November 15th, 2018


Reflections on Speaker John Boehner and the House Republicans

Michael Barone

By Michael Barone

Published Sept. 28, 2015

Speaker John Boehner surprised just about everyone this morning when it was announced he was resigning as Speaker and as a member of the House on October 30. In some ways Boehner's retirement might seem overdetermined. He is 65 and turns 66 this year — the traditional retirement age. He was first elected to the House in 1990 and so by October 30 will have served almost exactly 25 years. He has exercised twice this year one of the speaker's less often appreciated powers, to invite foreign leaders to speak in the House chamber.

Whether Benjamin Netanyahu in March or Pope Francis on Thursday delivered just the message that Boehner expected or hoped is unclear. So there is a certain symmetry to Boehner's resignation, which is otherwise a jarring break with tradition. Speakers do not ordinarily resign in mid-term; the only example I can think of is Jim Wright, who resigned in June 1989 because of scandal charges.

No such charges are pending against Boehner now. But he did face a motion, made by North Carolina's Mark Meadows, to declare the speaker's chair vacant. The motion was quietly shelved, but could come forward and force a vote on the floor of the House, in which all members would vote. That means that Boehner would cease to be speaker if a 218-member majority so voted, even if that majority included, as well as the 188 Democrats, only 30 of the 247 Republicans. Meadows and other members of the Freedom Caucus have been mulling a mid-term Boehner ouster for some time, on the grounds that he has been insufficiently aggressive in pushing for legislation opposed by congressional Democrats and the Obama White House. Most recently they have been disappointed that he hasn't supported defunding Planned Parenthood in an appropriation bill, although he has pushed forward free-standing legislation that would do that.

Such a measure can be prevented from coming to the floor of the Senate if 41 of the 46 Democrats there so vote and it could be vetoed by President Obama, in which case there is no prospect of it getting the two-thirds votes it needs in both houses to override the veto and become law. But if an appropriation — or a bundle of appropriations put together into what has come to be called a continuing resolution — is vetoed, then all or part of the federal government will be forced to stop operating; there are actually elaborate rules allowing very large parts of the government to go on functioning in the interests of public safety and the like. And so we would have what is called, somewhat misleadingly, a government shutdown.

Boehner's critics are angry that he is determined not to allow a government shutdown to occur this fall, and is ready to compromise on far too many issues to prevent that from happening. They point out that the Constitution grants the spending power entirely to Congress, that the federal government cannot spend money unless authoried or appropriated by Congress (many critics believe the Obama administration is doing this in certain respects; but that is another issue). These critics tend to ignore the fact that the Constitution for which they have admirable respect also gives the president the power to veto an act of Congress. Congress, absent a two-thirds majority, can't authorize and appropriate spending if the president vetoes a bill doing so. Boehner's critics like to point out that the Constitution gives the House spending power. They tend to gloss over the fact that the Constitution gives the president veto power.

The political fact which Boehner has acted on and which his critics tend to dismiss as irrelevant is that Republicans always lose government shutdown fights. Voters assume that when government shuts down, someone somewhere gets hurt (even if many people in many places don't). They assume it represents a failure by elected officials to reach agreement on issues. They inevitably blame Republicans for any ill effects of a shutdown for two reasons. (1) Republicans are the party that tends to want less or lower-cost government. (2) The mainstream media will always blame the government, no matter whose fault it is.

These two reasons have operated even though logically the failure of Republicans in one branch of government and Democrats in another to reach agreement is a failure by both of them. Of course if you think, as most in mainstream media do, that Republicans should adopt Democrats' positions on just about every issue, then the Republicans' refusal to do so means a shutdown is their fault. We have seen this operate in the 1980s, when Republicans held the Executive Branch and Democrats one or both houses of Congress; we have seen it operate in 1995-96, when Democrats held the Executive Branch and Republicans had majorities in both houses of Congress; and we have seen it in the summer of 2011 and the fall of 2013, when Democrats held the Executive Branch and Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives.

Ted Cruz, in his first summer as a senator, crusaded for Republicans to demand the defunding of Obamacare and to allow a shutdown if Democrats resisted. In September and October 2013 Boehner acceded, with visible reluctance, to the wishes of his critics, and there was what the media inevitably called a government shutdown. The Obama administration engaged in unbelievably petty and cruel public relations ploys to hurt the Republicans, like cordoning off the entirely-outdoors World War II Memorial on the Mall so elderly World War II veterans couldn't visit it. A fair press would have excoriated the Democrats for this; America's mainstream media did not. The polling data was unambiguous: the shutdown was unpopular, Republicans were held responsible and the Democratic percentage of the House generic vote— which party's candidate would you vote for in the race for House of Representatives — soared from a statistically insignificant percent in August to a 6 point lead in October. That lead vanished after Boehner got the Republicans to back down and end the shutdown October 16, at which point voters' focus shifted to the debacle of the Obamacare rollout.

