The latest issue of the National Journal includes an incredible article by Tim Alberta about the rise of the Republican Study Committee (RSC) — the caucus of 171 extreme conservatives who prize “ideological purity over legislative accomplishment.” Emerging from its fringe status as a collector of right-wing policy ideas and dissident conservative voices, the RSC today constitutes of majority of the House Republican Caucus defining its positions on everything from tax policy and Social Security to the military and environmental issues — Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is the group’s poster boy. Unfortunately for Republicans, the takeover of policy development by a band of renegade conservatives will do little to salvage its national reputation and electoral viability in the current political context.
The idea for the RSC was hatched forty years ago by Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois and Ed Feulner, the founder of The Heritage Foundation, who was then a congressional aide disgruntled by the moderate direction of the Nixon administration (think expanding welfare benefits) and House Minority Leader, Gerald Ford.
The RSC’s fortunes ebbed and flowed during the 80’s and 90’s until Speaker Newt Gingrich formally killed the organization after the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. As Alberta states, “Between the group’s founding in the 1970s and its resurgence in the 1990s, longtime RSC observers say, it had a negligible impact. Democrats controlled the House, and President Reagan was a kindred spirit whose policies they had little cause to protest.”
The group’s late-aughts resurrection under the leadership of Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) caused all sorts of problems for President Bush; among other things, it opposed his financial and auto bailout plans. The RSC reached its new zenith once a slew of right-wing members joined Congress after the 2010 elections, and, today, the group functions as the primary socialization engine for the House GOP Caucus. Former RSC chairman Rep. Tom Price of Georgia explains:
The RSC today is much more than an affinity group; it’s a fraternity, a place where “kindred souls” come together to trade political ideas and share life experiences, Price says. Members go to dinner, play golf, and attend Bible study—activities that strengthen relationships forged by former strangers with a shared political philosophy. It’s a clubhouse. “
Recently the group has taken strong steps to align with the leadership of John Boehner rather than serving in its traditional role as a thorn in the side of the establishment. As the National Journal chart below highlights, RSC members constitute a majority of Republicans serving on nearly every legislative committee in Congress:
The extraordinary presence of group members on the Budget committee explains much of its recent actions including the notorious “Cut, Cap and Balance” budget proposal which passed the House but was defeated by the Senate in 2011. Though the bill was revived and defeated again in 2012, the RSC website still brags about its plans to, among other things, privatize Medicare, raise the Social Security eligibility age, and protect defense spending while slashing both taxes and outlays for virtually everything else the government does.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the RSC’s moment in the sun is coinciding with a much larger Republican crisis of legitimacy in the eyes of American voters following two consecutive losses to President Obama. The radical ideas in the RSC’s budget arguably led to the direct defeat of Republicans in 2012 and the party’s ongoing woes today. The urge to favor ideological purity over sound governing is precisely why, to put it bluntly, today’s Americans don’t like today’s Republicans.
As long as the RSC controls policy development and legislative initiatives, it’s difficult to see how the GOP will adjust to the new realities of American politics. President Obama and the Democrats must be smiling at the thought.