Asking nearly any Republican freshman House Member about the class’s first year in Congress yields a similar and perhaps not surprising reaction: They’re frustrated.
Swept into office with a mandate to change the way Washington works, the first-termers have not been able to satisfactorily achieve their policy objectives in a climate of extreme legislative gridlock, they say.
“I thought, because there was such a large group of us, if we stayed united, we’d be able to change the town fundamentally, structurally, for the good,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), a freshman who is close to leadership. “A lot of us thought we were so strong that we would change it within two years.”
What’s more, the Capitol Hill novices feel they have been corralled into a monolithic tea party bloc by the media, the public and their Democratic colleagues and scapegoated as the cause of the gridlock, the ball and chain around Congress’ ankle that has dragged progress to a halt and approval ratings to an all-time low.
“We’re probably given too much credit, and we’re most assuredly given too much blame,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who some in the class feel bests articulates the frustration. “It just seems clear to me that the election mantra for 2012 is that the tea party is to blame and you’ve got a bunch of incorrigibles who are willing to play Russian roulette with the economy.”
That was the exact narrative the GOP Conference fell prey to during the payroll tax holiday debate late last year, a moment most freshmen list as the low point of their careers so far.
The House Republicans seemed to be sailing to at least political victory, if not also a policy score, when their insistence on a full-year extension rather than a short-term deal caused them to be left out in the cold by the rest of Congress — Senate Republicans included.
It was a frustrating lesson for the freshmen. Some thought they were doing America right by their insistence on a yearlong extension of the payroll tax cut but simply couldn’t draw the political winds to their backs. They thought that, at the very least, Senate Republicans would back them up in that point. Not so.
“The bill that came out of the House dealt with some of our core issues,” freshman Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said. “That was a telling moment for us about how much we can trust the Senate.”
Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) tempered his frustration by becoming the first freshman to call for compromise on the measure, something he indicated Congress might see more often.
“No doubt we’ve come in and pushed a certain philosophy,” he said. But he added, “You’ve seen a lot of freshmen come out and take very reasonable positions. You don’t see all of us digging our heels in.”
Rep. Dennis Ross sent a flurry of frustrated tweets the night Republican House leaders bowed to the Senate and agreed to pass the two-month extension of the tax cut.
“The politics of it are not always what’s good policy. It’s frustrating,” the freshman Florida Republican said in an interview. “I can’t explain it; I wish I could. I’m having a hard time understanding it, but we have to be able to stay the course.”
That’s not to say, however, that the first session of the 112th Congress was a complete disappointment for the Members. The election of 2010 did undeniably change the conversation on the Hill.
“When we look back at the last year, we’ve got some good victories as a Conference,” Ross said. “We have made a stand on reducing the size of government. Have we done it? No, but we’ve made a stand on it.”
Freshmen have also won respect from leadership, which comes with a seat at the table, personified most recently by the three freshmen appointed to the payroll tax cut conference committee: Reed and Reps. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) and Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.).
They hold seats on key panels, such as the Budget and Appropriations committees.
The freshmen also helped unify their Conference around the budget of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). When they overwhelmingly passed it, they secured leverage for negotiations throughout the year.
But ending 2011 on a low note left a bad taste in many of their mouths. Now, coming out of the payroll tax holiday debate, freshmen are talking about what the next year will hold. One common thread arises: The group must do a better job communicating with the public.
“If the House GOP freshmen are going to list the order of frustration for them, [first] is an inability or a lack of success at communicating effectively with the American people,” Gowdy said. “We just don’t seem to do a very good job of it.”
“We have to figure out the politics of it a little bit more,” Reed said. “We have to do a better job of getting out publicly, talking to people, getting out to our districts.”
But the class isn’t under any illusions — coming out of a year with several near-government shutdowns and into an election year — that more will get done.
“I don’t really see how the second half of the 112th Congress is going to be a whole lot different than the first half,” Gowdy said. “If you don’t control two of the three chefs in the kitchen, you can be about the business of trying to switch the chefs, and I suspect 2012 is going to be like that a lot.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.