Current arguments over the role of the Republican Study Committee should be kept in perspective. Having served as its first full-time executive director (1973-1977), I can help with that.
Since its founding, the RSC has never relished bucking party leadership, but it has never shied away from it either. As one member noted in the earliest days, “We exist to bring pressure from the right on the leadership. If we don’t do that, the only pressure will be from the left, and policies will inevitably move in that direction.”
Let’s look at what the RSC has done this year. It introduced and ultimately won passage of the Cut, Cap and Balance Act. It pushed for H.R. 1 to cut spending deeper than originally proposed. Its leaders have pressed for passage of important free trade agreements while expressing deep reservations about renewing Trade Adjustment Assistance. Beyond doubt, the RSC has had tremendous influence on this year’s legislative agenda — pushing Congress outside the safe confines of conventional Beltway wisdom.
In the process, the RSC has ruffled some feathers — just as it has done from the beginning.
Conservative members of the House first started organizing when President Richard Nixon made the Family Assistance Plan — offering individuals a federally guaranteed annual income, without any requirement to seek work — a centerpiece of his 1969 agenda. It was anathema to conservatives. Rep. Edward Derwinski (R-Ill.) rallied House conservatives to oppose a rule allowing the bill to come to a vote. They failed to defeat the rule, but succeeded in getting a large majority of Republicans to vote against it — a telling blow to Republican leadership. It didn’t pass the Senate.
These fights led several conservative members of Congress to form the Republican Study Committee in 1973. The decision was not easy; many members were worried of the RSC’s “high visibility.” As the first chairman of the RSC, Congressman Derwinski told me, “The senior members were worried about what the leadership would think; the freshmen were worried about what the senior members in their state delegation would think, and everybody was worried about how the press would label the operation.” Sound familiar?
Over the last 40 years, the RSC has fought many policy battles. Sometimes it worked alongside Republican leaders — to pass the Kemp-Roth tax cuts in the 1980s and welfare reform in the 1990s, for example. On other issues — such as the 1990 Andrews Air Force Base tax hike deal and the Medicare Part D battle of 2003 — the group has bucked party leadership.
Another major fight between GOP conservatives and GOP leadership came in 1971 with Senate passage of the Child Development Act. CDA called for comprehensive child care in the United States. The legislation had already cleared the House 203-181 and seemed unstoppable. But that was before conservatives engaged.
Working with outside organizations such as the American Conservative Union and conservative intellectual leaders like Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr., the RSC brought the fight to the White House. Nixon vetoed the legislation. This early example of an effective “inside-outside” operation proved to conservatives that they could make a difference.
These disagreements don’t portend irreconcilable differences between conservatives and the Republican leadership. Conservatives recognize our objectives can only be achieved through the traditional political process. But these stories highlight the important distinction between a belief in conservative principles and membership in the Republican caucus.
Those of us who founded the RSC always insisted that disagreements be focused on policy; they should never be made personal. We also strongly subscribed to Ronald Reagan’s dictum that “the person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and ally — not a 20 percent traitor.”
Compromise is necessary and proper in Washington, D.C. — but it is not the role of the RSC to facilitate it. And it is not the best place for every member. Those members who feel the RSC assists them in fulfilling the mission that brought them to Washington should join the RSC; others should not feel pressure to join. They might even choose to join the Republican Main Street Partnership, or the liberal side. And, of course the Democrats have their own counterpart groups.
This is how the system works, and it is good to remember why these ad hoc groups exist within the congressional parties. I am grateful for the RSC’s principled stands over the years. Its current leader, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), is one of the most visionary and courageous leaders the group has ever had.
With a stalled economy, mushrooming debt and a president who seems to want only more of the same, this is no time for the loyal opposition to “go small.” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said it well: “I’d like to see a Republican message that is bigger and bolder than what has been put forward so far.”
The RSC has been pushing for bigger and bolder ideas for nearly 40 years. It has never been needed more than right now.
Edwin J. Feulner has been president of The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Daily Caller