Last night, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss to an Ayn Rand-loving college professor named Dave Brat sent the political world into full freak-out mode. A failure to win re-nomination by a sitting House Majority Leader is unprecedented in the history of Congress. And if you could describe his loss as a tea party victory—there’s some debate about what last night really means—Cantor’s is the biggest scalp the movement has ever claimed.
Last night will remain in the minds of “moderate” or “establishment” Republicans for a generation, even though, in truth, Cantor was an exemplar of neither. And his resignation from the House leadership team has ramifications for this Congress, where conventional wisdom now assesses the chances for immigration reform as even deader than they were previously.
But: onward and upward. Before the smarmy corpse of Cantor’s political career was even cold, the struggle to seize his leadership position was underway. For some in the House GOP—who must now feel that no amount of money or prestige or recognition from Beltway ThoughtLeaders can protect them from an increasingly agitated base—it might have the feel of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But in fairness, the House Republican Caucus isn’t so much like the Titanic as the iceberg that hit the Titanic, inasmuch as the House GOP is an aimless, rudderless mass that sinks everything it touches.
The leadership struggle brings excitement for Texas Republicans. Two Texan congressman have slipped themselves into the race to become the second most powerful Republican in the House—Jeb Hensarling (R-Dallas) is widely considered to be vying for a leadership position, and Pete Sessions (R-Dallas), might have been the first to declare his intent to run for the job.
For some time, Sen. John Cornyn has held the number two spot among Senate Republicans. In the unlikely event Sen. Mitch McConnell fails to win re-election, Cornyn is the favorite to replace him. If Hensarling or Sessions become majority leader, they would become frontrunners to replace House Speaker John Boehner if (or really, when) Boehner steps down, or is kneecapped by his conservative members.
Hensarling appears to be virtually incapable of passing legislation, as Politicoreported in March. Though he chairs a powerful House committee, he’s watched his bills sink into the swamp through his inability or unwillingness to compromise or count votes. So he’s a natural fit for House GOP leadership.
But if we’re going to put a Texan in line to become speaker of the House, someday, I vote for Sessions—not just because of his ties to felon ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and legendary conman Allen Stanford. Not just because he jokingly compared the House GOP to the Taliban. Not just because he got special loans from subprime lenders before the housing bubble collapsed. (Though a House panel later ruled that he didn’t financially benefit.)
Sessions deserves our support for this—a tale of Washington pork-barrel corruption so weird, so outlandish, that it feels like it could have come from a particularly whacked-out Simpsons episode. I give you: Blimpgate. From a 2010 Politico article:
Rep. Pete Sessions — the chief of the Republicans’ campaign arm in the House — says on his website that earmarks have become “a symbol of a broken Washington to the American people.”
Yet in 2008, Sessions himself steered a $1.6 million earmark for dirigible research to an Illinois company whose president acknowledges having no experience in government contracting, let alone in building blimps.
What the company did have: the help of Adrian Plesha, a former Sessions aide with a criminal record who has made more than $446,000 lobbying on its behalf.
When asked about the earmark, Sessions’ staff said the money would help create jobs in his district in Dallas.
But the company that received the earmarked funds, Jim G. Ferguson & Associates, is based in the suburbs of Chicago, with another office in San Antonio — nearly 300 miles from Dallas. And while Sessions used a Dallas address for the company when he submitted his earmark request to the House Appropriations Committee last year, one of the two men who control the company says that address is merely the home of one of his close friends.
Speaker Sessions—now that’s change we can believe in.