority to pass the deal and Republicans are known to be traditionally pro-trade. Yet, the uncertainty the Freedom Caucus has introduced into the party muddies the equation.

The willingness of the caucus to side with Democrats to block a key trade Bill earlier this year indicates that there is little ideological loyalty to the notion of free trade.

That leaves no clear path for the US Congress to pass the TPP any time soon. Observers had initially believed a quick passage - with a vote taking place some time early next year before the election campaign really heats up - could get the measure through. The current drama likely demolishes that possibility.

If President Obama is to get the TPP in under his watch, many believe it may now have to come right at the very end, during the lame duck session after the presidential election.

Beyond the next year, the Speaker fiasco is raising questions about the future of the Republican Party. The Freedom Caucus may not stand the test of time but it has highlighted the deep divisions running through the Republican Party.

After all, the party leadership had initially imagined an orderly presidential primary process where a few hand-picked establishment favourites would duke it out, not the free-for-all slugfest it has today.

At the moment, all signs point to the disunity worsening the already terrible gridlock in Congress. An insecure partner is less likely to want to compromise. But there is also the chance that the overhaul the Freedom Caucus is forcing may actually create a stronger, purer, more consistent party.

For that to happen, though, it needs to survive this insurgency.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2015, with the headline 'An insurgency in the Republican Party'. Print Edition | Subscribe