WASHINGTON—When 12 House Republicans broke ranks and refused to support John Boehner’s second term as House speaker on Jan. 3, most pundits dismissed them as firebrand provocateurs who could accomplish nothing. Politico described them as “an eclectic group of rookies and backbench conservatives who live a largely-off-the-grid political existence, situated outside establishment and sometimes even mainstream conservative boundaries.”
But a closer look at these outliers, who nearly forced Boehner to a chaotic second ballot, reveals that they have something else in common: They nearly all claim to hold devout faiths. The congressmen who passed on Boehner include an Eastern Orthodox Christian, four Roman Catholics, five Southern Baptists, and a Methodist who said his family works “hard to abide by Christian principles.” In interviews with WORLD several of these lawmakers said their religious beliefs gave them the courage to stand by their convictions and step away from party discipline.
Many lawmakers have provided lip service to worries over the nation’s balance sheet. But these 12 lawmakers—Justin Amash, Jim Bridenstine, Paul Broun, Louie Gohmert, Tim Huelskamp, Walter Jones, Raul Labrador, Tom Massie, Mick Mulvaney, Steve Pearce, Steve Stockman, and Ted Yoho—saw the country’s debt problem as enough of a moral issue to act at the risk of their political futures. Beyond shared faiths, a look at the lives of three of these men reveals a history of taking on the establishment mindset—and sometimes winning. The last several weeks have shown that they might be winning again.
Mick Mulvaney, who represents counties in northern South Carolina, saw the last minute Jan. 1 deal to avoid the fiscal cliff as a failure to the country because it raised taxes without including real spending cuts. A Roman Catholic in an area dominated by Protestants and a Republican in a district with a tradition of Democratic activism, Mulvaney entered politics as a double underdog. The lawyer turned real estate developer ran in 2006 for a statehouse seat that Republicans had never held in the state’s history. Mulvaney became the first, winning by 212 votes. In 2010, Mulvaney, by then a state senator, again decided to tackle long-shot odds.
At a Rock Hill, S.C., town hall meeting held by the district’s Democratic congressman, Mulvaney watched as more than 600 attendees booed and jeered while the lawmaker struggled to defend President Obama’s healthcare plan.
On the way home from the event Mulvaney called his wife.
“Honey, can I run for Congress?” he asked.
A long pause followed.
“Can you win?”
“Then you can run.”
There were abundant reasons why Mulvaney would lose: Rep. John Spratt had been in Congress since 1983, rising to the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee. Spratt had won some of his recent reelection bids by more than 25 percent of the vote. Mulvaney won the race by more than 10 percentage points, becoming the first Republican to represent South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District since Reconstruction.
Mulvaney also became the first Catholic member of Congress from South Carolina.
In 2011, he arrived in Washington armed with the belief that “debt for no good reason can be an immoral choice.” But he learned that borrowing money was Washington’s solution to its inability to make tough decisions: “The modern compromise in Washington is purchased, and it’s purchased with debt.”
The votes to delay the tough decisions led Mulvaney to prayer. In the spring of 2011 the House debated another stopgap measure to fund the federal government. He felt pressure from the Washington establishment: “They were slapping us on our backs and telling us we had great futures here if we just went along.”
A group of backslapped freshman lawmakers decided to gather in a room near the House chamber. For 10 minutes the lawmakers got on their knees and prayed, Mulvaney said, asking for guidance in a vote that would affect the future of their political careers as well as the country. When they left the room no one talked about how they were going to vote. Once on the House floor they all voted the same way: against more federal spending and against the establishment. “It was very moving to me that there was such a group of men and women here who had that much faith in their faith,” Mulvaney said.
Mulvaney, 45, says he will continue to force House votes on curtailing federal spending. Last month he offered an amendment to offset billions earmarked for Hurricane Sandy aid with a 1.6 percent across-the-board cut in discretionary spending. The effort failed, with lawmakers saying that Congress does not traditionally offset emergency spending.
Mulvaney also will go after the Republican sacred cow: military spending. In the last Congress he teamed up with liberal Democrat Rep. Barney Frank to offer a one-year freeze on defense spending. He got the Republican votes, Frank got the Democratic votes, and the measure passed.
