Bachmann v. Hensarling A Microcosm Of Internal GOP Battles

The race between Jeb Hensarling and Michelle Bachmann for Chair of the House GOP Conference is a microcosm for a battle that is likely to take place within the GOP for the next two years.

The battle between Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann and Texas Congressman Jeb Hensarling for Chair of the House GOP Conference is shaping up to be a battle between Tea Party insurgents and what is, for lack of a better term, the GOP establishment on Capitol Hill:

The incoming leadership of the new House Republican majority hardly had a chance to relish its dismantling of the Democrats before the Tea Party came calling in the form of Representative Michele Bachmann.

Ms. Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican and Tea Party heroine often seen exhorting conservative activists at rallies and on cable television, announced that she intended to seek the No. 4 position among House Republicans.

She said she could provide the viewpoint of a constitutional conservative, one she evidently sees lacking in Representatives John A. Boehner of Ohio, Eric Cantor of Virginia and Kevin McCarthy of California — the three likely leaders.

Mr. Cantor and other influential Republicans are rallying instead behind Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, a fiscal conservative, and Ms. Bachmann has only an outside shot at winning the race.

But her candidacy vividly illustrates the central tension facing Mr. Boehner and his team: balancing the demands of new lawmakers, some of whom ran against the Republican establishment and advocate a no-compromise stance toward the Obama administration and Democratic policies, against the need to deliver some accomplishments at a time of economic distress.

Hensarling has also gotten the support of Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, the incoming Chairman of the House Budget Committee:

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a favorite of the conservative movement, has circulated a letter to lawmakers and recently elected Republicans asking them to support Texas Rep. Hensarling.

“Jeb’s economic expertise and strong ability to communicate are what we need in our conference chairman to articulate our unified commitment to get our country back on track,” Ryan wrote in the letter. “This position requires someone who has a command of these issues and has a history of successfully debating them.”

Hensarling also picked up the support of Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who is the top Republican on the Financial Services Committee.

“In his role as Chairman of the Republican Study Committee, Jeb has earned nationwide respect for his opposition to socialized health care and strong advocacy for fiscal responsibility and smaller government,” according to the Bachus letter, which was obtained by POLITICO.

As Jacob Sullum argues at Reason’s Hit & Run, the choice between Hensarling and Bachmann should be patently obvious:

The New York Times reports that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.),  a “Tea Party heroine,” plans to challenge Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) for the post of GOP conference chair, the fourth-highest House leadership position, in the new Congress. According to the Times, “her candidacy vividly illustrates the central tension facing [incoming House Speaker John] Boehner and his team: balancing the demands of new lawmakers, some of whom ran against the Republican establishment and advocate a no-compromise stance toward the Obama administration and Democratic policies, against the need to deliver some accomplishments at a time of economic distress.” Honestly, I’m not sure what that means, but the thrust of the story is that Bachmann represents bold newcomers supported by the Tea Party while Hensarling represents the wishy-washy old guard.

The first problem with this portrayal is that Bachmann has been in Congress since 2007, only four fewer years than Hensarling. The second problem is that the Tea Party is supposed to be motivated, first and foremost, by concerns about runaway government spending and the escalating federal debt, and Hensarling has a stronger record as a fiscal conservative than Bachmann does. Both voted against  Obama’s stimulus package, the legislation that created the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and the auto industry bailout backed by the Bush administration. Hensarling did vote f or Bush’s reckless expansion of Medicare in 2003, but Bachmann was not a member of Congress then, so we don’t know which way she would have voted. In Hensarling’s favor, he opposes earmarks in both theory and practice, while Bachmann has managed only the former. Her stand against wasteful, unjustified spending is also belied by the agricultural subsidies her family farm has received. As you may have heard, she is also a bit of a loon, which may be the main reason the Times sees her as a more authentic embodiment of the Tea Party’s concerns.

Sullum’s argument has led some bloggers on the right like Dan Riehl to take a slap at Reason and to assert that Bachmann is somehow owed the conference chairmanship as a sign of GOP respect for the grassroots, as if questions of competence and actual commitment to fiscal conservatism shouldn’t matter. Dan Larison’s critque is somewhat more substantive:

When Hensarling has to answer for supporting Medicare Part D, it is hardly worse that Bachmann has taken farm subsidies and has pursued earmarks for her district. On one side, you have someone who definitely did vote for the largest increase in unfunded entitlement liabilities in a generation, and on the other you have an eccentric, rather annoying person who has voted the right way on the bailouts, which have been the main test for Republican members in the last three years. One might point out that the leadership’s backing for Hensarling shows that none of the House leaders has much credibility to rail against both bailouts and entitlement spending, since some of them voted the wrong way on both and all of them voted the wrong way on at least one.

Larison’s point with regard to Medicare Part D is well-taken. As Bruce Bartlett noted in Forbes last year, that bill constituted one of the most irresponsible pieces of spending legislation in decades, and the manner in which it was passed was, to say the least, cynical. Nonetheless, I’m not sure how Hensarling’s vote on that one piece of legislation (a vote in which he was joined by John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Paul Ryan among others) should disqualify in a leadership election, or why it should require the selection of Bachmann, who’s own commitment to fiscal conservatism is no more pure than Hensarling’s.

More to the point, though, and notwithstanding her fundraising successes and ability to win in what is otherwise a Blue State, during Bachmann’s time in Congress she has demonstrated her own unique brand of nuttiness:

– She introduced a “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act” in response to laws banning the use of traditional incandescent bulbs in favor of compact fluorescent bulbs

– She has called global warming a “hoax.”

– She warned that an expansion of AmeriCorps would lead to “mandatory service” for the government and placed in “re-education camps.”

– She told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that “I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out are they pro-America, or anti-America. I think people would love to see an expose like that.”

– On Wednesday she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that President Obama’s trip to Asia was “expected to cost the taxpayers $200 million a day,” a claim that’s been widely debunked.

Bachmann has also blamed Democrats for the 1976 Swine Flu epidemic, which occurred while Gerald Ford was President; blamed the Great Depression on FDR’s decision to sign into law the “Hoot-Smalley Tariff”‘; claimed that 100% of the U.S. economy was private before the September 2008 TARP bailout; and, engaged in an insane crusade against Census.

In other words, like Sarah Palin, Bachmann may serve as a great tool for rallying the base, but she simply isn’t fit to be the national face of a Republican Party that wants to be taken seriously. Like Sullum argues at Reason, giving her a leadership position would be insane. Which is why the GOP just might do it.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. sam says:

    “she simply isn’t fit to be the national face of a Republican Party that wants to be taken seriously”

    Yeah, well, to paraphrase, you go to political war with the face you have.

  2. anjin-san says:

    So Doug, you are not willing to dance with the one(s) who brung you?

  3. Randy says:

    I don’t think there’s a real fight here. It’s a fight over personality and non-issues like birthirism and Bachmann’s personal stupidity. It’s not about issues, so it’s not a real fight.

  4. steve says:

    Bachmann remains my first choice in a renewal of the celebrity death match, claymation series. I would match her up against Maxine Waters. Both could spout off some of the loony, stupid things they have said over the years. Too bad O’Donnel lost, she might have been able to take Bachmann’s place.