Since the Republican wave election in 2010, political observers of all stripes noted a dramatic swing to the right among Republican members of the U.S. House. Largely backed by the tea party, this new crop of deeply conservative, hyper-partisan members of Congress are pushing the institution into uncharted waters.
Unlike their congressional forebears, these members retain little concern for political practicality and eschew the necessity of governing. They possess an almost pathological willingness to sacrifice the country’s best interests in pursuit of ideological purity, while also mistakenly believing that their quixotic stands will ultimately accrue to their party’s political advantage.
Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist and regular Fox News panelist, Charles Krauthammer, went so far as to dub these members the “suicide caucus” because they torpedo the electoral prospects of their Republican colleagues as they myopically pursue their own limited political self-interest. (See: Cruz, Ted)
This group — roughly 80 members of the House — lives in a kind of parallel political universe, where compromise is defeat, gridlock is success and the ends justify the means.
But it’s more than that.
The New Yorker prepared an analysis of the congressional districts of suicide caucus members and concluded, “These 80 members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.”
The suicide caucus’ ascension to power is primarily the result of the rampant gerrymandering of congressional district maps at the state level, where the goal of incumbent protection dictates drawing evermore safe — and therefore partisan — districts.
Within these districts, the principal threat to re-election occurs not in the general election but in the primaries, where any pursuit of compromise or embrace of moderation is likely to elicit a challenge from someone claiming deeper partisanship and greater ideological purity.
The single biggest political risk to these members, in other words, is being reasonable.
What’s more, many members of the suicide caucus run for office for the sole purpose of tearing government down, caring little for the history and traditions of Congress, rejecting its customary power structures and displaying a disturbingly casual willingness — if not enthusiasm — for holding government hostage.
As a result, we’ve now entered a time when one-fifth of one chamber of Congress — roughly 80 of 535 members — can grind our entire government to a halt on principle alone. Unable to achieve their policies through the legislative process, these members are attempting to work their ideological will through hostage taking (shutdown) and the threat of economic collapse (debt ceiling).
This is the antithesis of majority rule and a kind of slow motion rewriting of the Constitution.
It may also be the new normal.
Why? Because there are no meaningful consequences for members of the suicide caucus. They don’t care if their congressional leaders — who they’ve effectively neutered — rebuke them. They don’t care if their party suffers at the ballot box. They don’t care if the government shuts down. They don’t care if their actions plunge the country into an economic tailspin.
In fact, for each one of these consequences, the extreme right actually celebrates and elevates them. At every turn, the suicide caucus is urged on by a disturbing echo chamber of social media, talk radio, super PACs, tea party conventions and other outside groups.
These members are also largely insulated from more pragmatic Republican-aligned voices — most notably the business community — because they don’t need these groups to raise money in their ultra-safe seats.
The only hope to avert further national embarrassment and a greater economic distress is for the majority of reasonable Republican House members to reassert themselves, giving Speaker John Boehner the votes and political cover necessary to pass a clean continuing resolution, raise the debt ceiling and potentially strike a broader grand bargain on taxes, spending and the debt.
Alternatively, President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could negotiate with the hostage takers, offering them an outwardly meaningful concession — perhaps a modification to the medical device tax —and allowing them to claim some victory in their war on Obamacare. But it would set a dangerous and empowering precedent.
Absent either of these developments, the suicide caucus may well drag the country into a deepening political and economic crisis.
Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington.