The Group in the Back of the Classroom

You saw all of these guys before in grade school.

The “good students” and the “teacher’s pets” always sat up front. They were attentive. Respectful. Always turned in their homework on time. They were the students who worked within the system and never challenged it.

And then, there was always the group in the back of the classroom.

You never knew who was going to make a wisecrack. Who might fire off a paper airplane. Maybe stir up some ruckus that would require the teacher to intervene. But  everyone always paid attention to them – because you always knew they were going to stir the pot.

Such was the case early last week when House and Senate members convened around a gigantic square table, wedged in front of the dais in room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building. This exercise was a called a “conference committee.” In this case it’s a forum where “conferees” assemble to decant a single, unified version of a massive transportation bill from two separate, very disparate pieces of legislation approved by the House and Senate.

The students who rarely rock the boat sat up front. As head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) was tapped to chair the conference committee, flanked by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) and the top Democrat on that panel, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV). Perched nearby were other senior lawmakers like Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) along with Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Tim Johnson (D-SD).

And then there was the group clustered toward the back corner. All were voted in to challenge the establishment – sometimes in upset elections. All are House Republican freshmen: Reps. Chip Cravaack (R-MN), Reid Ribble (R-WI), James Lankford (R-OK), Steve Southerland (R-FL), Richard Hanna (R-NY), Rick Crawford (R-AR), Larry Buschon (R-IN) and Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-WA).

The transportation bill has emerged as one of the most exasperating pieces of legislation of the 112th Congress. Multiple coalitions stymied efforts by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to approve a package without earmarks. Meantime, the Senate easily okayed a two-year $109 billion transportation plan, 74-22. In fact, one of the only ways the House GOP leadership brass could advance the tattered measure to a conference committee was to include a provision to expedite construction of the Keystone pipeline. For House Republicans, Keystone has evolved into a restorative salve applied to heal all parliamentary lacerations. No Keystone pipeline and it’s doubtful the House would even have a bill with which to engage the Senate.

Which is why many eyes are fixed on the eight freshman Republican members of the conference committee. Everyone in the room was waiting for them to “act up.” Veteran members of conference committees know these conclaves are where egos are bruised in an effort to forge compromise. And those watching the transportation conference committee wonder whether these rookie conferees are willing to bend to meld an agreement.

Wary of the course ahead, Democrats from both the House and Senate fired warning shots.

“We must seize this opportunity. The time to act is now. We cannot let our hard heads get in the way of hard hats,” proffered Rahall.

“I hope that this bill will not be bogged down by issues not related to transportation,” warned Johnson.

And for more than three hours, Barbara Boxer went around the table, calling on House and Senate members to give their opening remarks to the conference committee.

The freshmen sat patiently off in the corner, waiting their turn. For they would speak last.

Such is the Capitol Hill tradition. Just like in high school, seniors get to eat lunch first. Freshmen go to the back of the line.

But not before Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), four-year varsity letterman jacket and all, called out the freshman directly.

“The question is whether our House Republican colleagues will work constructively to forge a bill,” said Menendez.

Finally the time approached for the freshmen to speak. By this point, all senators had left the room except Boxer, who as chair, directed the flow of the conversation.

“Next, we’ll hear from Representative (Tim) Bishop (D-NY) followed by Representative Herrera Bewtler,” instructed Boxer.

Herrera Beutler shook her head no. Her married name is pronounced BUT-lerr, not BEWT-lerr. Herrera Beutler looked at Boxer with a  smile and mouthed the proper pronunciation.

“How do you say it?” asked Boxer politely from the across the cavernous room.

Herrera Beutler switched on the thin microphone in front of her.

“Herrera Beutler,” responded the Washington Republican.

“Now I will get it right,” Boxer replied.

Someone joked that Herrera Beutler missed an opportunity here. She should have simply said to Boxer “It’s Congresswoman. I worked so hard to get that title.” At a hearing two years ago, Boxer upbraided Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh of the Army Corps of Engineers when he called the California Democrat “ma’am” when answering a question.

“Do me a favor. Could you say senator instead of ma’am? I worked so hard to get that title,” Boxer chided Walsh.

But there was no snarky rebuke today. A few minutes later, Boxer called on Herrera Beutler, pronouncing her name correctly. The Congresswoman stayed above the fray.

“It’s exciting,” she began, describing the opportunity to serve on the conference committee. “I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work.”

No hijinx from the group in the back of the room. No spitballs or eraser fights. Herrera Beutler set the tone for her fellow freshmen. And her colleagues played it straight when Boxer recognized them to talk.

“We simply need to do more with less,” said Larry Buschon. “I’d like to thank Chairman Mica and you Sen. Boxer for your leadership.”

The freshman sounded willing to play. How they’ll vote is another story – contingent on what the conference report looks like. But whatever they did and said impressed Boxer.

“I heard no lines in the sand,” said Boxer at the end of the session. “Nobody said we’re walking out if we don’t get X, Y, Z.”


The tone from freshman Republicans was not as conciliatory a few days later. A squadron of House GOP freshmen assembled for a conversation with reporters in the Rayburn House Office Building. This was fresh off the primary victory by tea party darling Richard Mourdock over longtime Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN).

“Just because you can reach across the aisle doesn’t mean you can solve problems,” flayed first-term Rep. Jeff Landry (R-LA) when asked about Lugar’s record of bipartisanship.

The conversation turned to a bill to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. It’s a nearly 80-year-old quasi government institution which helps overseas customers purchase U.S. goods. A few years ago, Congress only needed a voice vote to extended the Export-Import Bank’s charter. But due to objections from House conservatives, lawmakers had to cut a deal this time around.

“I think it is corporate welfare,” said freshman Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) of the Export-Import Bank. “Republicans used to agree on the free market.”

The House finally re-upped the Export-Import Bank 330-93. The GOP cast all 93 nay votes.

Finally, lawmakers discussed spending figures left over from last summer’s debt ceiling agreement.

“I think a lot of conservatives are going to have a problem with spending levels at $1.047 trillion,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH).

$1.047 trillion is the number set by President Obama and House/Senate negotiators as a part of the debt ceiling pact. But many Republicans are demanding deeper spending cuts than that. The problem is that the House GOP leadership could have to adhere to the $1.047 trillion number to keep the government open past September 30. There’s a risk of a government shutdown if rank-and-file Republicans don’t go along.

The spirited defiance of the freshman jawbone session is a stark contrast with the civil discourse of the transportation conference committee. This is the challenge facing House Republicans. They promised to seize Washington and change the system. But they also have to serve within the system’s constructs. Regardless, they’re in charge in the House now. And voters are expecting big things from them.

Perhaps freshman Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) best summed up the conundrum if the electorate doesn’t see substantial changes.

“The Republican party could go the way of the Whig party,” predicted Labrador. “It’s going to be bad for Republicans.”

That’s the rub. An angry electorate stalks America’s polling places. Dissatisfied, they rewarded the Democrats in 2006 and 2008. Even more disillusioned, they turned to Republicans in 2010. And now voters are getting restless again.

How much do House Republicans go along in order to govern? And how many sticks of dynamite do they bring to blow up the system?

Regardless, everyone is focused on the group of folks in the back of the room, watching to see what they might do next.