Mulvaney appears to practice what he preaches when it comes to fiscal restraint. He sleeps in his congressional office on a foldout bed. The father of 13-year-old triplet girls, Mulvaney is saving up for three college tuition bills. He said he could not justify spending upwards of $25,000 a year to rent an apartment near the Capitol.
“My church is two blocks away, the gym is in the basement, and the Capitol is across the street. What more do you want?” asked Mulvaney. “You do wonder sometimes if a vote you made that they didn’t like leads to somebody doing maintenance outside your door at two in the morning.”
Paul Broun’s family business has long been politics. His father, Paul Sr., served 38 years as a senator in the Georgia General Assembly. But the elder Broun served as a Democrat, making the younger Broun an outlier in his own family when he decided to run for office in 1990 as a Republican.
After years of practicing medicine throughout rural Georgia, Broun felt called to run. The fact that he had a sense of calling would not have occurred to the Broun of 1986. Then a 40-year-old Broun was an atheist spending most of his nights on the couch of his medical office in Americus, Ga. He and his wife, Nikki, had been married for a short time but were already headed for a divorce. It would have been his fourth failed marriage.
On a Saturday morning he woke up on his office couch feeling like he had to find some way to change his situation. A Gideon Bible sat on a nearby table. Just a few Sundays before, while watching a football game on television, Broun had seen the camera scan a sign in the crowd that read “John 3:16.” Broun turned to that verse in the Bible, and, after reading its promise of salvation to those who believe in Christ, he asked himself, “Could this be true?”
He prayed out loud: “God, if You are real, show me by putting me on the right track.”
This summer Broun and Nikki will celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary. God changed both their lives. As a result, Broun says the Bible plays a central role in how he acts and votes as a congressman.
But the call he felt didn’t bear immediate fruit. He lost a race for a House seat in 1990. He lost again in 1992. And, in 1996, he came in fourth in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat, gaining just 3 percent of the vote.
But 11 years later, Broun entered a 2007 special House election and won a runoff by 394 votes against the state party leader’s pick. When a local reporter asked how he pulled off the upset, Broun responded by saying, “I can only give credit to my Lord Jesus Christ because He did it all.”
Now 66, Broun has won reelection three times, facing no Democratic challenger in 2012. He recently entered the 2014 race for retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ Senate seat, but credits his early string of defeats for giving him the boldness to follow his convictions: “If I had been elected earlier, I would have been just another politician more concerned about how things look politically and whether this will foster or hinder my reelection. I had to get to the point where I am dedicated, win or lose, to stand for what’s right.”
That is why he did not hesitate to cast his speaker vote for former Rep. Allen West instead of Boehner. Broun said Congress had failed to address the root of the nation’s fiscal crisis. A former Marine, the Georgia lawmaker said Boehner was too nice in his negotiations with the White House: “The president is a bare-knuckled street fighter, and we need a bare-knuckled street fighter to go against him. It is time for Mr. Boehner to take the gloves off.”
Broun, who began doing house calls in 2002 (charging $100 per examination), introduces as his first bill in every congressional session the Sanctity of Human Life Act. It says life begins at fertilization. His openness about his religious beliefs has made him a frequent target for ridicule in the national press. In 2009, he introduced a resolution recognizing the role the Bible played in U.S. history by proclaiming 2010 the year of the Bible. Last fall the media mocked him for calling the big bang theory and Darwinism “lies straight from the pit of hell” during an address at a Baptist church in Hartwell, Ga.
“There is no rule that says I have to check my faith when I go through the doors of the house chamber,” said Broun, a member of the Prince Avenue Baptist Church in Athens, Ga. “I can stand the heat. The only thing that intimidates me is this looming financial meltdown.”
Louie Gohmert became a Christian at age 6 while attending a Baptist church in Mount Pleasant, Texas. “Some thought that was too young, but I knew exactly what I was doing. Even today I sometimes pray for the clarity of faith that I had when I was 6.”
But faith in his convictions led Gohmert to stand up alone and oppose Boehner long before the formal January speaker vote. During a closed-door meeting of House members last November, days after Republican losses in the elections, Gohmert nominated former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to replace Boehner as the next speaker. (The speaker doesn’t have to be a member of Congress.)
No one seconded Gohmert’s nomination. He knew that would happen, but he proceeded with the nomination because it would allow him to make a three-minute speech before every single Republican House colleague. With lawmakers often going in and out of a barely full House chamber during legislative debates, this was a rare captive audience.
