House of Representatives Now a Scene from "Life Of Brian"

Here in America we have a long tradition of candidates who run for office telling voters that they'll be good at making laws because they know nothing about making laws. This is a longtime pet peeve of mine, particularly the "I'm a businessman, not a politician" variant (see here, for example), but the idea that "outsiders" who aren't beholden to the ways of the Capitol can be successful in curing it of its less appealing habits is almost as old as the republic itself. In ordinary circumstances, people who don't know anything about legislating are usually equally unfamiliar with what it takes to run a successful campaign, so most of them get weeded out by election day. The last couple of elections have not, however, been ordinary.

I bring this up because of a story today in Politico that makes the Republican House of Representatives look like even more of a mess than you might have imagined. I'll get to the issue of "outsider" politicians in a moment, but here's an excerpt:

The GOP leadership is dealing with an unprecedented level of frustration in running the House, according to conversations with more than a dozen aides and lawmakers in and around leadership. Leadership is talking past each other. The conference is split by warring factions. And influential outside groups are fighting them....

Speaker John Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy are plagued by a conference split into two groups. In one camp are stiff ideologues who didn’t extract any lesson from Mitt Romney’s loss and are only looking to slash spending and defund President Barack Obama’s health care law at every turn. In the other are lawmakers who are aligned with Cantor, who is almost singularly driving an agenda which is zeroed in on family issues.

Read that last paragraph again. The split among House Republicans isn't between conservatives and moderates, it's between one group of dogmatic conservative ideologues who will brook no deviation from their extremist vision, and another group of dogmatic conservative ideologues who will brook no dissent from their extremist vision. It's the People's Front of Judea versus the Judean People's Front.

It's all the more problematic because John Boehner is such a weak leader. To a degree, it's not his fault, because his troops don't care about things like coming to agreement or passing legislation, which makes them almost impossible to corrall. An unusually large number of them are those "outsiders" who got elected since the Tea Party wave in 2010, and legislating just isn't part of how they see their job. They're in Washington to wage all-out ideological war, and they don't much care if everything grinds to a halt. They don't feel loyalty to the institution of Congress, or even, in many cases, to the Republican party. They sincerely believe that government is almost always evil, so if it stops working that's fine with them. They don't want to go home and tell their constituents about the bill they sponsored or the compromise they reached; they want to tell their constituents that they fought the good fight against socialist tyranny each and every day.

Boehner and some other Republicans know how bad this makes their party look, which is why when things get to a crisis point he's willing to jettison the House GOP's "Hastert Rule," which states that no bill will be voted on unless it has "a majority of the majority," and allow certain compromises to pass with mostly Democratic votes. I'm guessing that's what will happen the next time the debt ceiling comes up, and it may even happen on immigration reform. But he's never going to get his caucus to act in a unified way unless it's for things like voting to repeal Obamacare for the 37th time.

Will this state of affairs change any time soon? It's hard to see how. Most of those Tea Party candidates come from pretty safe districts, and even if some of them lose in the next election or two, they're likely to be replaced in the Monkey Wrench Caucus by Republicans who got elected in other districts when somebody retired and the GOP primary became another contest to see who could be the most uncompromising. Good times!

For those of you who didn't get the Life of Brian reference above, here you go:

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