The speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives is the most powerful job on Capitol Hill. Either directly or indirectly, the speaker controls the process by which members receive their committee assignments. This is a political life or death moment for some members; the Kansas lawmaker who doesn’t get on the Agriculture Committee is unlikely to survive. The speaker also controls the legislative process through the all-powerful Rules Committee that decides what bills the House will vote on.
Why then, is Speaker Nancy Pelosi so hesitant to use her awesome powers to rein in a raucous group of freshman Democrats who are challenging her leadership, and whose antics threaten the political future of many of their colleagues?
Just so we’re straight on this, the firebrands like Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan did not contribute in any way to the House majority that their party won in 2018. Their seats are in strongly Democratic districts that had been represented by Democrats.
It was candidates like Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia who brought tough districts into the Democratic column and put their party in charge of the House. They ought to be the focus of attention — not Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her Queens seat by defeating a fellow Democrat in a primary and whose ability to attract social media attention seems to be her most conspicuous talent.
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Senate leaders might have pretensions to omnipotence, but they know what enormous power resides in a single senator to make their lives miserable. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was able to single-handedly shut down the government in 2013 and even get away with calling his Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar. There are few sanctions available to Senate leaders.
House leaders, and especially the speaker, are uniquely able to lay on the lash to those who defy them. There is nothing more likely to bring an obstreperous member into line than a trip to the woodshed. If Omar refuses to stop making comments that embarrass and divide her party, perhaps she should be reassigned from her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee and spend a few terms on the House Administration Committee, managing the statuary and portraits in the Capitol. It’s a good place to reflect on the history of the institution of which she appears to know nothing.
Rookies like Omar make rookie mistakes
What doesn't Omar know? She doesn’t know that a 435-member legislative body cannot operate on the principles of participatory democracy. By its nature, the House requires strong leadership from a speaker and traditionally has gotten it. In recent years, however, ideological factions such as the Freedom Caucus on the GOP side of the aisle created misery for (now former) Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. The new cohort of progressive Democrats seems to be emulating the worst characteristics of the Freedom Caucus by trying to run the House from the back benches. They pose a grave threat to not only many of their fellow Democrats but also to the institution itself.
Republicans have shown themselves eager to pounce on any opportunity to exploit divisions among Democrats, as when they recently scored on a rarely successful motion to amend a universal background check bill after passage. If Democratic newcomers are driving the agenda with pie-in-the-sky aspirational messages and premature impeachment motions, the party will suffer. Rookies will make rookie mistakes.
Speaker Pelosi must punish and correct
Back in the 1980s, House Speaker Tip O’Neill was undercut by a group of renegade Sunbelt Democrats calling themselves the “Boll Weevils.” These Democrats whose districts were carried by President Ronald Reagan were justifiably fearful of losing their seats, so they often voted with the Republicans.
Today’s barn-burners are Democrats who risk no chance of being defeated in a general election by a Republican. Their only fear is a primary challenger who embraces proposals even more impractical than they do.
The House on Thursday adopted a resolution condemning various kinds of discrimination but, significantly, did not mention Omar. It might soothe the ruffled feelings of some Democratic members but is not likely to serve as a warning that statements like hers will carry serious consequences in the future.
Pelosi cannot allow herself to be pushed around by junior members who run no political risk by making comments and proposals that threaten the very colleagues whose courage to fight on uncertain terrain brought the Democrats to power. What plays for Tlaib in Inkster, Michigan, does not necessarily go down well in Luria's Norfolk, Virginia, district — but it is the latter community and ones like it that wrote the story of the great Democratic victory last year. Pelosi is only too aware of that. She needs to kick butt and take names, and do it fast.
Ross K. Baker is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @Rosbake1
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why isn't Pelosi getting tough on Democrats like Ilhan Omar? Her majority is at stake.