A Brief History of the GOP Conference Chairmanship

The Cheneys go full circle

Jerry Lewis was the first Conference Chair that I had the chance to work with when I first came to Washington in 1989.  He replaced a guy named Dick Cheney, who would go on to do something else.  

Lewis represented California’s Inland Empire, was a former Insurance salesman, starred on his High School basketball team, and eventually rose to become Appropriations Chairman. 

He was an old-school politician, not particularly ideological, but good at taking care of the needs of his Members. 

In the aftermath of the disappointing election of 1992, Lewis lost reelection as Conference Chairman to Richard Armey, who was seen as a quirky ideologue but who promised a much more aggressive campaign to displace the Democrats who had been running the House for 38 years. 

Armey understood the room where Leadership elections happen.  The Members wanted  change and they were going to get it.  Armey promised change while Lewis promised better Members services.  Armey won.   

When Republicans surprisingly won the House in the 1994, Armey was promoted to Majority Leader as Newt Gingrich seized the Speaker’s gavel.  Tom DeLay won a close three-way race for Whip and John Boehner, who won his first election to the House in 1990, rose to become Conference Chairman after only four years in Congress. 

Boehner, who has become famous again for his boozy biography after being forced to step down as Speaker in what seems like the last century, won his race for Conference Chair because of his work in putting together the Contract with America. 

Boehner immediately tried to expand his new role to include developing relationships with business interests and K Street, which infuriated the new Whip, who needed K Street to help him whip up votes for the Republican pro-business agenda. 

The Boehner-DeLay relationship deteriorated over the four years he was in the role, but not as badly as the Boehner-Gingrich partnership.  You see, Boehner, as Conference Chair, was theoretically in charge of message development and communications delivery.  But nobody puts Newt Gingrich in a corner, and he routinely stepped on whatever message Boehner was trying to promote. 

It got so bad that Boehner, DeLay and Armey all tried to launch a coup against Newt, but they couldn’t agree on who would replace him and so Newt stayed until the election of 1998, when he was forced to step down by a restless Republican Conference. 

1999 brought lots of changes to the Leadership.  Denny Hastert improbably rose from Chief Deputy Whip to the Speakership, and John Boehner lost his leadership spot to J.C. Watts, the former Oklahoma football star. 

Watts had two jobs as Conference Chair.  Help to coordinate the message for Hastert and the leadership team (I might have had some input into that development).  And try to broaden the base of the Republican Party.

Watts never did succeed in increasing the percentage of black voters for the Republicans, but he did spearhead some notable policy successes, including the creation of enterprise zones in urban America. 

He left the Congress after being routinely frustrated by Tom DeLay and his team, who had a far more conservative vision for America. 

Deborah Pryce rose to took J.C.’s place.  She was the highest ranking woman in the history of the Republican Conference when she got the Conference Chairmanship.  She would be the first of several women who occupy that position. 

The Judge, as I called her, was put in charge of messaging and her goal was to soften the image of a white male party in the era of compassionate conservatism.  She won a narrow election in the Republican bloodbath of 2006, and gave up her Conference Chairmanship shortly thereafter. 

Adam Putnam, a young rising star who looked like he was 13 when he took the reigns the Conference in 2007, but he decided he wanted to move back to Florida, where he ran and won as Agriculture Commissioner and then lost in a primary challenge to Ron DeSantis in a race to be the Governor of Florida. 

Mike Pence came next and he presided over the Conference as it took back the Majority in 2010, and he decided to run for Governor in Indiana.   Jeb Hensarling, reflecting the hard turn to the right of the Tea Party Republicans, rose to become Conference Chair.  He decided not to take John Boehner on to lead the party and ultimately left the Congress.

Cathy McMorris Rogers then became the second woman to lead the GOP Conference.  McMorris Rogers, reflecting her district, spent time and resources trying to make Republicans much more tech savvy.  Her understanding of the social media and the tech world made her a natural to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee for Republicans in the current Congress. 

Which brings us almost full circle to Liz Cheney.  Dick Cheney was seen by Bob Michel as his natural heir, and his short time as the Conference Chairman left an indelible mark on the history of House Republicans.  

We all know his history.  He went from Conference to Whip to Defense Secretary to President and CEO of Haliburton, to become the most powerful Vice President perhaps in our nation’s history, until he fell out of favor with President George W. Bush. 

Cheney believed that America had to mount an aggressive campaign to weed out the terrorists who not only attacked us, but also those who supported them.  He initially supported the Trump Administration, although it is not clear to me now where he stands on Trump.   My guess is that he supports his daughter, because that is what Dads do.

Liz Cheney had a history of sharp elbows in her brief tenure as Conference Chair.  Clearly, she doesn’t like Trump and didn’t agree with him on many of the things he did and said.

I don’t think that she is necessarily out of the mainstream with many of her colleagues, who privately have their own issues with Trump. 

But when you are a member of the Leadership, you have a responsibility to your members.  Your job is not to shoot off of your mouth and give your opinions and say things that may or may not be true but put your colleagues in very difficult position. 

Members do not want to have to defend themselves against attacks from Members of their own leadership team. 

The primary job of the House Republican Conference Chair is to set up and facilitate the weekly press conferences conducted by the House Republican Leadership.  If you go out of your way to embarrass your leaders at those press conferences, you are not doing your job and you won’t last in that position very long.

Dick Cheney always wanted to be Speaker of the House.  That was the position he most coveted.  But history called him to do other things. 

Liz Cheney had a halfway decent shot at making a run for Speaker a couple years ago.  She cut an interesting figure.  She’s smart.  She has a famous name.  And she had conviction. 

But she wasn’t a team player.  She didn’t understand her job as Conference Chair.  And ultimately she decided that she would rather go alone than rise up in the Leadership.

That’s her choice and I am sure her conscience is clear. 

Perhaps the best thing that happens to any member who get to run the Republican Conference happens after they leave that position.  And next week, Liz Cheney will be leaving that position and somebody else will take her place. 

It’s not the end to the world.  It happens on a fairly regular basis.