Will the new Tea Party-influenced, Republican-controlled House live up to its potential? A big part of the answer to that question will depend on the 87 freshmen elected last November, a substantial infusion of young blood. It's one of the larger freshman classes and the most conservative since the last "Republican revolution" 16 years ago.
"I think we have a greater sense of urgency than the members who have been here a while," says Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) of his fellow freshmen. The task they see before them is getting federal spending under control and alleviating the debt burden on future generations of Americans. Counting among their ranks such outspoken conservatives as Reps. Allen West (R-FL), Justin Amash (R-MI), and Tim Scott (R-SC), the group isn't afraid to mix it up with the Democrats who still control the Senate and the White House.
During the spring budget showdown, more than 30 Republican freshmen sent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the recently reelected Nevada Democrat, a strongly worded letter. Refusing to take the blame for the stalemate, they pointed out that Reid's Senate failed to pass a budget last year -- when the House was still under Nancy Pelosi's command -- and had yet to approve a long-term continuing resolution this year. "Mr. Reid, your record on spending in the Senate is one of failure," the freshmen wrote. "We do not accept your failure as our own." They continued: "The House of Representatives is doing our job, Mr. Reid. The Senate needs to start doing theirs."
Sometimes, the freshmen make things difficult for their own leadership as well. In February, the House Appropriations Committee prepared a continuing resolution that would have cut $58 billion from the president's languishing 2011 budget proposal. But the Pledge to America promised a full $100 billion in cuts, which many new members had campaigned on. Veteran members replied that the fiscal year was now half-finished, so the smaller number was actually consistent with the Pledge.
Faster than George W. Bush could say "fuzzy math," the freshmen revolted. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) announced that the conference would stay true to the $100 billion promise. A crisis was averted -- temporarily. The House ultimately passed HR 1, which contained $61 billion in cuts. Democrats were balking at much more than $30 billion, starting the fight all over again just as House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) was getting ready to release the 2012 budget, containing a longer-term spending blueprint.
"Paul Ryan's the moderate on the Budget Committee now," quips Huelskamp, who agrees with Ryan that entitlement reform is a top priority. Yet despite the mainstream media coverage that suggests major confrontations between the new members and the rest of the conference, none of the freshmen TAS spoke to were particularly critical of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and the rest of the leadership.
"We may have different strategies for getting there," says Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD), one of the stars of the freshman class. "But we are united in our desire to cut spending." Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA), who says "the freshmen have a place at the table," concurs: "Some of us want to throw a Hail Mary right into the end zone and others want to take a few plays to get there, but we all have the same goal." Barletta, who was elected last November on his third try for a House seat, had been mayor of the small city of Hazleton. "We had to balance our budget every year," he says. "That's something a lot of people in Washington don't understand, making spending equal revenues."
Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) argues that he was able to effectively run Indiana's secretary of state office on a 1987 budget unadjusted for inflation, so he has little sympathy for claims that federal spending can't be cut meaningfully. "I was in a meeting with an old bull," he says. "We discussed a very reasonable plan, one that wouldn't even have been aggressive enough for me, to reduce the federal workforce. The old bull said, 'No one at such and such a military installation will go for it.' Even though we were talking about civilian employees!" Rokita says "there is definitely a line of demarcation in the conference."
That said, the initial dissents from the bipartisan stopgap spending measures came mainly from longer-serving fiscal conservatives like Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Ron Paul (R-TX), Walter Jones (R-NC), and Steve King (R-IA). When the number of Republican "no" votes exploded from six to 54 between short-term continuing resolutions, forcing the House GOP leadership to rely on Democratic votes to pass it, only 22 of those opponents were freshmen.
STILL, as freshmen disquiet grows many Republicans point to "cultural differences" between the newcomers and the rest of the conference. "We have a large number of people who have never run for office before," says Noem. "They ran because they were frustrated with government." Barletta says, "I think we're different from a lot of other freshman classes because we were sent here with specific instructions from the American people to cut spending, reduce the size of government, and reduce regulations. And that's what we're going to do."
Rokita notes that the 1995-96 budget battles with the Clinton administration and the government shutdowns "were seared into the minds" of Republicans who were serving back then. "In 1995, I was more interested in chasing girls than in what Newt Gingrich was doing," says Rokita. While he fears some freshmen are "peeling off," he thinks overall newly elected Republicans believe the times are different and the fiscal stakes are even higher. "We bend over backwards to work as a team," Rokita continues. "But I didn't leave my one-year-old and three-year-old every week just to go along to get along."
Some non-freshmen agree that the new class is different. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), calls it a "great freshman class" that has been "tremendously helpful" in his efforts to cut spending. Jordan hopes they will have significant influence in the upcoming spending fights. "The only budget that was put together last year was the RSC budget," he says.
"What's different about these freshmen is that they aren't concerned about the next election," says Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA), who came to Congress in a special election last June. "They are concerned about the next generation." Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) puts it another way. "The people who seem to be afraid of a government shutdown...are worried about getting elected in two more years," the freshman told the Washington Post. "I'm worried about having to go home and tell the folks that I grew up with, and intend to spend the rest of my life with, that I'm a liar."
That particular battle was not resolved by the time this article went to press. But there will be plenty more like it over the next year and a half. "We are already changing the spending culture," Noem maintains. "We need a cutting-spending culture to give our businesses an opportunity to thrive and create jobs." Barletta frames it in terms of simple arithmetic: "Every day we are spending money that we don't have."
Rokita acknowledges that it is difficult with House Republicans being "only one-third of the solution." But he says there is no alternative: "Leaders lead."