Congress and its 'outsiders': The critical struggle over who is really in charge

FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2015, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at the at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2015, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at the at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  (The Associated Press)

Editor's note: The following column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and on

And the winner of the 2015 award for top member of Congress is … 

Well, in keeping with the polarized politics on Capitol Hill, I have one winner for Republicans and a very different winner for Democrats.

Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., perfectly embody the polarization that prevents Congress from getting anything done on the nation’s most pressing issues, from immigration to stopping gun massacres to fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

This dysfunctional Congress deserves its dismal 13 percent approval rating from the American people. The Republican majorities in the House and Senate reached a new nadir in broken politics by inviting a foreign leader, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to use the Congress as a setting to disrespect the American president back in March. They acted without first consulting with the White House. 

And then there was the refusal to hold confirmation hearings on the president’s nominees for judicial posts or to the Foreign Service.

Congressional Republicans have made it their everyday practice to obstruct initiatives from the twice-elected leader of the nation. That includes their recent undercutting of any efforts to deal with global warming, which are being negotiated by the president and more than a hundred other world leaders.

The GOP antipathy toward President Obama is not new, however. The bigger change is the out-of-control elbowing inside the Republican tent that came to define the year on Capitol Hill.

Republicans in the House successfully launched a coup earlier this year against then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), forcing out a man who is by any measure a strong conservative but still not conservative enough for the party’s far right. The same right wing then derailed Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) because they saw him as too close to Boehner.

The eventual winner after several weeks of embarrassing party infighting was the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate and former Ways and Means committee chair, Ryan. But Ryan won without winning the official endorsement of the rebellious Freedom Caucus, who dictated Boehner’s departure.

All this led the new Speaker, in his very first speech as the top Republican in the House, to stare failure in the face. 

“Let’s be frank: The House is broken,” said Speaker Ryan. “We are not solving problems. We are adding to them.”

And that is from a loyal conservative. 

The real story on Ryan’s elevation is that he is by far the most conservative Speaker in recent times. His voting record is far to the right of Boehner and other GOP Speakers of the current era, from Newt Gingrich (Ga.) to Denny Hastert (Ill.).

Don’t forget: Ryan rose to prominence as the defiant right-winger who proposed, as top Republican on the budget committee, to change Medicare from a guaranteed health care program for the elderly to a limited, untested voucher plan. He also backed massive tax breaks for the wealthy and large corporations.

In almost 17 years in Congress, Ryan has been a reliable opponent of abortion rights and gay rights, and he supported President George W. Bush’s push to privatize Social Security.

Despite that very conservative record, the new Speaker had to deflect charges from the Freedom Caucus, conservative talk radio, websites and bloggers that he is just one more establishment Republican. That outrageous indictment fits with a Pew Research poll from May that found 75 percent of Republican voters want Congressional Republicans to obstruct, defy and challenge President Obama more frequently.

The GOP’s deference to the far right has resulted in a backlash from liberal Democrats – around the nation and on Capitol Hill — that finds expression in the presidential bid of Sanders.

Last year, my top member of Congress leapt to prominence on the power of the same backlash: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). She surfed a tide of populist anger among liberals over income inequality and the bailout of big banks and Wall Street.

This year, the 74-year-old Sanders succeeded in channeling the same energy outside the halls of Congress. Democratic voters still strongly back former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the party’s 2016 nomination. But the unleashed, defiant roar of the party in 2015 can be heard at Sanders’s political rallies.

He has been a political sensation, all year long, in every corner of the nation. He attracts energized, loud crowds by identifying the Republican majority in Congress as the tool of big business and extremely wealthy Americans including Charles and David Koch, and other plutocrats. Sanders’s anger at the power of big money is resonating among left-wingers looking to identify those responsible for rigging the economic and political system against workers, unions, students, immigrants and minorities.

Sanders succeeded in forcing Clinton to do a flip-flop and become an opponent of Obama’s Asian trade deal. He lashed her for being slow to oppose the XL Pipeline. He critiqued her 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq.

“He [Sanders] is where the heart – the economic heart and soul of the party is right now… And he’s got the outsider thing, which is so big this year,” New York Times columnist David Brooks said recently.

Sanders and Ryan are the year’s political leaders in Congress because they captured that “outsider thing” for the left and the right. 

As the year ends both parties – and their leading men — are in a critical struggle over whether the “outsiders” are now in charge.

Juan Williams currently serves as a co-host of FOX News Channel’s (FNC) The Five (weekdays 5-6PM/ET) and also appears as a political analyst on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace and Special Report with Bret Baier. Williams joined the network as a contributor in 1997.