He told his colleagues they had been on the same track for too long. They had failed to rein in spending, failed to slow down Obamacare, and failed to tackle entitlements. “No matter how nice your coach is,” Gohmert said, “if your team is not winning, then it is time to change coaches.”
When he finished, the meeting proceeded as scripted. The lawmakers renominated Boehner as the GOP’s candidate for speaker. Boehner began his acceptance speech by turning to Gohmert and saying, “I love you too, Louie.”
“You don’t get a committee or subcommittee chairmanship when you nominate somebody else for speaker,” said Gohmert, 59, who voted for West over Boehner in January’s official House speaker vote. “But I am more concerned about doing what’s right and keeping our promises. The great thing about being at peace in pursuit of what you believe you are supposed to be doing is that victory is outside of our control.”
This was not the first time Gohmert, who teaches Sunday school at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, tried to make a case for dismissing the old guard. As a lawyer in Texas in the early 1990s, he grew dismayed over a veteran Republican district judge’s ethical lapses. When Gohmert tried to argue that the judge had served too long, the GOP establishment in the county wouldn’t go along.
“They said, ‘He is the first Republican ever elected in our county so we just feel like we owe it to him to let him have whatever job he wants,’” Gohmert recalled. “I didn’t feel like being a public servant was something people were entitled to.”
Gohmert challenged the incumbent judge in the primary and won with 70 percent of the vote. He heard more than 10,000 cases during his 10 years on the bench, earning a reputation for unique rulings. In 1996, he ordered a man with AIDS to secure written informed consent statements from future sex partners as part of a probation deal tied to a car theft conviction. Gohmert issued the order after the man’s sister testified that her brother said he did not care whom he infected.
Gohmert said he often encountered laws that caused more trouble than solutions. Why, for example, as a condition of probation for illegal immigrants, did he have to require them to appear before their probation officer every month, which in effect encouraged them to violate the law by remaining in the country? “You are not supposed to legislate from the bench, so I started considering a run for Congress,” he said.
Defeating another incumbent in 2004, Gohmert became the first Republican since Reconstruction to represent northeast Texas in Congress.
In Washington he has continued to offer outside-the-box ideas: He opposed a two-month tax holiday as an alternative to Obama’s stimulus bill in January 2009. After the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, he proposed legislation allowing members of Congress to carry guns in Washington.
His unorthodox ways extend beyond legislation: When city leaders in Lufkin, Texas, ran out of food and water for refugees in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita in 2005, Gohmert rented two U-Haul trucks, loaded them with thousands of pounds of water and food, and drove one of them the 80 miles to Lufkin. He then drove to a Walmart and reloaded the trucks with blankets and pillows.
In 2011, a military pilot from Gohmert’s Texas district died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. When the Army would not transport the deceased soldier’s body beyond his duty station in Ft. Drum, N.Y., Gohmert, a former Army captain, arranged for transportation and accompanied the remains to Gladewater, Texas, where the family wanted the man buried.
Gohmert has not refrained from finding unique ways to continue to press his case about the dire state of the nation’s finances. Late last year he was the lone no vote in the House on a measure to strike the word lunatic from federal law. He argued, “When the most pressing issue of the day is saving our country from bankruptcy, we should use the word to describe the people who want to continue with business as usual in Washington.”
Nearly two months after the speaker vote, it is clear that the dozen outliers did more than give Boehner a black eye. The Republican leadership has pivoted toward a more fiscally conservative position, and fiscal conservatives say they are now included in the GOP’s decision-making process.
As a result, the party united behind a strategy to approve a three-month extension of the debt limit (until May) with much less contention than with previous efforts to increase the debt ceiling. The move allowed Republicans to realign the upcoming series of fiscal deadlines in a more favorable order. They wanted the controversial debate over another long-term borrowing limit increase to occur last in the sequence of pending fiscal deadlines. (The first deadline is the March 1 “sequester,” or the already approved series of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. The second deadline is a late March showdown over keeping the government running at current levels.)
Fiscal conservatives are not going to get everything they want. Their 2012 election losses already have led to tax hikes. But conservatives like the ones who voted against Boehner have made careers out of standing firm in the face of long odds. They continue to believe they are engaged in a moral battle over the country’s financial future. And they believe the upcoming debates allow them to take their case to the public that Washington’s runaway spending is the nation’s enemy.