House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (left), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (right) and Budget Chairman Paul Ryan have led a new generation of House conservatives, but their boldness has led to political problems.
Just over a year after their paperback manifesto hit bookstores, lawmakers calling themselves the “Young Guns” have brought their book’s vision to the Republican-controlled House, where they all hold key positions of power.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) vowed to freshen the GOP’s image and fearlessly push an agenda of entrepreneurship, limited government, transparency and openness.
“We really felt that Washington had sort of fallen into a time warp, and we had to go about changing the way it does business,” Cantor said about the book “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leadership” during a panel discussion at Facebook’s Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters Monday.
But GOP control of the House has shown that governing is more difficult than writing a book. And the public’s growing anger at Congress raises questions about what the political effect of the Young Guns will be.
It was in part because of a successful candidate recruitment program also named Young Guns that last year’s elections ushered the GOP into control of the House in the first place.
Then, sticking to its promises, the House GOP in February allowed a free-for-all process on an early spending bill complete with a middle-of-the-night voting spree. Amid the chaos, tea party-inspired freshmen took repeated votes to cut spending on politically popular programs.
In April, House Republicans tied their political fates to Ryan’s ambitious budget. All but five of them voted for the plan, which included politically perilous cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.
The vote was an apex for the Young Guns, putting the GOP’s imprimatur on a plan that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had distanced himself from only a year before. Ryan, the “thinker” of the group, according to a Weekly Standard essay, reigned supreme as a next-generation intellectual leader of his party.
Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan have since helped push the GOP’s hard line on spending during the summer’s debt ceiling standoff. But eight months into Republican rule of “one-half of one-third of the government,” as Boehner has said, the fights are increasingly accompanied by political danger.
For instance, approval of Congress is dismal, easily surpassing the discontent that surrounded the passage of President Barack Obama’s health care law in 2009 and equal to the ratings during the 2007 Wall Street bailout. In August, Congress tied or sank below the lowest approval ratings ever in several polls.
Meanwhile, both Ryan and Cantor have become polarizing figures.
In a June Bloomberg poll, 23 percent rated Ryan unfavorably, making him the third least popular Republican nationally behind Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin.
And Democrats skipped over Boehner to seize on Cantor as a GOP bogeyman.
Political opponents have cited Cantor’s abrupt departure from debt ceiling negotiations with Vice President Joseph Biden, his insistence on offsetting disaster relief funds and even the motto from his high school yearbook — “I want what I want when I want it” — to highlight what they call the GOP’s intransigence.
The good news for Republicans is that the president’s poll numbers have been falling, too. Historically, as now, Congressional approval is lower than presidential approval. And voters appear to be blaming Obama for the dire economy for the first time. For instance, a Sept. 15-18 Gallup poll found 53 percent of Americans cite Obama for the nation’s economic problems.
Still, Democrats are anxious to utilize Republicans’ support for $5.8 trillion in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid that are in the Ryan budget in the 2012 elections, among other key votes. That issue was seen as a driving one for the Democrats’ upset win in May’s special election in a New York district traditionally held by Republicans.
“The Young Guns advocated for a plan to end Medicare, convinced the Republican Conference to vote repeatedly to end Medicare and continue to stick to their guns even after Americans have overwhelmingly rejected their proposal,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “It’s what they believe in, and now all Republicans are now co-authors of the Young Guns book.”
In a recent video interview with Politico, Cantor said the political fallout was part of the scope of his proposed reforms. “It’s about change. Real change doesn’t come easy, and we’re about real change,” he said.
McCarthy said he agreed with the public’s low view of Congress. “We agree with them that this place has to change,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been fighting day in and day out. And we ask them to join with us to make the change.”
A wrinkle is the extent to which the public’s discontent with Congress is tied to the GOP’s push for spending cuts versus anger at general partisan gridlock and lack of action on jobs and economic legislation.
A GOP aide close to the Young Guns suggested that high-profile standoffs between parties were a cause of low poll numbers as well. “Control over only one branch of government makes a full conservative vision next to impossible to implement and will require a change in the White House and the Senate,” the aide said. “In the interim, while people don’t expect Republicans and Democrats to agree on everything, they do expect them to find common ground on incremental solutions that start to get people working again and the fiscal House in order.”
Besides politics, however, GOP control of the House has brought with it some growing pains for the group.
McCarthy, as his party’s Whip in the House, has overseen a number of embarrassing defeats on the House floor, including just last week on an unremarkable stopgap spending bill. GOP leaders say this is part of instituting an “open” House. But the lack of control over the conference’s conservative flank has at times undercut Republicans in negotiations with Democrats.
Meanwhile, turns in the battle over spending have pushed Ryan from the limelight. At the end of the summer debt ceiling standoff, Republicans settled on a deal to raise the debt limit and require a bipartisan, bicameral committee to find at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years. The deal also adopted discretionary spending levels that are about $24 billion more than those laid out in Ryan’s budget.
Ryan wanted nothing to do with the special panel, telling Boehner not to appoint him to it.
“Twelve people in Congress are not going to cut a backroom deal that is going to fix all of the country’s fiscal problems, nor should they try,” Ryan said Monday at the Facebook panel. Instead, he will spend this fall drafting reforms to the budget system itself.
A key aim of Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan was to interact with the public, especially using online tools, in a way that allowed voters who felt they had no political voice to participate in the legislative process.
“One of the tenets of our practices was ... transparency and engaging — listening to people,” Cantor said Monday at Facebook’s headquarters.
The Majority Leader has showcased YouCut, his crowdsourced spending cuts program that allows Americans to vote online for which government programs Congress should cut.
“It’s been a tremendously successful program. Every week there is introduction of a new measure under the YouCut program as a result of the participation,” Cantor said.
That was the plan, anyway. After Cantor handed off the program to three hand-picked freshman lawmakers in May, it has stalled.
Only nine rounds of YouCut voting have commenced, less than the promised rate of once per legislative week, resulting in only a single piece of legislation being introduced. That bill awaits consideration by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.