In Their Own Words: The GOP’s 2010 Freshmen and the Politics of Debt

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Making sense of Washington’s inability to solve the nation’s fiscal crisis is tough without understanding the GOP’s 2010 freshmen class. The class of 2010 rode a wave of Tea Party anger into office, and they made it possible for Speaker of the House John Boehner to take a hardline stance on spending. At the same time, they allowed for little wiggle room when it came time for deal-making with the White House.

“These were not people who spent 25 years in politics. In fact, that was a big strike against you,” GOP strategist Frank Luntz told FRONTLINE. “They were elected not to sell out the way many politicians had done. That they were elected to speak truth to power.”

Two years later, the 87 are a changed block. Fifteen lost re-election in 2012. Among those still in Congress, some have taken a more moderate turn, while several were stripped of key positions within the party in what’s come to be known as the “Boehner purge.”

Still, they remain an important factor in the ongoing fiscal debate. FRONTLINE spoke with four members of the class of 2010: Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, Raul Labrador of Idaho, and Jeff Landry of Louisiana. Excerpts from those conversations are below.

Arriving in WashingtonThe Tea PartyRaising the Debt LimitOn CompromiseThe Grand BargainThe “Boehner Purge”First Term LessonsThe Path Ahead

Arriving in Washington

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Jeff Landry: Well I think all 87 came here with the idea to change Washington, and there was a tremendous amount of energy when we first got here. When we first got here we were very welcomed by leadership, patted on our back saying, “Great, the cavalry has arrived.” But unfortunately as time progressed, you recognized that it was a call for the cavalry only to tell you to, “Tie up your horse and we’ll call you when we need you.”

Tim Huelskamp: The freshmen made John Boehner speaker. They made all these folks chairmen. And I had at least one chairman, and, when I indicated, you know, “We ought to open up the process in this particular committee,” he said, “Well, welcome to Washington.”

And I was frustrated. I said, “Well, we made you chairman.” It was the freshman class. And a lot of Americans expect you’re immediately going to come up here and have influence. And that was the hope of the class as a whole.

But oftentimes we’re told, “Well, we’ll see you in 10 years. Sit on the back row. And then, we’ll take your input,” which is not new amongst the current leadership. It’s been that way for a long time. …

We had a lot of input. It was unprecedented. But time we got to the end of the year, the end of the session, and the end of the term, it was like: “Freshmen, welcome to being here. But we make these decisions in the speaker’s office. We’ll negotiate with Harry Reid and the president. And you can take it or leave it, what comes out of that deal.”

The Tea Party

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Raul Labrador: What people don’t understand about the Tea Party, the Tea Party didn’t arise because of President Barack Obama. The Tea Party arose because they were frustrated with the Republican Party. These were people who had been disaffected with Republicans for eight years, and they were silent because they thought, “I can’t talk bad about my Republican brethren.”

But after they saw President Barack Obama elected, they said: “We should have said something before. We should have said something in 2004. We should have said something in 2006.” And that’s why you saw the level of frustration because they had been quiet for so long, and all of a sudden they erupted. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

Jeff Landry: I think there was a fundamental dismantling here in Washington of the Tea Party movement by both establishment Republicans and the Democratic Party, not in a concerted effort but in both with the same goal.

I think that both of them viewed the Tea Party movement as something that scared them. I think Republicans, establishment Republicans here, viewed it as a threat to the status quo, but they embraced it in order to gain power. And I think the hope was that, well, we’ll embrace this movement; then when we get [the] White House, then when we get control of the Senate again we can go back to doing things the way we did it before.

Raising the Debt Limit

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Raul Labrador: In the past, the debt ceiling had just been a simple vote that was done, and people raised the debt ceiling. There were a few negotiations.

But when you’re only one-half of one-third of the government, you have to look for those moments where you can actually have leverage over the negotiations. And the debt ceiling was something that had to be done; it had to be raised if government was going to continue being effective and working. So this was a moment where we could all actually get something out of the deal.

The issue was that many of the freshmen … had made a pledge that they were not going to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances. And I think leadership was also worried about that pledge that they had made, because then if they wouldn’t even look at any circumstance where they were willing to raise the debt ceiling, then we were going to have an impasse here in Washington, DC.

