Every week on Representative Steve Scalise’s calendar, there’s a meeting with an unusual name: “Jedi Council.” Scalise, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), is the newest member of a group of House Republicans who are helping to craft the GOP’s strategy on budget fights.
About two-and-a-half years ago, representatives Paul Ryan, Jeb Hensarling, Tom Price, and Jim Jordan began meeting once a week when Congress was in session, usually in Hensarling’s Capitol office — he was then No. 4 in the House leadership — and usually first thing in the morning. When Scalise was elected RSC chairman in November, they asked him to join the Jedi Council.
This was right after Obama’s reelection, and in the following weeks the GOP conference nearly collapsed entirely, as Democrats handed Republicans their hats in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations. Looking ahead to the debt-ceiling increase, the Jedi Council worried that taking on Obama at the apex of his political power could end in disaster.
“There was a feeling from the five of them that if they had a debt-limit fight in February, it was inevitable that they were going to lose,” says a prominent conservative with knowledge of their deliberations.
The group formed a plan to “re-sequence” the budget fights to give the GOP more leverage. The idea was to punt on the debt ceiling for a while, let the automatic sequester cuts go into effect, pass the GOP’s budget, and then gear up for a big debt-ceiling brawl in the summer.
On the morning of the last day of the GOP’s January retreat in Williamsburg, Va., the Jedi Council met with Speaker John Boehner and the rest of the House leadership and struck a deal. The agreement, which rank-and-file Republicans reverently describe as the “Williamsburg Accord,” began with re-sequencing: In exchange for allowing a short-term debt-ceiling increase, House Republicans would make the modest demand that the Senate pass a budget for the first time in four years.
But the accord also included a promise from leadership to pass a budget that would come into balance within ten years, and to make enacting the reforms in that budget a goal of the debt-ceiling fight — priorities that had just been laid out in an open letter 40 conservative leaders had sent to House leadership. What has not been understood is that the Williamsburg Accord was as much an agreement between the Jedi Council and Boehner as it was between the Jedi Council and the conservative movement.
On January 15, the day before the Williamsburg retreat, Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation, and Chris Chocola, a former congressman and now president of the Club for Growth, attended the Jedi Council’s weekly meeting on behalf of outside conservative groups. (Needham was physically present; Chocola was listening on speakerphone.) Ryan did most of the talking, explaining how starting a debt-ceiling fight in February would be suicide. Needham and Chocola weren’t thrilled, but they were willing to trust him. They wanted a push to balance the budget in ten years. The Jedi Council agreed, and, with the blessing of the outside groups, took the proposal to Boehner.
According to Wookieepedia, an online encyclopedia of the mythology of the Star Wars films, the Jedi Council is “a group of twelve wise and powerful Jedi Masters who were elected to guide the Order” — the Order being, of course, the Jedi Order, an “ancient monastic peacekeeping organization unified by its belief [in] and observance of the Force.” If the fact that the five lawmakers named their group after a piece of Star Wars trivia doesn’t convince you they are nerds, you may be interested to learn that they once posed for a photograph wielding toy lightsabers. (The author’s efforts to obtain this image, which is in the possession of petrified Jordan aides, were unsuccessful — for now.)
The House’s Jedi Council is unusually secretive. No aides are permitted to attend their meetings. At their June 13 meeting, they decided not to give interviews about the group, amid concerns that doing so could interfere with delicate negotiations, after which they did not provide any assistance for this article. Ryan’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the topic at all. In its first two years, almost no one knew the group existed, and nobody could identify anything it had done. In the last Congress, both Hensarling and Price were part of the House leadership team, and Jordan was RSC chairman; their formal positions of power may have helped obscure any coordination among them.