The House Year in Review

Posted December 30, 2013 at 10:00am

This year, doing the business of the People’s House was, at best, a struggle. It’s well-known that 2013 was, legislatively, the least productive session in congressional history. Leaders strained to get to 218 — a majority in the 435-seat House (in case you had no idea where the blog name came from). And there were some pretty notable news stories as a result of all this congressional dysfunction.

But as painful as the year was for members, covering the House was a pleasure, one which we here at 218 only had the honor of doing for about half the year.

In that short time, 218 — or “Goppers,” as we were formerly known, which rhymes with “Whoppers,” for all you still wondering about that — had more than a few favorite stories.

Among the labors of love, there was a piece about the 10 Republicans who could one day be speaker, a story on an internal August playbook that went out to House Republicans telling them to profess how they were fighting Washington, and a piece (in response to his “calves the size of cantaloupes” comment) asking the question: How do you solve a problem like Steve King?

We also had a few favorite profiles this year: Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., on the art of whipping; Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who told us everything Republicans do in the House should be aimed at taking back the Senate; American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, who told us about his visit with the Dalai Lama and his plan to lead the “new right”; and the enigmatic Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., who spoke from the heart about, among other things, his own grandfather’s suicide.

But one of the more interesting stories of the year was from the very beginning of January, back before there was a Roll Call House blog, when Speaker John A. Boehner was almost unseated by a conservative revolt.

A few weeks later, Roll Call went to Williamsburg, Va., to report from the annual House GOP retreat, where members engaged in some serious self-reflection. One veteran lawmaker called it “the most important retreat I’ve been to in my 28 years in Congress.

By March, Roll Call noticed that a new power player was beginning to emerge in the House Republican Conference: Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma. Once a foe of Boehner’s, Cole would, over the next several months, cement himself as an unofficial spokesman for the speaker, fighting against what he saw as the recklessness of hard-line conservatives and “political immaturity.”

This was about the time Roll Call started its blog Goppers, which would later become 218. The blog began with a two-part interview with Boehner (Part I, where he beats back a question about retirement by saying, “I’m far from done,” and Part II, where he says “the sequester is here to stay” unless there’s a deal leading to a balanced budget).

In April, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was forced to pull legislation from the floor that would strip funding from one program created by the 2010 health care law to shore up another: the high-risk insurance pools. Roll Call ran an analysis of what that “GOP revolt” really meant. The implosion turned out to be a harbinger of trouble to come.

In June, the farm bill blew up. That prompted leaders to devise a novel strategy of dropping food stamps from the bill. The gambit worked, and the farm bill got through the House, first as a farm-only bill, then as a nutrition bill.

In the summer, there was also a hullabaloo over the National Security Agency’s blanket collection of phone metadata. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., leading a group of libertarian lawmakers, threatened to sink the rule for the Defense appropriations bill if they didn’t get a vote on the NSA. They got their vote, but in the end, the NSA amendment was defeated.

The major event of the year in the House, of course, was the government shutdown and continuing resolution battle. Before House leaders went ahead with that ill-fated strategy, Republicans were complaining in July that Heritage Action was pushing the tactic on them without a plan B.

We found out firsthand what sort of intentions Heritage Action for America and Club for Growth had when we sat down with them and asked if they wanted to depose Boehner.

July was also the month when House Republicans learned they couldn’t pass all appropriations bills at sequester levels.

Then came the August recess, where we named the 10 most quotable members of Congress, detailed the Republican Study Committee’s plan to replace Obamacare and broke the story about Boehner and Cantor declining invitations to show up for the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

But the August recess was abbreviated by that whole Syria thing (if you remember that). The authorization for the use of military force in Syria, which President Barack Obama sprang on Congress, seemed destined for failure in the House from the very first classified briefing.

After Syria simmered down, the conversation was back on Obamacare, and House leaders decided to move ahead with the defund strategy. That, as we all know, led to the government shutdown.

218 broke the story about House Republicans meeting with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in the basement of the famous Capitol Hill watering hole Tortilla Coast. (We also did a little follow-up.)

Of course, there was, perhaps, no better story this year than Arkansas GOP Rep. Tim Griffin’s 3-year-old son, John, coming to the House floor to vote for members.

After more than 16 days, the House voted to raise the debt ceiling and end the shutdown. Somehow, Boehner emerged from the shutdown in a better position with his conference.

While Republican approval ratings were in the tank following the shutdown, they quickly found a way to change the subject: Obamacare, and specifically, the disastrous rollout (though freshman Republican Trey Radel’s cocaine bust did distract from the conversation).

Republicans dinged frustrated Democrats and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for broken promises and a broken website. Meanwhile, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was standing behind her words on Obamacare.

Eventually, the House passed a Fred Upton, R-Mich., bill that would allow insurance companies to continue offering existing health care plans. Like most of the House’s work product this year, it went nowhere on the other side of the Capitol.

In the last half of the year, after the Senate passed its own comprehensive immigration overhaul bill, various House members started having anxiety over how to proceed. Republicans remained split, with some more moderate Republicans in heavy-Latino districts opting to sign onto a version of the Senate bill being touted by House Democrats.

Democrats also squabbled over the best strategy for an immigration rewrite, and the House’s bipartisan immigration task force finally disintegrated.

The House did end, however, on a bit of a high note, passing a budget deal that seemed uncertain from the start. 218 broke down the budget vote, as well as the moments when Boehner blasted the outside conservative groups for opposing the deal (the first time and the second time).

We finished the year by analyzing what Heritage Action and Club for Growth did on the budget vote — more specifically, what they didn’t do — and where these outside groups stand with leadership as we head into 2014.

And even though members of Congress are now allowed to wish their constituents “Merry Christmas” in franked mailings, we’ll just leave it at, “See you next year.”

Thanks for reading,

— Emma and Matt