Boehner's critics have argued that the October 2013 shutdown didn't really hurt Republicans because they retained and increased their House majority in November 2014. But if opinion had remained where it was in October 2013, Republicans in November 2014 would have lost their House majority — and probably by nearly as wide a margin as they did in 2008. Obduracy would produce irrelevance.

Nonetheless, Boehner's critics want another shutdown fight, this time over Planned Parenthood funding, this fall. They make the excellent point that the 10 videos of Planned Parenthood personnel, taped by undercover abortion opponents, show the organization in a dreadful light. Casual discussion of the sale of body parts of fetuses — and particularly of a live fetus at an age when it is capable of surviving outside the womb — has hurt Planned Parenthood's reputation, despite mainstream media's extreme unwillingness to cover the issue, presumably out of adamant opposition to any increased restrictions on abortion. I have seen polling showing that about half of voters favor defunding Planned Parenthood. That suggests a political case for a shutdown could be made — although remember that in October 2013 most voters opposed Obamacare but Republicans were punished for shutting down the government in an effort to defund it.

Many of Boehner's critics believe they have a moral obligation to vote against funding Planned Parenthood. They believe they have the political ammunition in those videos in which they could, for once, punch through the mainstream media, and take their case to the public. They believe that their position could be so strong (as Ted Cruz was of his proposal to defund Obamacare) that Senate Democrats, the Obama White House and the mainstream media would, for once, finally, this time, cave in and let the House Republicans have their way.

Maybe that's right. But I doubt it very much. So does John Boehner. I think the rage of his critics — and the enthusiasm for Donald Trump and other non-officeholders in the Republican presidential race — results from an understandable frustration on the part of many Republicans. As I wrote in a Washington Examiner column earlier this month, "Republican voters are frustrated and angry because for six years they have believed they have public opinion on their side, but their congressional leaders have failed to prevail on high visibility issues. Their successes (clamping down on domestic discretionary spending) have been invisible. They haven't made gains through compromise because Obama, unlike his two predecessors, lacks both the inclination and ability to make deals." I can understand that it's frustrating to have to keep voting for measures that won't pass and even more so to vote for measures which fall very far short of ideal — all in the hopes of preserving a good enough reputation for the party to finally, after six years of struggle, elect a president and majorities in both houses of Congress, particularly when there can be no guarantee that will happen. Reasonable people with strong convictions might reasonably conclude that spending six years — 40 percent of a working lifetime — at such tasks is not worthwhile and decide to do something else with their lives.

In the past rebels unhappy with a party leader challenged him at the next regularly scheduled party caucus after the biennial election. That was how House Republican Leader Joseph Martin was replaced by Charles Halleck in 1958 and how Halleck was replaced by Gerald Ford in 1964. But Boehner's critics haven't had anything close to a majority of votes for any other candidate in the House Republican Conference meetings held after the 2012 and 2014 elections. So they have sought to use the procedure of vacating the chair, in the expectation that no Democrat will vote to keep Boehner and therefore only 30 of 247 Republican votes are needed to oust him. Where they would proceed from there, however, is a mystery; it's highly unlikely that any Freedom Caucus leader could summon a House majority. The prospect of a Republican-majority House going for days or weeks without an elected speaker could hurt the party's standing with voters far more than the October 2013 shutdown.

Boehner's decision to resign solves this problem. Presumably there will be a meeting of the House Republican Conference and an election of party leader by a majority vote of Republican members only. Initial speculation says the favorite is Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has been an ally of Boehner. Boehner critics did not have a serious alternative candidate in November 2014 and they don't seem to have one today either. Whether the many critics who believe they have won a great victory with Boehner's ouster will continue to feel that way if he is succeeded by McCarthy is unclear. I would be happy to see Republicans make a stronger case for the policy positions in behalf of which some in their ranks think it's politically worthwhile (or morally mandatory) to produce what inevitably will be called a government shutdown. But I doubt they can offset either of the two factors I identified which inevitably mean Republicans get blamed for a government shutdown.

Overall I think Boehner did a good job as speaker. I think he enabled Republicans to advance many worthwhile policies, often on small and low-visibility issues, but sometimes on larger issues as well. I think he was often stymied by having to deal with a president who lacks both the inclination and the capacity to negotiate in good faith and, for four years, with a Senate Democratic leader determined to use the filibuster rule and other mechanisms to prevent not only votes but debate on important public policy issues. Boehner's critics are right when they say that he did not enable House Republicans to achieve all that they wanted to achieve. I suspect they're wrong when they suggest someone else can do so.

We'll see if they come forward with any serious suggestions for the one calendar year remaining with the current partisan balance, which is also the last year in which Barack Obama and Harry Reid will be key players.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner.