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A House Divide

New York publishing houses have recently issued two books that focus on how the House has performed since the Republicans’ dramatic 63-seat takeover in November 2010. Each is a thin volume that focuses on the first several months of last year, with less-than-glowing assessments. 

The contrasting approaches of a veteran magazine writer with less experience on Capitol Hill and two longtime Washington-based political scientists who are well-known for their punditry offer separate perspectives. But the limited time frame of each book — and the incomplete legislative and political outcomes of the “tea party House” — leave the reader to fill in the details.

In “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” Robert Draper describes how he told his agent and publisher on the day after the 2010 elections that he was putting aside another book project to “produce a narrative of the 112th Congress.” Draper — whose previous works include “Dead Certain,” which explores the presidency of George W. Bush — focuses chiefly on profiles of a handful of House Members, especially GOP freshmen, to tell his story.

Rep. Allen West is “the most famous freshman,” Draper writes, because of his eagerness to speak his mind to almost everyone and to challenge how Congress does its business. Draper describes how even before the Florida Republican took office, his actions stirred private rebukes — which West largely ignored — from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), on whose panel West now serves.

Based on numerous interviews, Draper depicts Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) as the low-profile everyman of the freshman class, who chafes over the tedious operations and limited output on Capitol Hill. 

“It was frustrating enough that, even leaving aside the maddening intransigence of the Senate, the lower body was failing to address the key issues of the day,” Draper writes. “But the more vexing revelation to [Duncan’s] first hundred days was his inability to be heard within the body. ... Sitting on three committees, he strove to find a moment, any moment, in which he could distinguish himself.” Duncan decided to take it as a compliment when Boehner called him a “hard head.”

With somewhat less attention, Draper contrasts two political newcomers who were among the least likely freshmen; both survived lengthy recounts before winning their seats. 

After being largely ignored by GOP leaders during the campaign season, Rep. Renee Ellmers (N.C.) “skillfully climbed her way up from the bottom rung” and became a loyal and favorite ally of party leaders. She did her homework and embraced the leaders’ message. Ellmers “just loved” how two more senior female Members from North Carolina — Virginia Foxx and Sue Myrick — “shut up those loudmouths” in the Republican Conference.

Draper describes Rep. Blake Farenthold (Texas) as far more cautious, constantly worrying that the Republican-controlled House was failing to connect to his Democratic-leaning district — prior to his getting much more favorable territory from redistricting. “The government was built on compromising. And it’s frustrating as hell,” he told some constituents.

Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) gets extensive — and mostly positive — ink from Draper. “The freshmen found it easy to connect with McCarthy,” the author writes. The Majority Whip was “almost absurdly sunny, and far more proactively attentive than the ever-calculating Cantor or the amiable but oft-sequestered Boehner.”

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