In Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, Robert Draper explores the strange fantastical world of the 112th Congress. Elected in the GOP wave of 2010, 87 freshmen Republicans, many of them Tea-Party-backed political novices, caused endless mischief for party leaders during the debt ceiling struggle. Draper chronicles the adjustment of these new members and the House of Representatives’ adjustment to them as Congress’s approval ratings plummeted to new lows. The book is not all partisan strife and grimness, though—there’s always Anthony Weiner for comic relief. Here are the highlights from Draper’s gripping and fast-paced narrative.
Newt Gingrich, Present at the Creation
On the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration, Republican leaders met in a private dining room at an expensive Washington, D.C., steakhouse to plot their comeback. It was a mix of congressmen and senators with three others added to diversify the gathering of white men. Pollster Frank Luntz, right-wing journalist Fred Barnes, and former speaker (and soon-to-be former presidential candidate) Newt Gingrich. Gingrich gave the opening remarks and gave tactical advice throughout, including a suggestion for Republicans to target the tax problems of New York Democrat Charlie Rangel. At the end of the night, Gingrich proclaimed, “You will remember this day. You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”
John Dingell Learns About Tea Bagging
John Dingell is the longest currently-serving member of Congress (and the third longest-serving ever). The acerbic 85-year-old Michigan Democrat had long been contemptuous of Tea Partiers. He found them unruly and difficult to get along with. Dingell tended to refer to them as “tea baggers,” a phrase that has an alternate sexual meaning. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem in the hall of Congress, but when Dingell was booked to appear on The Daily Show with John Stewart, his staff felt the need to finally warn and educate him. When his chief of staff shared the other meaning of “tea bagger” with Dingell, the Congressman went through three different stages of reaction. At first, he said “hah,” then said “that’s disgusting,” and finally the octogenarian congressman reached the plain of acceptance and said, “It’s funny and I’m going to keep using it.”
Allan West Finds Glenn Beck ‘Asinine’
Allan West, the former army lieutenant colonel who became one of two black Republicans elected to Congress in 2010, immediately became a “rock star” when he arrived in Congress. West found himself besieged by celebrity admirers like actor Gary Sinise, who invited him out to Hollywood, and Ernest Borgnine, who thoughtfully sent the congressman an autographed headshot. Perhaps the warmest praise West received was from Glenn Beck, who started a campaign to draft the freshman member to run for president. West found it “flattering.” He also found it “asinine.”
The Sheila Jackson Lee Money Jar
Sheila Jackson Lee is a vigorous Democratic congresswoman from Houston. Likely too vigorous. Jackson Lee has never met a television camera that she didn’t like, and takes every opportunity to speak on the floor of the House on any topic available. Her ubiquity has spawned the bipartisan tradition of “the Jackson Lee jar.” Staff members in a congressional office rotate a jar around their desks every day that the House is in session. If Jackson Lee makes a speech from the floor, the staffer who possesses the jar that day drops a quarter in and passes it to an office mate. If she doesn’t speak, the staffer keeps all the money in the jar and the competition starts anew. There are rumors of $100 payouts.
Weiner’s Caution with Women
Although Anthony Weiner would throw his political career away in a sex-free Internet sex scandal, his initial denials were credible because he seemed “overly cautious” with women.” As Draper reports, “If he and a female staffer were the last two remaining in his office at night, Weiner would invariably leave. Rather than flirt with his female employees, he treated them with precisely the same level of disdain that he did the men.” In short, Weiner’s defense was initially believed that he was so pathologically driven by ambition and ego that he wouldn’t have been so foolish.
Cantor: ‘We’re Working Hard to Educate Our Guys’
The anti-big-government zealotry that swept the Republicans into power turned out to be a major obstacle in the debt-ceiling negotiations with the White House. As Eric Cantor told Joe Biden in the talks, the best compromise House Republicans could offer was “giving you a vote on the debt ceiling. You may not think that’s a big deal. But you’ve got to understand, I’ve got a lot of guys that think that not raising the debt ceiling may not be such a bad thing—that in fact it may be just what we need.” Cantor then added wistfully “We’re working hard to educate our guys.”
Cantor’s Real Reason for Bailing Out of Talks
The House Majority Leader didn’t want to wind up suffering the same fate during the debt ceiling negotiations as the No. 2 House Republican, Roy Blunt, who became a pariah among conservatives for his role in negotiating the details of TARP in 2008. When Cantor saw that he couldn’t bridge the differences between the Republicans and the White House on revenue increases, he backed out of the talks. To avoid blame, Cantor claimed that the Democrats were intending to do the same and he just wanted to preempt them. This “had no basis in fact,” Draper wrote.
Obama is ‘The Worst Negotiator Ever’
When it came time for the debt-ceiling vote, Democrats were fuming. Congressman Dennis Cardoza, a moderate from California, raged to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the floor that “the president of the United States was the worst negotiator who has ever owned the title! I mean, I didn’t know Millard Fillmore, but he’s the worst. He doesn’t know how to do this.” Pelosi replied, “Yeah, but he doesn’t think so.”
Boehner Misses Earmarks
Despite the anti-earmark rhetoric in Congress, John Boehner still misses them. During a conversation with Congressman Ralph Hall of Texas, Boehner regretted that earmarks disappeared, as it had made the task of keeping unruly members under control much easier. He sadly noted “It’s not like the old days, Ralph. Without earmarks to offer, it’s hard to herd the cats.”