In a major shift from the hawkish foreign policy Congress rubber-stamped a decade ago, newer members of the House, weary of war and fresh from the town hall circuit, are more than three times as likely to oppose military action in Syria than their more senior colleagues.
House lawmakers first elected in 2010 or 2012 overwhelmingly oppose striking Syria, with 12 leaning toward supporting authorization and 103 lawmakers leaning or outrightly against it.
Of the lawmakers who have publicly stated a position on Syria, a recent House whip count from Firedoglake shows little support for intervention: 29 yes, 31 lean yes, 128 lean no, 105 no.
Lawmakers elected before 2010 are leaning against or opposed to action in Syria by a factor of 2.7 to 1. For members elected in the past two cycles, opposition to action in Syria is 8.5 to 1.
In the 2010 class, it’s 3 yes, 2 lean yes, 43 lean no, 22 no.
For the 2012 class, it’s 5 yes, 2 lean yes, 17 lean no, 21 no.
That’s a far cry from the Congress that overwhelmingly backed the Iraq War. And the newer members haven’t been following their leaders, whether it be Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or President Barack Obama.
“We’re reflective of a broader shift in public perception on foreign policy,” Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., told CQ Roll Call late last week.
“People have seen wars that have dragged on for more than a decade,” he said. “We’re tired of wars without end.”
It was 11 years ago, on Oct. 10, 2002, that 215 Republicans — all but eight — joined 85 Democrats to authorize the use of force in Iraq. At that time, according to a Pew Research Center poll, 62 percent of Americans supported military action to end Saddam Hussein’s rule.
Now, according to the latest CNN poll, more than 80 percent of the public says the Syrian government used chemical weapons, but just 39 percent of Americans support even a limited, no-boots-on-the-ground mission. And if you believe the lawmakers interviewed for this report, at least 90 percent of the constituents who have contacted them are against striking Syria.
Over the course of nearly a dozen interviews with freshman and sophomore lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats repeatedly expressed shifting convictions of the American public — and, correspondingly, a shift in the convictions of the lawmakers who were ushered into Congress to represent them.
The House is supposed to be the “people’s chamber,” where members are elected every two years to reflect the changing will of the public. But why, then, the differing levels of support among members who have spent less time in Washington?
The general answer from the junior lawmakers: They are more “constituent minded” than higher-ranking lawmakers. And the public does not want another war.
“They’re living in a D.C. echo chamber,” Amash said of his more senior colleagues. “If you’ve been here a longer amount of time, you’re not interacting with your constituents.”
Amash gave three reasons he thinks more senior members still support war: They don’t listen to their constituents, they are “tied to special interests,” and their voting record binds them to a foreign policy of yore.
Amash also theorized that longtime lawmakers (with “fatter bank accounts”) had stopped listening to constituents.
Amash said in 11 town halls he held last week — including one at a Burger King — “more than 95 percent” of the people he asked for a show of hands were against intervention in Syria.
And Amash has no qualms about following the wishes of his constituents on a matter as serious as war.
“Of all the issues out there, war is the one where you really need the public behind you, because you’re sending out their loved ones,” Amash said.
Indeed, sophomore Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., expressed a similar thought.
“It’s different when it comes to issues of war. It is not the president that goes to war, it’s not Congress; it’s the American people,” said Cicilline, who is leaning against authorization.
Freshman Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., who first served in Congress from 1995 to 2001, said Congress has changed since his first stint.
“It’s not the same ‘go-along, get-along’ crowd,” Salmon said. “A lot of the newer folks that have come in are very constitutionally minded.”
(Freshman Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., expressed nearly the same thought, saying, “You’ve got some really constitutionally minded people elected in the last two cycles.”)
Salmon said the public is “very, very cynical about any kind of war.” And he said the newer members are “a little more dubious” about following leadership.
“The longer you’re in the bubble, the more susceptible you are to the beltway jabber,” Salmon said.
Many members made the point that the difference between junior and senior members wasn’t exclusive to Syria.
“Some of it could be a shift in foreign policy, some of it could be that they represent their constituents more directly,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who was elected in 2012.
Massie cited three votes — on the Amash National Security Agency amendment, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act and the Marketplace Fairness Act (which has yet to receive a vote but has been whipped informally by Massie) — as evidence of his claim that more junior members of Congress are banding together, listening to their constituents and bucking leadership.
Using an extended sports metaphor, Massie said his junior colleagues “all want to be team players,” but leadership — otherwise known as the quarterback — is “calling the wrong plays, going the wrong direction.”
“It’s hard to tackle and block for a quarterback going in the wrong direction,” he said.
“Our leadership is asking us to vote in a way that can really come back to bite us in an election,” Massie said of the Syria resolution.
One sophomore lawmaker, who asked not to be identified as to speak more candidly about the shift, agreed that Syria was politically toxic. The lawmaker theorized that more junior colleagues opposed Syria more aggressively because they are more fearful of losing elections. Senior lawmakers tend to be more insulated from electoral considerations.
Indeed, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a veteran who supports intervention, worried that politics have crept into the decision-making process for members.
“Politics dissipates when you go overseas,” he said.
Kinzinger, who described himself as part of the “post-Iraq generation in Congress,” said that even though the American public seems to oppose intervention in Syria, “I wasn’t elected to not lead.”
Kinzinger suggested that outside groups, which he wouldn’t refer to by name, had had a hand in influencing newer members.
“Somehow Syria has become a purity vote,” he said, noting that there is a “bit of an isolationist thought coming into our party.”
But freshman Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., suggested that the issue was not isolationism; the issue was Syria.
“While I’m a libertarian-leaning conservative, I’m not libertarian, I’m not an isolationist, I’m sure as hell not a dove,” Radel said. He went on to enumerate his concerns with Syria — concerns that echoed many members.
Radel did think, however, there was something unique about the freshman and sophomore members.
“A lot of us came from the private sector,” he said, “meaning we have not always done politics the way it has always been done.”
But while newer members may have a different, closer style of representation, Congress has long been about, as political scientist David Mayhew put it in his 1974 book, “the electoral connection.”
Another Florida lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson, knows the lesson well. He was voted into Congress in 2008, voted out in 2010 and has returned for the 113th. He summed up a common thought.
“Recently elected members are well aware of the recent lessons of history. Maybe they,” he said, referring to his more senior colleagues, “haven’t learned it as intensely.”
Correction: 5:34 p.m.
An earlier version of this post misstated how long Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., has been in Congress. He is a sophomore.