The Green Room Caucus

N.C. has largely avoided performative federal lawmakers … until now

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has some problem children on his hands. 

Three House freshmen are giving the California Republican special headaches: 

• Lauren Boebert of Colorado has a bit of a rap sheet and refused to walk through metal detectors installed outside the House chambers in response to the Jan. 6 insurrection, calling the move a “political stunt by Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi.” 

• Majorie Taylor Greene of Georgia is a one-person headline generator. Politico’s Jack Shafer dedicated a column to her outrageous utterances (including, yes, a suggestion that the 2018 California wildfires were deliberately set by Jewish space lasers) and the House’s possible responses.

• North Carolina’s own Madison Cawthorn (11th District) spoke at the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in D.C. before the treasonous mob invaded the Capitol. Cawthorn later said he was trying to calm the crowd rather than incite it. OK. But he voted against certifying the election of Joe Biden and told a crowd beforehand he would do it. In other words, Cawthorn participated in an attempt by members of Congress to prevent then-Vice President Mike Pence from performing a ceremonial duty demanded by the Constitution, potentially overturning a legitimate election. And after the assault on the Capitol, on a conservative talk radio program, he alleged the rioters were partly funded by Democrats.

McCarthy has said he’ll consider disciplinary action as early as this week.

Having, shall we say, somewhat off-kilter members of Congress dates to the Founding Era. Some Republicans have responded to complaints about these three freshmen with, “What about The Squad?”

Yes, the four (now six) left-wing Democrats who formed a coalition to push the Green New Deal, a federal “living wage,” single-payer health insurance, open borders, and the rest of the “Justice Democrat” platform are noisy, caustic, and uninterested in the give-and-take of normal politics.

Still, the idea that Republicans or conservatives should emulate The Squad’s tactics is pretty unconservative.

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It’s also a recipe for inaction. The three GOP freshmen are part of a growing “Green Room Coalition” of lawmakers — named for the waiting room people hang out when they’re about to make a public appearance. The Green Roomers would rather be on cable TV, talk radio, or giving one-minute, televised speeches before an empty House chamber than actually working on policy. Negotiating. Governing.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, is the unofficial caucus chairman. In a profile published in September by Vanity Fair, Gaetz said, “If you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing.” Gaetz also praised Squad Leader Alexandria Ocasio Cortez for being better at “governing” than he is. 

Cawthorn has taken this idea to another level. He told Republican colleagues a couple of weeks ago, “I have built my staff around comms [communications] rather than legislation.”

Maybe that’s what the residents of the 11th Congressional District want. A TV talking head rather than a legislator. Guess we’ll find out at the end of next year.

Fortunately, Cawthorn is an outlier for us Tar Heels. Setting aside his ideology and his style, Cawthorn’s résumé is out of step with the sort of person we send to Washington. 

We tend not to elect performers (my left-of-center readers will say, “What about Jesse Helms?) but instead people with some experience in governing — especially tenure in the General Assembly.

Look at our current state congressional delegation:

U.S. Senate

Richard Burr (R): Five terms in U.S. House, two in Senate; chaired Senate Intelligence Committee

Thom Tillis (R): Speaker of the N.C. House; just won second Senate term

U.S. House

1st District: G.K. Butterfield (D): 15 years as state judge/Supreme Court justice; ninth term in U.S. House; senior chief deputy majority whip; chairman, Congressional Black Caucus

2nd District: Deborah Ross (D): five terms in N.C. Senate; majority whip, deputy minority whip; first term in U.S. House

3rd District: Greg Murphy (R): appointed to N.C. House, elected to one term; second term in U.S. House

4th District: David Price (D): political scientist, congressional aide; 17th term in House 

5th District: Virginia Foxx (R): community college president; five terms in N.C. House; ninth term in U.S. House; Republican leader, House Education Committee; former chairman of House subcommittee on higher education; former vice chairman of House Rules Committee 

6th District: Kathy Manning (D): lawyer, nonprofit official; first term in U.S. House

7th District: David Rouzer (R): two terms, N.C. Senate; policy staffer for U.S. Sens. Jesse Helms, Elizabeth Dole

8th District: Richard Hudson (R): congressional staffer, managed Pat McCrory’s 2008 campaign for governor; fifth term in U.S. House; secretary, House Republican Conference

9th District: Dan Bishop (R): two terms, N.C. Senate; won partial U.S. House term in 2019, re-elected in 2020

10th District: Patrick McHenry (R): one term, N.C. House; staffer for President George W. Bush; ninth term in U.S. House; Republican leader, House Financial Services Committee, former chief deputy majority whip

11th District: Cawthorn (R): Real estate investor; green room regular; first term in U.S. House

12th District: Alma Adams (D): 10 terms in N.C. House; fourth term in U.S. House

13th District: Ted Budd (R): Owned a shooting range and gun store; second term in U.S. House 

The only politically uninitiated lawmakers are Manning, Budd, and Cawthorn. As Shafer says, the Constitution has rather lax qualifications for House members — they must be at least 25 years old; a U.S. citizen for at least seven years; a resident of the state they intend to represent; and not holding another public office when they’re sworn in. No elected experience required.

Indeed, the Founders (in Federalist 52) wanted “citizen lawmakers” to get a shot at legislative service:

Under these reasonable limitations, the door of this part of the federal government is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith.

The challenge, as my friend and former boss John Hood argued in this column, is when legislators are more interested in performing than in policymaking.

… representative bodies are the best places to hash out solutions to complicated problems. Crafting and passing bills is a messy process. That’s a feature, not a bug. It’s a process that subjects competing views to intense scrutiny. And it requires some give-and-take to get to a final version that can pass both chambers.

John also points out that the N.C. General Assembly has acquitted itself well, notwithstanding steadfast opposition from Gov. Roy Cooper. Our legislative branch is a decent testing ground for those seeking higher office.

Still, John, and other smart people, notably, Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute, have noted that as Congress becomes more interested in performing than in governing, the executive and judicial branches fill the legislative vacuum.

Presidents and judges aren’t supposed to write laws and enforce them. It’s not their role. But government has to function, even if the right people refuse to do their job.

Government inevitably will do things. Perhaps an evenly divided Senate and a House split roughly 50-50 — along with a president who spent decades as a lawmaker and a dealmaker — will push Congress to reassert its legitimate authority.

First, Congress needs more members who’d rather roll up their sleeves than fix their makeup.

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