Fred UptonFred Upton.Photo: republicanconference

If you’re not following the internecine warfare among House Republicans, you should tune in. It’s a remarkable illustration of how party discipline is enforced — and how only one side knows how to do it.

At the center of the action is a battle over the Energy and Commerce Committee. Next year a Republican is taking over. Who will it be? The default choice, as of a month ago, was Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who’s now the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

But there’s a problem! Upton is known as a (Republican parents, you may want to cover your children’s ears) moderate. If you can believe this, he once voted to extend health insurance to children of low-income families. And it gets worse. He voted to raise the minimum wage. He voted to increase funding for AmeriCorps. He voted to have the Department of Education create an advisory board on green public schools. He’s flirted with stem-cell research.

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But Upton’s worst sin — the one the right is really pounding him for — is … wait for it … voting to phase out incandescent light bulbs. PHASE OUT INCANDESCENT LIGHT BULBS, PEOPLE. Do you know what this means? It’s like socialism, Sharia law, and teh gay all wrapped up in one!

Last month, an extraordinary story ran in Politico. In it, House Republican leaders said that they might let Upton take the chairmanship, but only if they could tell him who to hire as his chief of staff. I talked to a House Democratic staffer about this and he was practically sputtering. “Can you imagine this happening on the Democratic side?” he marveled. “Leadership telling a committee chair who he can hire? You gotta be kidding me!” But the story barely made a ripple. It’s just how the Republican caucus rolls.

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Joe BartonJoe Barton.Photo: republicanconferenceIn order to defend the republic against the menace of twisty bulbs (and, er, repeal the Democratic health-care reform bill), committee ranking member Texas Rep. “Smoky” Joe Barton is mounting a no-holds-barred campaign for the top spot. Last week, an uncharitable accounting of Upton’s voting record, calling him a “part-time Republican,” circulated on the Hill, and Barton’s office is widely assumed to be the source, though he denies it. The dread fluorescent vote played a lead role in the Upton-bashing. Limbaugh called it “nannyism.” Glenn Beck called it “all socialist.” Barton, meanwhile, has cosponsored a bill that would bring inefficient lights back. (Though it turns out in 2007 he called the incandescent-bulb phase-out an “acceptable compromise.” Whoops!)

Upton has responded by scrambling to the right. He emphasized in a Nov. 15 letter to colleagues that as chairman he’d push a “conservative agenda that focuses on cutting spending, removing the regulatory burden, restoring freedom, keeping government accountable through rigorous oversight, and jobs.” He wrote an op-ed with conservo-jihadist Grover Norquist proposing that every new dollar of federal spending be offset with $1.10 in spending cuts and that the federal Energy Star and weatherization programs be “frozen.” And yesterday he said he would “revisit” the light-bulb bill.

Now, House Republican leadership hates Joe Barton, and not just because he apologized to BP in June and put them in a state of high political flummoxation. He also challenged John Boehner for minority leader in 2006 for no good reason, and frankly he’s just kind of a dick. He would have to get a waiver from the House Steering Committee to be chair, as there is a six-year term limit on the position (he’s arguing it doesn’t count if you’re in the minority). His chances aren’t great, but he’s weakened Upton.

Doc HastingsDoc Hastings.Photo: EnergyTomorrowFor politicians, weakness is blood in the water, so Barton’s brazen power grab has been followed by … an even more brazen power grab. Yesterday, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), head of the House Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to his colleagues urging them to move jurisdiction over energy out of Energy and Commerce and into his committee. Natural Resources is stacked with conservative Republicans, so putting energy there would certainly please industry lobbyists.

Amusingly, Barton took time out from stabbing Upton in the back to decry Hastings’ move as “old-time, K Street politics.” (Barton has gotten more money from the oil and gas industries than any other member of the House, so he knows K Street politics.) Upton’s up in arms too.

Hastings’ bid, like Barton’s, is unlikely to succeed. But even if Upton comes out of all this on top, the message has been received loud and clear: Do not deviate from the party line or you will pay a heavy price. It’s the same message Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) got earlier this year, the same message all the Tea Party primaries sent.

This is how Republicans enforce discipline and orthodoxy, pushing the
median caucus ideology ever farther right. There is no corresponding push to the left on the Democratic side, nor any corresponding discipline. Instead there’s public bickering from conservative House Dems who want to drag their party right. The institutional and personality differences between the parties have never been more starkly on display.