Welcome to Congress in the echo-chamber age, where outside influencers have an increasing sway on how Members shape their agenda.
At a time when Rush Limbaugh reaches as many people as vote in Florida and California combined, and when Jon Stewart can draw several hundred thousand people to the nation’s capital, these outsized personalities based far outside the Beltway have become as much a part of Washington’s political ecosystem as the lawmakers themselves.
This phenomenon was most prominent during the long health care debate but has been seen again vividly in the weeks following the Tucson, Ariz., shootings, during the Republican transfer of power and as President Barack Obama prepares his budget.
With Members taking cues from the echo chamber as well as their party leadership, it’s changed the way business gets done. Limbaugh and Fox News hosts Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity can mobilize more voters than any press release or floor speech, so Members find themselves needing to be responsive or face their wrath.
A Republican strategist and former top Republican National Committee aide told Roll Call that Members have one of two reactions when constituents start a message with “I just heard on Rush today ...” — “joy and panic.”
Limbaugh has more than 20 million listeners, and most Members couldn’t dream of their message being so widely spread back home, the GOP strategist said.
“You’ve got to break eggs to make an omelette, and if you’ve never been mentioned on these shows in either a favorable or less than favorable context, one has to wonder, are you actually making an impact?” the strategist said.
If Limbaugh or Beck pushes an issue, his audience picks up the phone and taps out e-mails, asking lawmakers to take action. “These Members understand that their constituents are listening to this, and the consequence will elicit action that will place pressure on them,” the strategist said.
Ron Bonjean, who was a top aide to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) before the Democratic takeover in 2006, said outside influences have ballooned at almost warp speed over the past few years.
“It used to be that if Rush said something on the air and the Washington Times wrote an editorial, it was earth-shattering. But now there is so much competition and [Members] are hearing from a lot more voices,” Bonjean told Roll Call.
Bonjean said Republicans frequently assert their independence from conservative talkers, but he admitted, “The show hosts definitely have an influence over the decision-making of leaders.”
The liberal watchdog group Media Matters has compiled examples of Limbaugh and Fox themes that made it from the airwaves to the floors of the House and Senate.
After Fox replayed “sting” videos showing alleged fraud at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) introduced a measure to cut ACORN’s government funding. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) wrote a resolution honoring James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles for producing the ACORN videos, and 31 of his GOP colleagues signed on. It never received a vote.