Behind-the-scenes battles between budget hawks and defense advocates inside the Republican majority in Congress have spilled into the public several times in recent years, with tea party-aligned budget hawks coming away victorious more often than not.
The two Republican factions have, in this instance, been split between members who have continually pushed hard for across-the-board cost-cutting measures, and national security hawks who have fought to stop defense cuts to what they believe are critical military areas.
The two sides squared off most notably over sequestration, which were automatic spending cuts designed to be so drastic — at least in Washington’s view — that they would force Republicans and Democrats to compromise on a broader, more targeted deficit-reduction plan. The highly polarized parties, of course, did not reach a deal and the cuts went into effect.
Most of the Pentagon cuts caused by sequestration remain on the books today, even though House GOP Leadership promised sequestration would never happen.
So how did it happen?
There are a variety of reasons, but one of the primary ones was the influence of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the largest group of conservatives in the U.S. House. All of the Republican members of Alabama’s congressional delegation are members of the RSC, with the exception of Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL2), as are about three-quarters of all House Republicans.
Although the RSC does not have an official spot at the leadership table inside the House Republican Conference, it has been a powerful force in pushing the House in a more conservative direction, especially on budgeting issues. And that’s exactly what happened on sequestration. Even as many Republican members wanted to roll back the across-the-board defense cuts, the RSC and its conservative allies peeled off enough votes to keep that from happening.
There are several reasons why all of this matters right now in Washington, D.C., as well as here in Alabama.
First, the RSC will elect a new chairman in early 2015.
The chairmanship opened up when former chairman Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) became House Majority Whip earlier this year. Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) was selected to replace Scalise in June, but only after he agreed not to run for another term as chairman.
The race is shaping up to be a particularly big deal this time around because of the budget wars expected to take place during the next session of Congress, and jockeying for the coveted post has already begun. The battle lines are once again being drawn between budget-focused members and defense advocates.
Two Alabama congressmen with significant defense industry initiatives in their districts already appear to have chosen their side.
Reps. Bradley Byrne (R-AL1) and Mike Rogers (R-AL3) both recently signed a letter encouraging the next RSC chairman to be a strong advocate for national defense.
The letter was written as part of a coordinated effort by defense hawks to make a strong push ahead of the impending budget wars, which could see sequestration returning again in full. They want a like-minded leader sitting at the head of the RSC — someone, according to the letter, who has “demonstrated a clear, principled and unequivocal voting record in support of our national security.”
Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) is the presumed frontrunner, but defense backers are already questioning his national security credentials. At least twice in the past two years Mulvaney has backed billion-dollar cuts to defense spending bills, often siding with Democrats against the wishes of the majority of House Republicans.
Reps. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Tx) are also planning to run, but neither of them serve on the House Armed Services Committee, which defense advocates would prefer.
Alabama’s aerospace and defense industries include over 500 companies employing roughly 83,000 individuals, according to the Alabama Department of Commerce.
The Aerospace Industries Association predicted in 2011 that Alabama would lose 24,600 jobs if sequestration went into effect. And although the dire predictions appear to have been overblown, the companies operating in this large and growing sector of Alabama’s economy will be pushing members of Alabama’s congressional delegation to avoid another round of cuts next year.
That makes the RSC chairman’s election a bid deal for Alabama, no matter which side of the issue you are on.
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