The Republican Study Committee (RSC) is the most important organization in Washington you’ve never heard of. Its new leader is a former wrestling champion, and he’s one reason its influence is surging.
Jim Jordan, 47, was elected RSC chairman in December after winning his third term in the House of Representatives from northwestern Ohio. He says the RSC’s role is simply “to push for conservative things.” This means policies—on spending, the deficit, and the national debt especially—more conservative than those Republican leaders in Congress are inclined to favor.
House leaders scarcely knew what hit them in their first clash with the RSC under Jordan. They had proposed to cut 2011 spending by considerably less than the $100 billion Republican candidates had talked about in the 2010 campaign. At a meeting of the 241-member Republican conference on February 9, the RSC rebelled.
“This is our first chance to make an impression,” Jordan declared, and reneging on a promise would leave the wrong one. Jordan was echoed by RSC members, who also argued for the full $100 billion (pro rated to $61 billion in cuts for the final 7 months of 2011). Six hours later, Republican leaders caved.
“He’s a wrestler,” a colleague says of Jordan. “He brings that to his politics. He doesn’t like to lose.” Indeed he doesn’t. “Winning the match, winning the game, winning in politics,” Jordan says, it’s all the same. “Winning is winning.”
With Jordan, winning is not just a goal. It’s a habit. In high school, he won four straight state championships in different weight classes (98, 105, 112, and 126 pounds) and two NCAA championships at the University of Wisconsin in the 134-pound class. He lost only once in high school (154 wins). In college, his record was 156 wins, 28 losses. Now his physical activity comes from strenuous workouts in the House gym. Meanwhile, his 16-year-old son Isaac recently won the Ohio high school championship at 160 pounds. His son Ben is a star wrestler at Wisconsin.
With his wrestler’s attitude, Jordan is intense, focused, and eager to move quickly. At the moment, he is riveted on the spending and debt issue. “It’s hard to get his attention on anything else,” an adviser says.
In the past, the RSC was routinely ignored by Republican leaders. When Republicans controlled the House in 2006, before a four-year Democratic interlude, the RSC had 110 members, a sizable nucleus but not enough to have much effect on the Republican agenda.
Then came the 2010 landslide. It sent 87 Republican freshmen to the House, 77 of whom joined the RSC. The group now has 177 members, plus a couple more who belong but are wary of associating their names publicly with the RSC. That’s nearly three-fourths of the entire House Republican majority who are RSC members and thus willing to identify themselves as conservatives.
“The freshmen really are the key,” Jordan says. They give the organization its numerical clout. And the RSC ties them to Republicans who share their views on fiscal issues and reducing the size of the federal government. Today, with Republicans in the majority, the RSC has become “consequential,” says Representative Tom Price of Georgia, the RSC head from 2008 to 2010.
Price says he and previous leaders—John Shadegg of Arizona, Sue Myrick of North Carolina, Mike Pence of Indiana, Jeb Hensarling of Texas—built the RSC’s foundation. “Jordan built the building,” Price adds.
The organization gets by with a staff of 11. Its executive director, Paul Teller, shares an office with three -others in a tiny room no bigger than a closet in the Cannon House Office Building. There’s no place for visitors to sit. Teller usually steps into the hallway when he’s interviewed.
The RSC’s rise in status has been noticed in Washington. Lobbyists drop by, send emails, phone. The staff director of the House Appropriations Committee comes to meetings of staffers of RSC members. The organization is in close touch with anti-tax, pro-life, and other conservative groups active on Capitol Hill. One in particular: Heritage Action, the new political arm of the Heritage Foundation.
Jordan is preparing for his next fight with Republican leaders on the 2012 budget. To Democrats, Republican ideas for reforming entitlements, Medicare in particular, are radical. “We’re saving it so it doesn’t go bankrupt,” he says. To Jordan, GOP leaders are too cautious. He’s not.
He wants a budget that reaches balance “within the budget window,” or 10 years. Given a $1.6 trillion deficit in 2011 and huge deficits for years to come, that won’t be easy. Jordan’s budget would make the “Roadmap” of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan look timid in comparison. In fact, that’s one of its aims.
“We need to show the American people we can get to a balanced budget in a reasonable time,” Jordan told me. Ryan’s plan wouldn’t balance the budget until 2063. Jordan would reduce annual spending hikes for Medicare to 4 percent from 7 percent. And he’d replace its unlimited fee-for-service payments with what he calls “health scholarships” for seniors, allowing them to buy their own insurance.
Jordan wants to cut deeply into social spending. He would take spending on 71 separate federal welfare programs back to 2007 levels. He would require recipients of food stamps or federal housing to work or get job training.
Americans are ready for all this, he says. That’s the message of the 2010 election. “The American people embraced liberty instead of more government,” Jordan says. “No other people on the planet would have made that decision.”
Given this, the Republican strategy is straightforward. Jordan likes to quote Richard Armey, the House majority leader from 1994 to 2002. It goes like this: “When we act like us, we win. When we act like them, we lose.” So the job of Republicans, Jordan says, “is to act like us as much as possible.” That leaves little room for compromise. But wrestlers don’t compromise, do they?
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.