GOP Moderates Can Impact Policy--If They Dare

Does the House of Representatives have a bedrock conservative majority? You would think so, based on the perfect party unity and ultimate outcome of major make-or-break votes taken in the 107th Congress. But the answer to the question, if based on the fundamental worldviews of the Republican Members of the House, would be no, or at least not necessarily.

Despite the departure of Members such as Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) and the defeat of others like Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.), and despite the GOP gain of six seats in November's elections, there are still more than enough moderately liberal, centrist and moderately conservative Republican lawmakers to shift the locus of the House to the middle from the right. They have the numbers to do so--do they have the will?

There have been several early signs suggesting a new assertiveness on the part of the moderates, an unwillingness to be viewed as lapdogs to their leadership. Members of the Main Street Coalition, a key moderate group, criticized the House Republican leadership for violating the seniority standards and sticking it to Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) for his apostasy on campaign finance reform, and for going far down the seniority ladder to pick an anti-environmentalist to head the environment panel.

They have signaled their willingness to set a different and more moderate course on social and economic policy. Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a leader of the Main Street Coalition and a highly respected figure in the House, took Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to task for contributing $50,000 late in the 2002 campaign to the Club for Growth, which has tried to take out a number of GOP moderates in party primaries. Castle's public comments, and the private sharp grumbling of several of his colleagues about DeLay's willingness to spit in their collective eye, at least raised an early question about whether DeLay could keep his somewhat disparate troops in line as he had last Congress.

Of course, the moderate Republicans had the numbers and immense potential leverage in the last Congress. With Republicans holding onto the barest of majorities, any six or seven Members could provide the crucial swing votes. (But of course that was as true for any group of six or seven ultraconservatives as it was for any comparable group of moderates.)

Still, faced with occasion after occasion where a tight-knit band of intrepid moderates could have used their power and determination to change the legislative product, the moderates caved. In the process, they gave President Bush the green light to pass regularly and without delay a series of purist bills that defined his conservative agenda, putting pressure on the Senate to act on an agenda the House had just defined.

Will it be any different this year? The answer to the question may hold the key to Bush's success or lack thereof on his domestic agenda - the key, in other words, to the very role of the federal government in coming decades, to the state of our fiscal health, and to the size of future structural deficits.

So who are these so-called moderates who hold the balance of power? The surface portrayals or descriptions of them in newspapers and magazines only help with the obvious and visible handful. There are lots of quantitative measures we can use, based on voting records, but they do not come close to telling the whole story of lawmakers' ideologies, worldviews or personal styles.

Besides the straightforward liberal/conservative vote scores, National Journal some years ago recognized the complexity of ideology in contemporary politics and devised liberal/conservative numbers for each of three key policy areas - economic, social and foreign policy. The publication understood that Congress might contain libertarian conservatives who would show up as "liberal" on social policy and defense spending while being staunch economic conservatives, or foreign policy isolationists (a la Pat Buchanan) who would be strong social policy conservatives, and so on.

The National Journal vote ratings for last year came out a couple of weeks ago. They give us a more variegated picture of the ideological range of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats. The scores take the range of votes cast in each of the three policy areas and give ratings to Members based on the percentage of their colleagues who are more liberal or more conservative than they are. Let's take as a first-cut decision rule that moderate Republicans are those who are more liberal than 40 percent of their colleagues both on economic policy and overall. Eliminate from the list those lawmakers like Roukema, Morella and Rep. Bob Ehrlich (R-Md.) no longer with us in the 108th Congress. Ignore the freshmen, who have no voting records as yet. By these standards, there are 26 true moderates--far more than the dozen needed to shift outcomes. Add in the Members who are on the bubble--40 percent in one category, the high 30s in the other--and you can get to 35.

Still, a look beyond the numbers at the individuals shows the limits of these measures. Along with familiar names like GOP Reps. Castle, Shays, Nancy Johnson (Conn.), Jim Leach (Iowa), Jim Ramstad (Minn.), Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.), Jack Quinn (N.Y.), Tom Petri (Wis.) and Amo Houghton (N.Y.), the "moderates," in this case, include such unlikely individuals as GOP Reps. Steven LaTourette (Ohio), John Hostettler (Ind.) and Ron Paul (Texas). And a number of lawmakers who often stray from party orthodoxy and regularly work with Democrats--people like Republican Reps. Jim Kolbe (Ariz.), Zach Wamp (Tenn.), Jerry Lewis (Calif.) and Ralph Regula (Ohio)--aren't on the list at all.

Many of the real moderates on the list share in common a distaste for deficits and a more traditional fiscal conservatism. Several have privately indicated to me and others their unease, bordering on alarm, at growing tax cuts combined with ballooning entitlements and defense and homeland security commitments, leading to huge and unsustainable long-term structural budget deficits.

Many express unease at policy proposals to cut child care benefits for workers transitioning from welfare, cut the number of children in the CHIPS health insurance program, and otherwise reduce the safety net for the working poor and the poorest among us.

Others express private unease about a social agenda that includes not just banning late-term or so-called partial-birth abortions, but would also ban all research on embryos, ban all therapeutic cloning, and define all human embryos legally as life. (Not all the moderates are pro-choice; several, like New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, are among the leaders of the anti-abortion movement in Congress.)

By any definition of House Republican moderates, from the arbitrary cutoffs of vote ratings to the subjective "I know one when I see one," there are enough of them to take their misgivings about tax, budget and social policy to a level where they can have an effective veto power over the full sweep of the president's proposals. If they hang together and hang tough, the centerpiece of the White House political strategy in Congress--use the streamlined processes available in the House and the unity of Republicans there to pass quickly near-pure versions of the president's proposals, and use those products to apply relentless pressure to the more slow-moving, less disciplined Senate--is negated.

The White House and its Congressional field generals like DeLay would have to negotiate with them, perhaps together with the parallel group of House Democratic moderates like Rep. Charlie Stenholm (Texas) who were marginalized (and targeted for defeat by the White House) last year, when the Republicans simply didn't need their votes, and enact more fiscally restrained and socially moderate policies.

Every time in the past when moderates have had the numbers and the opportunity to unite and move their party's positions and policies to the middle, they have balked, collapsing under the relentless pressure of their leaders and peers to toe the party line. The pressure on them will likely be even greater now--and the stakes, in terms of policy direction, are as high as they can be. What an interesting, and consequential, test of backbone and discipline for this Congress.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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