Selecting Committee Chairmen an Inside Job


Several conservative outside interest groups are engaged in a campaign to prevent Congressmen Fred Upton of Michigan and Jerry Lewis of California from becoming committee chairmen, Upton on Energy and Commerce and Lewis on Appropriations.  That’s according to the Washington Times.

I hope they don’t succeed.  If  Upton and Lewis don’t get the chairs  it should not be because outside interest groups dictated the outcome or even influenced it.  The other candidates for those chairs should agree.

There are certain decisions about how the Congress functions that should be made internally, as the Constitution both implies and instructs.   The members themselves know best what they need in and want from their leaders.  Those leaders know best what they need in and want from their committee chairmen.   They make those judgments based on criteria that outside interest groups cannot fully understand or appreciate, and that doesn’t change because the leaders of two of those organizations are former members of Congress, the operative word here being former. 

This campaign also has the air of a political litmus test, the practice of exclusion based on certain criteria.  Those interest groups oppose Upton and Lewis because, according to their testing, these candidates aren’t conservative enough. Apparently these critics believe that the Republican Party has no room for, and certainly no positions of power for, individuals who don’t think like they think. They draw that circle pretty tight.  That’s their right, of course, but it is a narrow and highly subjective view that runs counter to our system of governance in which representatives are elected to represent their constituents, not dictate to them.  

This strain of conservatism, to me, runs counter to more traditional conservative thought—Goldwater, Kemp, Reagan conservatism—that is resistant to ideological purity.  The fulfillment of the Reagan agenda, one of the greatest political achievements of modern times, would not have been possible without his commitment to inclusion, drawing political sustenance from conservatives and centrists, Republicans and Democrats.  This new format for conservative political behavior is, from what I remember of the Gipper, a distortion of his world view and his brand of conservatism.

The doors and windows of the Republican Party need to be kept open, so the breezes of ideological diversity, intellectual stimulation, inclusiveness and civility, to say nothing of a little humility, can continue to invite in people of all persuasions.  Otherwise, there will be no governing majority.  There will be no ability to govern.  We will once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by shutting out the very independents who handed us a House majority in 2010.  Worse yet, we will continue to mirror the failures of the far left, creating victims and villains in our society, missing the point of election results and falling back into the mindset of some Republican leaders of a decade ago whose intellectual arrogance was so great, they didn’t have to bother listening to the American people to know what was good for them.  

The campaign against Upton and Lewis is part of a larger movement. Like so many others it had healthy, genuine  origins, but is now being shaped and driven by unhealthy ambitions, centralized control and long-term goals that conflict with the very reasons the movement was successful in the first place.

Political regimes throughout history, on the right and the left, have failed because they deviated from their original mission. A movement that seeks to impose its will and its beliefs on the population through political coercion is not conservative.  A movement that does not tolerate differing points of view is not democratic. A movement that seeks to silence those points of view cannot wrap itself in the cloak of the Constitution. A movement that seeks to be all-controlling, at the local level, the state level and the federal level; a movement that attempts to take political decision-making out of the hands of local people and put it in the hands of professional organizers, Madison Avenue ad campaigns and out-of-work politicians is not a movement any more at all.  It’s yet another Washington special interest.

When the real Tea Party activists get done taking back their government, they may have to take back their Tea Party.

Editors’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff.   He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.