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Opinion: Columnists

To retake power, Republicans need to do the math

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Opinion,Ron Arnold,Columnists,2014 Elections,State of the Union,Cathy McMorris Rodgers

Many of us are still trying to figure out what President Obama's State of the Union speech really told America. We got the generalities about making the weak stronger and the strong weaker.

But was the rest an imperial brag that, “I get to make the law because my pen is mightier than your Congress”? Or a faux-conciliatory, “I love democracy, but these checks and balances are so frustrating”?

Either way, Obama understands power, but his opposition seems confused about it, letting issues divide them over which to defeat in the upcoming midterm primaries, Democratic candidates or establishment Republicans. Splitting the primary vote is risky business; it invites accidental Democrats to walk away with the November election.

It's the age-old fight over “principle versus practicality,” and “staunch constitutionalism against political possibility.” It doesn't help win elections, and losers don't get to make the law.

Some campaigners don’t get it, lecturing us in all seriousness about what the Constitution says and who in the family is not following its principles, a judgment probably below the electorate’s worry horizon and above the campaigner’s pay grade.

We hire nine ladies and gentlemen to decide what's constitutional and what's not, which is somewhat ironic - my copy of the Constitution doesn't give the Supreme Court that authority. The court gave itself the power of judicial review beginning in 1803 with Marbury v. Madison. What does that say about constitutional principles? Anyway, that power doesn't extend to 2014's election campaigners.

Practicality itself can be a principle, helping to gain the power to block Obama. Of course, all legislative powers are vested in Congress – presidential orders to the contrary – where 435 voting members make up the House of Representatives and 100 members make up the Senate.

Who amongst those 535 people actually control legislative power? In the big picture, that’s the speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader and their tight leadership councils from party ranks. They set agendas and plot strategy, currently with 8 leaders in the House (Republicans) and 7 in the Senate (Democrats).

The party leadership is also important because it selects the actual gatekeepers of federal law: committee chairmen.

It’s the chairmen of legislative committees who decide which bills move forward to the House or Senate as a whole. There are 21 such committees in the House and 20 in the Senate.

The committee chairman alone decides which bills will be considered and which won’t. If the chairman won’t let a bill into the committee room, that bill is dead.

Only 41 people control all federal legislation.

It gets more interesting. Every committee chairman is a member of the majority party in their chamber. Read that again.

Only 41 majority party members control the flow of all federal legislation and they were chosen by party leadership. Obama’s opposition will only have the power to block him if all 41 of those chairmen are Republican.

The task is one of simple arithmetic. If Republicans can count noses up to 218 in the House, all 21 House committee chairmanships are Republican. If Republicans can count to 51 in the Senate, same thing with all 20 committees. Minority party gets zero chairmen. No power sharing. Winner take all.

The Constitution doesn’t say anything about that arrangement; it just tells Congress to make its own rules.

The Republican response to Obama's State of the Union speech should encourage Obama's opponents. Responder Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, Wash., got great reviews for her plain-spoken message, lovingly told stories of her three children, and her farm-girl blue-collar roots.

McClatchy News had set the stage earlier with its report, “McMorris Rodgers posted a photograph of herself on Instagram, holding her speech in one hand as she practiced and her 2-month-old daughter, Brynn, in the other.”

Don’t let that fool you. As I have noted previously in this space, McMorris-Rodgers is a tough politician. After Obama’s last applause line faded away, down the Capitol hall in an isolated, undisclosed room, the highest ranking Republican woman and chairman of its House leadership conference shamed Obama’s messianic zealotry and bluster with her calm words, “I’d like to share a more hopeful, Republican vision, one that empowers you, not the government.”

It was all uphill from there. Al Jazeera America said, “She was arguably the best person that Republicans could have presented to counter Obama.”

Even the Washington Post was in awe: “It was as if a Republican pollster had created a politician with the exact profile that Republicans are looking to promote as they head toward this year's midterm elections.”

Obama opponents, you have a chance if you tend to your arithmetic; 218 in the House, 51 in the Senate, 41 Republican committee chairmen. It’s the only way to stop Obama’s imperial power.

I can only end as Cathy McMorris-Rodgers did, “God bless America.” We're going to need it.

RON ARNOLD, a Washington Examiner columnist, is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.
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