Tim Huelskamp: With the Senate controlled by the Democrat Party, and President Obama in the White House, it’s difficult to negotiate. I understood the difficulties facing the leadership in the current environment. But we all saw the debt ceiling as the best lever we had to make some changes, to deal with the spending problem, to deal with the big government problem, to actually put Washington back in the vonstitutional limits that we thought it should have.

And leadership is not the ones that started that idea. It was freshmen and other conservatives, “Hey, here is our opportunity.”

Jeff Landry: What it does is it creates the same elements that occur when you run out of appropriating authority, like when you get to a point where you, the government would shut down because there is no more authorized or appropriated money for particular programs. The debt ceiling brings up those same elements and basically has the opportunity to slow the government process down, because the faster things move here the easier it is for special interests to get what they want and for the American public not to understand what is going on.

Washington likes to operate at 180 miles an hour because it’s harder to hit that target. It’s harder to find out what is going on at 180 miles an hour versus 50 miles an hour. And so both of those opportunities slow down the wheels of government and create opportunities if you are a fiscal conservative to go in and to fundamentally make those changes.

Jeff Duncan: What I think you saw last year during the debt ceiling debate was we changed the conversation. We started having the conversation about what does deficit spending mean? What does $16.7 trillion ultimately mean? What downgrades to our credit means.

I look at it from the standpoint that, it’s like calling your banker and saying, “I’ve got a credit card and I know I’ve maxed out my balance of $14,000, but I want you to raise it to $16,000,” and they start questioning your ability to repay or plan to repay what you were spending the money on, the fact that it was going to affect your credit. And us saying: “Why are you asking those questions? You’ve never asked those the 72 times in the past that we got a credit limit increase. You’ve never asked those questions before. Why are you asking those questions now?” We started asking those questions because it’s time for America to start asking those questions and addressing our deficit and addressing the debt.

Compromising with Democrats

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Jeff Duncan: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We came not to do the same thing over and over, to change Washington, to change that conversation. And I think we have definitely had an impact on that process, and that now instead of talking about how much more money can government spend, we’re talking about where can we make cuts, where can we save the taxpayer money, where can we rein in the size and scope of government?

Jeff Landry: Compromise has gotten us over $16 trillion in debt. We have an economy that is growing slower than … Mexico and Cuba. I mean, I don’t want any part of that kind of compromise. I want to go back to an exceptional America. I want to go back to the time when people in Congress did big things. They allowed this country and the people who lived in it the opportunity to dream big and to do those big things.

The Grand Bargain

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Tim Huelskamp: It worried me. But what worried me the most was the typical tendency in Washington is to shut the door, go behind closed doors, and have a secret deal. And, whether it’s Republicans or Democrats, I’m worried about that. I’m a believer in transparency. I’m a believer, if you can’t win your debate in public, then you’re not worthy of engaging the debate.

Raul Labrador: If the grand bargain includes real changes to our entitlement programs, real cuts today, real reforms in the way we do business in Washington, D.C., I would definitely consider that. But if all it is is raising taxes today so we can have another blue ribbon commission, another blue ribbon panel that’s going to decide how we’re going to cut entitlements in Washington, D.C., that’s just the way business has been done for the last 20 years, and I think that’s unacceptable.

Jeff Duncan: For me to even consider it — and that’s a stretch — but for me to even consider it, it would have to have dramatic reforms to our entitlement system. That includes Obamacare, but it also includes … that two-thirds … of our nation’s spending, the mandatory spending. It would have to have significant reforms to that.

“The Boehner Purge”

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Tim Huelskamp: It’s politics as usual, petty, vindictive politics. And I know, as a member of a very large freshman class, we were told three things: You’ve got to vote your conscience, vote your district, and if you help the Republican team, you’re OK.

What we found out is that we were punished for the way we voted, and generally punished for voting as conservatives. And so it wasn’t about your district. It wasn’t about your conscience. It was about following leadership and what they told us to do. …

When the speaker decided to kick, purge four members, and myself included, off a committee, it showed that he isn’t about opening up and listening and trying to figure out what went wrong in the last two years. It was an attempt to consolidate power and continue to centralize decision-making in the U.S. House, which is not the way our founders intended. But oftentimes, that’s how it’s ended up.

