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Purge-worthy?

2:45 PM, Dec 13, 2012 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Have you heard about the great conservative “purge” of 2012? Last week, outrage erupted among some activists on the right when a few Republican congressmen—Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, Justin Amash of Michigan, and Dave Schweikert of Arizona—lost their committee assignments. According to National Review’s John Fund, this action “clearly” represented a “purge of conservatives.”

Amash

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan

“We’ve heard from multiple sources that someone walked in with a list of votes and said, ‘if you didn’t reach a particular scorecard on the ‘right’ votes—which by the way, in most cases, were not the conservative positions—we’re gonna remove you from committee,” Huelskamp said at a Heritage Foundation Bloggers Briefing. “It confirms, in my mind, Americans’ deepest suspicions about Washington. It’s petty, it’s vindictive, and if you have any conservative principles, you will be punished for it.”

But in reality, ideology and voting against compromises hashed out between John Boehner and the Democrats do not explain why these members lost their committee assignments. Dozens of Republicans, including freshmen Tea Party members Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina and Raul Labrador of Idaho, voted against every single budget deal in 2011 and 2012. But as Congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the newly elected chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, has pointed out, both Mulvaney and Labrador were elevated to spots they were seeking on top committees.

“In the end you look at Mick and Raul getting elevated to positions that they wanted, so, while some went down, some went up,” Scalise told The Hill’s Molly K. Hooper. “It was more an individual thing. It had nothing to do with conservatism. Otherwise, Mick and Raul wouldn’t be where they are.” Indeed, Jim Jordan, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee in 2011 and 2012, was one of the biggest thorns in John Boehner’s side, and he kept his committee assignments too.

What separated the likes of Huelskamp and Amash from Labrador and Mulvaney was not opposition to budget compromises. The big, obvious difference in their voting records is that Huelskamp and Amash flip-flopped on the budget written by Paul Ryan and voted with Democrats to kill it in committee. The Ryan budget, which had been hailed in 2011 by Rush Limbaugh as “substantively superb and politically brilliant,” squeaked through the Budget Committee in 2012 on a 19-18 vote.

Why did Amash and Huelskamp vote against the Ryan budget? They both said it didn’t balance the budget quickly enough. “According to CBO,” Rep. Amash said in a statement this spring, "the budget won't reach balance until nearly 2040." That's true—it’s a sign of how deep a hole we’re in and the fact that CBO assumes conservative pro-growth tax policy cannot produce economic growth. But CBO made the same prediction for the 2011 budget, which Amash and Huelskamp supported.

“What I was most worried about was the failure of House Republicans to actually put some meat on the bones on tax reform,” Huelskamp told me in an interview. “We had a one-pager. We refused to provide any details.” The criticism that Republicans should have been more specific on tax reform is fair enough. In the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney actually had an easier time of defending specific proposals (Medicare reform) than vague ones (tax reform). But lack of specificity on tax reform is an odd reason to vote against the Ryan budget. It falls outside the authority of the Budget Committee to write tax law. That’s the job of the Ways and Means Committee. The tax reform outlined in the 2012 budget that Huelskamp voted against was identical to the 2011 budget he voted for.

Republican sources on Capitol Hill say that voting against the Ryan budget in committee—or against any other bill—was not the reason why Amash and Huelskamp lost their spots on the budget committee. Rather, sources say, a variety of factors were taken into consideration by the Republican Steering Committee, which discussed the removal of these members over the course of two days.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, a conservative member of the Steering Committee, bluntly told fellow Republicans during a meeting Wednesday that the three congressmen lost their seats because of the "asshole factor." 

"What I tried to explain to them was, it didn’t have anything to do with your voting record, a scorecard, your work across the street or anything else. It had to do with your ability to work within the system and to try to work. And to be, I guess, constructive in things. And I said, ‘I guess you could say it was an asshole factor,’” Westmoreland told Daniel Newhauser and Jonathan Strong of CQ Roll Call. “Now I wasn’t calling any member in particular an asshole, I was just trying to describe an environment where some people that you’re trying to work with, they just don’t want to work within the system.”

For example, according to a source, Huelskamp didn't have the courtesy to tell Ryan he was voting 'no' on the budget before his intentions were reported on Twitter. Huelskamp spokesperson Karen Steward told me that "Congressman Huelskamp had multiple discussions with leadership and chairman prior to public announcements about his intentions on the Ryan budget." But Steward did not say specifically whether or not Huelskamp informed Ryan of his vote before it was reported on Twitter.* (On a personal level though, Huelskamp, a farmer from western Kansas and father of four adopted children, is one of the nicest politicians I've ever met.)

Sources say that Amash frequently attacked fellow Republicans on his Facebook page or during radio interviews in districts outside of his own (though sources didn't point specifically to any egregious comments). As for Schweikert, his colleagues believe he's the source of an embarrassing story about Republican congressmen skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee. Politico notes that "Schweikert has publicly denied that he was the source and one of the reporters on the story confirmed that he was not the source on television."

A fourth House Republican, Walter Jones of North Carolina, lost his seat on the Financial Services Committee but kept his spot on the Armed Services Committee, even though he frequently votes against the Republican leadership on defense issues. Sources say Jones lost the seat on Financial Services because he was not an active member of the committee.

So it's certainly possible that simply voting against the Ryan budget isn't why Amash and Huelskamp were removed them from that committee. But it's hard to believe that flip-flopping on the budget wasn't part of the reason they lost their seats.

Only two issues surrounding the Ryan budget were different between 2011 and 2012, and neither issue had to do with the substance of the budget itself. One, conservatives had grown frustrated with the budget compromises struck to avoid government shutdowns or defaulting on the debt. Two, the Club for Growth came out against the Ryan budget in 2012. The Club said the Ryan budget reneged on the sequestration agreed to in the 2011 debt ceiling deal, but in reality it replaced those cuts.

Whether Amash and Huelskamp acted out of frustration or in response to the Club for Growth, their votes against the Ryan budget amounted to little more than posturing. Huelskamp and Amash are still free to find new and ever more creative ways of defining true conservatism. They just won’t be doing that from their perch on the budget committee.

The truth is that the loss of their committee seats is actually a boon to both congressmen. Huelskamp was elected in 2010 to the most Republican district in the country, and he seems to have every intention of being seen as the most conservative congressman in the country. Amash wants to be the next Ron Paul. Huelskamp and Amash have now been given a bigger microphone and greater cachet on the right by losing their committee seats and attaining the status of martyrs for the conservative cause. But it's a status they don't deserve.

*Update: Huelskamp explained his opposition to the Ryan budget in this piece in the American Spectator:

When the House passed the “Path to Prosperity” budget drafted by my colleague, Rep. Paul Ryan, “tax reform” was included, but in name only. The bill lacked a provision that would have required a later House vote on such reform, which meant that its proposal was merely a few words on a page. For that reason, I was one of two Republicans on the Budget Committee who opposed the Ryan budget in committee, and one of ten House Republicans to oppose it on the floor.

Huelskamp is referring to using reconciliation to require Ways and Means write a tax bill, which the Budget Committee could do, but it couldn't require Ways and Means to implement a particular tax reform. Again, the 2011 budget, which Huelskamp voted for, and 2012 budget, which Huelskamp voted against, dealt with tax reform the same way.

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