The Tea Party is making life very difficult for long-serving Republicans in both the House and Senate. Their usual methods of achieving power and success in Congress have been turned on their head, leaving many of those members traditionally seen as being on the top of the heap scrambling to reinvent themselves because their positions of power have become political liabilities.
The classic example is the House Appropriations Committee, which has long been one of the most coveted assignments for any congressman. I remember back in the 1980s a friend of mine, who worked for a member of that committee, told me there was an unwritten rule that each member had $10 million per year ($20 million in today’s dollars) that he could appropriate for just about anything annually, no questions asked.
But in recent years, the attractiveness of being on Appropriations has waned as Congress came under heavy pressure to eliminate so-called earmarks, which were universally seen as unjustified pork barrel spending even before the Tea Party movement came into existence.
Now, with extraordinary demands to cut spending that goes through the Appropriations Committee – so far, Republicans have exempted entitlements such as Medicare from cuts – membership on that committee has become downright painful. Instead of handing out goodies, the committee is now being forced to take them away. Indeed, the House Appropriations Committee’s status has fallen so low that House Speaker John Boehner recently took away its offices in the Capitol to build a new bathroom.
The same problem confronts senators as well. Those with long seniority are desperately trying to figure out how to keep their service from being a liability, rather than the asset it has always been. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, is one of those who is attempting a makeover lest he fall victim to the same forces that caused his state’s Republicans to dump his longtime Senate colleague, Robert Bennett, last year for the sin of having occasionally cooperated with Democrats.
According to a Feb. 21 Gallup poll, Utah is the second most heavily Republican state in the nation, very slightly behind Wyoming. Republicans in Utah start with a 30-point advantage over their Democratic challengers in statewide races. Therefore, winning the Republican nomination is tantamount to winning the general election. And those that are delegates to Republican conventions or voters in Republican primaries tend to be the most hard-core conservatives in a very conservative state.
In case Hatch didn’t already know he is in political trouble , he was told so bluntly when his newly elected colleague in the Senate from Utah, Mike Lee, a favorite of the Tea Party crowd, declined to say he would support him for renomination next year when Hatch must run for re-election.
Despite a consistently conservative voting
record, both he and Hatch are now viewed
as insufficiently principled.
Such a snub by a newly elected senator from one’s own state and party is extraordinary. Historically, freshmen have shown great deference to the senior senator from their state, especially one with as much seniority as Hatch, who was first elected in 1976 and is the fourth most senior senator and the second most senior Republican behind Richard Lugar of Indiana.
Lugar is also in political trouble in his state for the same reasons. Despite a consistently conservative voting record, both he and Hatch are now viewed as insufficiently principled and too willing to work with Democrats. However, while Lugar has basically decided to stand on his record and take his chances, Hatch is fighting back, working hard to remake himself as one who can champion the Tea Party’s agenda with the best of them.
A good example of this can be seen in a speech Hatch gave on the Senate floor on Feb. 17. It laid out Hatch’s philosophy on tax policy, which is important because starting this year he has become the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. In this position, he will have a great deal to say about tax reform and entitlements, and whether there will be any hope of cooperation with Democrats on these issues. We can be certain that he will not make the mistake his former colleague Bennett made of co-sponsoring any bills with Democrats on hot-button issues. (Bennett’s co-sponsorship of a health reform bill with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon was a major factor in his downfall.)