House Republicans aren’t shying away from their conservative beliefs after they lost more than 30 seats to Democrats in last week’s midterm election. If anything they’re doubling down and trying to hone in on a more conservative message heading into 2020.
The Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus in Congress, has long wrestled with questions about what it means to be a conservative and how to enact conservative policy in a divided Congress. Even with unified Republican government these past two years, the RSC struggled to enact some of its key priorities, such as pro-life policies and work requirements for government benefits.
The questions about how to get conservative wins aren’t easy to answer, but Reps. Mike Johnson of Louisiana and Tom McClintock of California are both making their cases for why they should be the next RSC chairman.
RSC rules allow chairmen to serve only for a single Congress. North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, the current head, is running unopposed for vice chairman of the House Republican Conference.
The House GOP will hold its leadership elections on Wednesday, and the RSC members will meet to choose their new chairman two days later.
Only RSC members who have paid their dues for the next Congress can vote in the chairman’s race. The RSC had 156 members this year, nearly a fifth of whom will not be returning in the 116th Congress due to retirements or election losses.
Johnson and McClintock, the two RSC chairman hopefuls, described their visions in separate interviews with Roll Call. While the interviews were conducted before the election, both candidates said their approach would be the same whether Republicans were in the majority or minority, but the mission would be more critical in the minority because they’d need to serve as a conservative counterweight to Democrats.
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“We are going to have a vital role to play in offering a conservative alternative to Democratic policies — that’s the role of a minority and how a minority becomes a majority,” McClintock said.
The California Republican, who comfortably won a sixth term last week, has been active in the RSC since he came to Congress in 2009. He has served the past six years on the RSC Steering Committee, where leaders decide the group’s agenda and vote on its official positions. This Congress, McClintock served as chairman of the RSC’s budget task force.
“I remember the RSC when it was the central conservative clearing house for policy and communications, and I would like to move it back in that direction,” he said.
McClintock has four principal goals for the RSC: take a more active role in policy development; strengthen its working relationship with outside conservative groups; build a more active presence in the Republican Conference; and assert itself more on the House floor.
Johnson, a Louisiana freshman, has less experience in the RSC but was recruited by several colleagues to run because of his background as a constitutional lawyer. Notably, Walker was a freshman when he was elected chairman two years ago over the more experienced Maryland Rep. Andy Harris.
Sources have suggested that Johnson has the edge in part because he announced in July that he was seeking the chairmanship, while McClintock didn’t enter the race until September.
“The RSC’s role really — if you look at its founding, its origins, what it was about — is that it serves as a vanguard and a conscience for the Republican Party and a champion of core conservative principles,” Johnson said.
Conservatives need to speak with “clarity, consistency and conviction” about their beliefs, he said, arguing that the RSC chairman’s role is to be a policy leader, visionary and spokesman.
In that vein, Johnson, after a discussion with fellow RSC members about needing to better articulate conservative ideals, drafted a summary of seven core principles: individual liberty, limited government, the rule of law, fiscal responsibility, peace through strength, free markets and human dignity. When he decided to run for RSC chairman, he shared the summary with his colleagues as ideas to reach consensus and build policy around.
Johnson and McClintock share a few similar ideas about running the RSC. For example, both want the group to improve its relationships with outside conservative groups.
“They have a lot of vast resources,” Johnson said. “We can use that very effectively and we can incorporate a lot of those similar ideas and voices into our efforts.”
Johnson worked with several conservative groups on policy and litigation during his law career, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, First Liberty Institute and the Family Research Council. In the RSC, he serves on the Values Action Team that coordinates with social conservative groups. He wants to replicate that model for working with conservative groups focused on other policy issues.
McClintock said the RSC has long had a special relationship with The Heritage Foundation, but added that there’s a wide array of conservative groups with policy expertise and grassroots activists that it can leverage.
“I believe the RSC is in a unique position to act as the policy and political linkage between these groups ," he said.
Both candidates also want to improve the RSC’s policy function.
“What I want to see is a structure of standing policy committees modeled on the Budget Task Force that will produce model legislation on all of the major issues ranging from immigration to health care to tax reform,” McClintock said.
The committees would draft legislative text for the proposals and seek to build consensus for the bills within the RSC and then the broader House Republican Conference.
“In many ways, that’s more important in the minority than in the majority because the minority’s responsibility is to offer a better vision of governance,” McClintock said.
Johnson also said he wants to form task forces or committees within the RSC for policy areas such as defense, pro-life issues, the economy and the national debt.
“The idea is to draw upon those who have such a deep and abiding passion about those issues — who in many cases also serve on the committees of jurisdiction — and draw them together and do work as a subgroup, as a task force or committee structure, bring those ideas to the full RSC and implement the policies with strategy and coordination,” he said.
One of the main criticisms of the RSC in recent years is that the group has become too close to leadership and is unwilling to stand up to it when necessary to advance conservative principles and policy. Such complaints led to the founding of the House Freedom Caucus. Former RSC Chairman Jim Jordan launched the caucus in 2015 with other conservatives who weren’t happy with the direction of the RSC.
There is still overlap between the two groups in membership and objectives.
“The difference — and it’s a vast one — is in the tactics employed to achieve those objectives,” McClintock said.
Tactical differences are why McClintock, who was a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, resigned after eight months in the group.
“The Freedom Caucus generates its influence by defeating or threatening to defeat Republican procedural measures on the House floor,” he said. “As I repeatedly warned them, there is a large group of disciplined Democrats under Nancy Pelosi who get to vote on the House floor. None of them get to vote in the [Republican] Conference. And going down that path is a very dangerous game to play because that group of disciplined Democrats is far more likely to join with the 30 or 40 most liberal Republicans, not the 30 or 40 most conservative ones.”
The RSC could do more it exert its own influence as the largest caucus within the Republican Conference, McClintock said. But rather than use floor votes as leverage like the Freedom Caucus, he pointed to rarely used Republican Conference rules the RSC could deploy.
The conference rules allow members to bring resolutions before the conference, which then get referred to the appropriate committee. A resolution with 25 signatures requires the committee to quickly report back on the matter, and a petition from 50 or more members will discharge the resolution from the committee for consideration before the full conference. A special conference meeting can also be called with a petition from at least 20 percent of the conference’s members.
Johnson was less critical of the Freedom Caucus, noting he is “in close alignment with” the group and many of its members are his closest friends. He said he hopes, as RSC chairman, to increase the crossover between the two groups.
The Freedom Caucus’s campaign arm, the House Freedom Fund, spent six figures helping Johnson get elected in 2016. While Johnson said he is “not a card-carrying member” of the caucus, he has been seen attending meetings and still receives money from the Freedom Fund. Caucus leaders have said they only spend the PAC’s money on current members and candidates they see as potential recruits.
One of the jobs of the RSC chairman, according to the group’s bylaws, is to be a liaison to leadership, Johnson noted, stressing the importance of finding the right approach.
“Inevitably, you’re going to have differences of opinion and conflict with leadership sometimes,” he said. “The idea is to build consensus and hold the line, and I think relationships are a big part of that. I think communication is a big part of that. The chairman really has to have an unshakable commitment to the principles and to be able to defend and advance those principles.”