The announcement by House Speaker John Boehner that he is retiring at the end of October stunned Washington where life is all about grabbing power and holding on to it, often until death they do part.
At a meeting with reporters, Boehner said, "My first job as speaker is to protect the institution."
Really? Is that why Ohio voters sent him to Washington in 16 elections and his Republican colleagues elected and re-elected him speaker? Did he take an oath to preserve, protect and defend the institution of the House or the Constitution, which, if followed, offers protection enough?
In 2010, I interviewed Boehner when he was minority leader and I asked him to cite the most important lesson he learned when Republicans lost their hard-won House majority in 2006. He replied, "Our team failed to live up to our own principles."
Failing to live up to GOP principles, indeed, failing to articulate what those principles are, was largely the reason for the increase in conservative members who then demanded either action or the speaker's head. They got his head. Whether that means his successor will do a better job is open to question.
On July 28, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) expressed the frustration of many conservatives by filing a "motion to vacate the chair," for the purpose of ousting Boehner from the speakership. Meadows' resolution charged Boehner with using "the power of the office to punish Members who vote according to their conscience instead of the will of the speaker," providing for "voice votes on consequential and controversial legislation to be taken without notice and with few Members present," using "the legislative calendar to create crises for the American People, in order to compel Members to vote for legislation" and failing to comply with "the spirit of the rules of the House of Representatives, which provide that Members shall have three days to review legislation before voting." That last one had been a promise made by Republicans, should voters return them to a congressional majority.
Most conservatives understand that with a Democrat in the White House and an insufficient GOP congressional majority to override presidential vetoes they can't always, or maybe even mostly, have their way. But they would like to see Republicans at least employ some of the tactics Democrats shamelessly use when they hold the majority, such as the "nuclear option" employed in the Senate in 2013, which allowed a majority vote instead of a "supermajority" to advance confirmation votes on judicial nominees and executive branch appointments.
At a minimum, conservative members want to see their convictions articulated by the leadership and to fight the left with conviction in hopes that getting their positions heard will influence voters. Instead, in too many instances, conservatives have seen their views ignored and the Republican leadership in both houses knuckle under to Democrats out of fear of being called names or getting blamed for a government shutdown.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich notes that previous government shutdowns over matters of principle worked in Republicans' favor, notwithstanding how they were portrayed by the media. In an email to me, he writes: "We closed the government twice in 1995 and '96 and became the first re-elected House Republican majority since 1928. Our supporters realized we were serious and rewarded us for the effort. The Republicans closed the government in 2013 and won a big election in 2014."
In my 2010 interview, Boehner bemoaned the size and cost of big government, saying, "I came here for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government and that has not been what's happening. We don't need any more programs; we need to undo a lot of programs."
On Boehner's watch, the debt has increased nearly $4 trillion, according to figures published by the U.S. Treasury.
It is one of many reasons conservative voters are increasingly fed-up with Congress and for the rise of "outside" presidential candidates. The frustration cuts both ways and it is also a major reason Boehner has decided now is the time to hang it up before Meadows' resolution can be put to a vote.
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Cal Thomas, America's most-syndicated columnist, is the author of 10 books.