Jeff Landry: I think that what you see today is a different John Boehner. The John Boehner of 2010 was: “Hey, look, we want an open process. We don’t want to consolidate power. We want the House to work.” And which to me was very heart-warming and seemed to be ideological. Today what you see is, “Now that we’ve broken you up, now you’re going to do it my way.”

First Term Lessons

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Jeff Duncan: I think we have seen some members of our class that maybe came with a mindset that they weren’t going to let Washington change them, but they also — I don’t know if I’d use the word co-opted, because I don’t know that that’s the right word, but they did adhere to some of the leadership’s requests from time to time in order to get some personal outcome, whether it was a committee assignment, or whether it was a future opportunity. That happens in any legislative body.

But for the most part, I would say the majority of those freshmen adhered to their core principles, what they came to Washington to do.

Raul Labrador: What I personally learned is that I don’t think the Democrats and the president have any idea on what they want to do to cut spending in Washington, D.C. And they actually don’t want to cut spending in Washington, D.C. All they want to do is they want to increase spending and they want to tax people more. I think, I hope that the leadership learned that you don’t put anything on the table until the other side starts talking about real spending reform, real regulatory reform, the real things, the real drivers of our debt, all the things that we have to do here.

Jeff Landry: I think that the 87 freshmen today are fractionalized to a certain degree. I think that a portion of them have embraced a little bit more of the establishment group, and then there is a group out there that have stuck to their principles and continue to hold those principles sacred. And then of course there is always the group in the middle which exists in both parties that kind of move and bend or ebb and flow depending on public opinion.

The Path Ahead

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Raul Labrador: I think time will tell whether anything has changed. I do think the American people pretty much said: “I don’t trust either of you. I don’t trust Republicans and I don’t trust Democrats. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to keep the Democratic president and I’m going to keep the Republican Congress, the Republican House, and you guys work it out and show us if you can get anything done for the American people.” Because I’m not sure the Democrats were able to sell the message that they had a better plan for America, because we still have the House of Representatives. And the Republicans were not able to sell the message that they have a better plan for America, because we still have President Obama. So I think the American people said, “You guys go back into the negotiation room and you get something done for the rest of us.”

Tim Huelskamp: I don’t think we can make John Boehner do anything. At the end of the day, it always seems to be just a few folks make a decision for 330 million Americans. I think that’s a bad way to do that.

But, if the speaker goes behind closed doors with Harry Reid and the president of the United States, I think it’ll be a very bad deal again. And that will be the battle. Mr. Speaker, whoever the speaker is, if you’re going to go again and make a deal behind closed doors, I think it will be a very bad deal. We have two years of proof of that. He has said, for the last couple weeks, that he will never do that again. We’ll see if that’s the case.

Jeff Landry: If we don’t change the GOP I’m not going to be happy. We have to change. If there is a lesson inside of November 6th it is that the GOP has to change. I’ve heard a lot of things about how they need to change, and nothing of what I’ve heard makes me happy. What’s going to make me happy is a return to core conservative principles and to articulate that.

Look, there is a gentleman inside of Washington D.C. who stands on his principles. It’s the president of the United States. He has consistently stood on what he believes in and he articulates it. We haven’t forced him to act on them. When we do and when we articulate our principles the American people will entrust us with this government.

Jeff Duncan: I think our role now is to continue carrying that message of fiscal responsibility; that the message of November 2010 is still the message for us today; that we’ve got to get our fiscal house in order. This is about the future for our children and our grandchildren. You either have a future of debt, doubt and despair. Or you have a future where we start trying to live within our means as a government, that we unleash that American spirit, that American entrepreneurialism, we support that entrepreneurialism with less government regulation, more opportunity, more freedom. And that comes from the government. And so, take that philosophy and make sure that every bill we work on, every vote we cast adheres to those principles.

And if it doesn’t, I think you’ll see a lot of “no” votes still.

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