House Republicans are drawing from the minority party playbook
Many congressional Republicans have been quite vocal in denouncing the House’s impeachment investigations. They have repeatedly tried to defend President Trump’s conduct towards Ukraine, and some complain vehemently that the impeachment process is stacked against them and the White House. As Jim Jordan (R-OH), a last-minute addition to the Intelligence Committee, declared hyperbolically during the committee's impeachment hearings on Tuesday, “it is the most unfair process we have ever seen.”
On their merits, House Republicans’ often-shifting arguments about the president’s behavior and House procedure have been quite weak. Why, then, do they make them? Republicans certainly have strong political motivations, not least being the steady support Trump continues to draw from GOP voters. They may also be sincerely unhappy about having no say in drafting the rules governing impeachment, and some may still have doubts about the illegality of Trump’s behavior.
But it’s also worth noting that same-party presidents and congressional rules have long been core concerns of minority parties in the House. As I have written elsewhere, while becoming a majority is the number one goal of a minority party, protecting the presidential party and ensuring procedural fairness are two of the other three “Ps” (along with enacting desired policy) that motivate minority party activity, especially their behavior in the public sphere.
Consider first the desire to defend the White House. Same-party presidents matter a great deal because they are an invaluable source of power for the minority party, which lacks significant influence in the majoritarian House of Representatives. Presidents are also far better known to voters than members of Congress, and their success or failure may have significant consequences for lawmakers’ own ability to win reelection.
Impeachment is the ultimate challenge to a sitting president, and House minority parties have traditionally fought hard against it when a same-party president is in danger of removal. Though most people associate Richard Nixon’s resignation from office with bipartisan calls for him to resign, Republicans did so after years of defending the president against accusations of impropriety. So it is not surprising that House Republicans, like their colleagues from four decades before, are vocally defending a GOP White House – even in the face of growing evidence that the president acted inappropriately, if not illegally.
The same is true for congressional procedure. The House’s rules are generally written and enforced with the goals of the majority party in mind, which frequently frustrates members of the minority. Those lawmakers in turn have occasionally delivered angry floor speeches, walked off the chamber floor in protest, or delayed proceedings when they felt their procedural rights were being unduly violated.
Jordan and other House Republicans are continuing this tradition. Sometimes they have done so even if it means breaking the rules. To bring attention to their claim that the initial impeachment hearings should be open to the public, a group of Republicans stormed a closed session of the Intelligence Committee in late October, violating security protocols by bringing their cell phones with them. At an open hearing last week, Elise Stefanik (R-NY) won notice when she complained that the chairman of the Intelligence Committee was “muzzling” her, even though she was trying to speak when others controlled the time for questioning witnesses.
In fact, these are hardly the only examples of minority party members using “working the refs”-style tactics, exploiting voter ignorance about congressional procedure to make a point. In early 1995, Carrie Meek (D-FL) had her words stricken from the record after giving a speech criticizing Speaker Newt Gingrich for a questionable book deal. A furious Harold Volkmer (D-MO) then repeated her speech on the floor verbatim--a violation of chamber rules--protesting that Republicans were reinterpreting the rules to silence the minority party, when Gingrich had gotten away with uttering innuendos against majority party Democrats for years.
Underlying the GOP's tactics on impeachment are deeper beliefs -- held by members of both parties, especially when they are in the minority -- that party unity and effective messaging yield political success. Thus, Intelligence Committee Republicans have put up placards featuring partisan quotes and pithy slogans, while Tom Cole (R-OK) told a reporter that stopping impeachment in the Senate required “essentially a unanimous Republican no vote.”
None of this is to say that minority parties in Congress ought to behave this way. Lawmakers take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers intended them to check excessive executive power, not defend a president because of shared party affiliation. The nature of some of the GOP’s arguments are worrisome signs that the party has abandoned its oversight role altogether. And rules and procedures, the bedrock of a well-functioning legislature, can be undermined when members of Congress break them just to score political points.
There’s no knowing for certain how many congressional Republicans will maintain their defense of Trump as impeachment proceedings continue. But from both an historical and theoretical perspective, what members of the minority party have been doing publicly so far should come as little surprise.