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by John Lawrence

On a surprisingly snowy morning in Washington, D.C., the 114th Congress convened, including the first House and Senate Republican majorities in 8 years which intend to bedevil Barack Obama during his final two years in the White House. Although the chambers rang out with the obligatory “My dear friend” and “the distinguished senator from” wherever, as well as heartfelt aspirations for ending the partisan gridlock, the deep division between the parties was only thinly disguised during the opening day ceremonies.

Certainly, the high drama of the day was the vote for Speaker, with John Boehner seeking his third term. A predictable chorus of GOP dissidents cast votes for everyone from Rand Paul to Colin Powell (no, you do not need to be a member of the Congress to serve as Speaker), and the 25 votes against his re-election constituted the largest “revolt” against a sitting Speaker in nearly a century. (Even most of the dissidents blanched at casting a vote for Boehner’s extremist opponents, Ted Yoho of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas, who spends evenings pontificating to an empty floor or giving tourists guided tours of the Capitol building.)

The press went wild when a much smaller number of votes were cast against then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2009, so it will be interesting to see how the pundits analyze the sputtering challenge to Boehner, who has always faced skeptics in his party who doubted the reliability of his conservative credentials. Crafting education reforms with Ted Kennedy and George Miller, working with Nancy Pelosi to pass TARP, and cooperating with Barack Obama to keep the government open and America’s credit sound – as Boehner has done — are incompatible with more members in Boehner’s conference than actually voted against him today.

While the 25 Republican dissidents do represent an historically high number, it bears recalling that such contests were not that uncommon for much of our history. In fact, some early Congresses were so divided over the Speakership that members of the minority party were elected! By the late nineteenth century, however, the general rule was that you stuck with your own party’s nominee in organizing and leadership votes, regardless of political or ideological differences.

The record eclipsed by the anti-Boehner revolt was the decision of twenty progressive Republicans to challenge Frederick Gillett at the opening of the 68th Congress. The progressives lost that fight, but they did secure reforms designed to limit the ability of a chairman to bottle up legislation with which he disagreed.

Two years later, Republicans had bolstered their numbers in the House. The man who had led the fight against the 1923 insurgents as Majority Leader, Rep. Nicholas Longworth, now was the candidate for Speaker, and he also faced dissidents in his own party. This time, only thirteen progressives dared to oppose Longworth, some of whom had also angered the party hierarchy by supporting Wisconsin’s progressive Republican Sen. Robert LaFollette for President against incumbent Calvin Coolidge. Longworth, whose wife was the daughter of Progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt, was unamused and he struck back, tossing the Progressives out of the party conferences and removing them from committees. For good measure, he rescinded the prior Congress’ reforms against the chairmen’s veto.

Two years ago, a handful of Republicans also voted against Boehner’s re-election as Speaker, and he punished several by removing them from their committees. (Pelosi did not take similar action against those who opposed her either for Speaker or Minority Leader.) Other than a few gratuitous votes in opposition to Boehner priorities in the 113th Congress, it is difficult to see what the Speaker gained by his punitive response, and it will be interesting to see whether he bothers to repeat the retribution this year.

As much as commentators will focus on the Boehner backlash, other early votes by the incoming Congress that merit scrutiny by voters. One of the most significant actions on opening day is the adoption of the House Rules package by which the majority establishes the formal procedures that will govern the institution for the next two years. In the past, the Rules package has played a significant role in implementing reforms that altered the operations of the House in order to democratize the institution, and in the small print, one can often find illustrations of the values and strategies of the majority.

The 2015 Rules package contains several provisions that signal that Boehner intends to maintain a combative relationship with Democrats, and especially with President Obama. The package allows for the continuation of the Select Committee investigating the events in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012, an event that has been inflated and inflamed for two years as a surrogate assault on presumed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.   Still, the black helicopter crowd will not be denied their three-ring circus for the 114th Congress, so taxpayer money will be wasted on re-investigating the attack.

Republican leaders also defied requests from Democrats to restore the right of the 6 territorial representatives to cast votes in the Committee of the Whole House. The delegates are Constitutionally barred from voting in the House of Representatives, which takes final action on legislation, but have long been granted voting rights in Committees, where their votes can shape, but not determine, final legislation. Under Speaker Pelosi, the delegates were also allowed to vote in the Committee of the Whole, where substantial legislative craftsmanship occurs prior to final House action, but Republicans rescinded that authority when they assumed the majority in 2011. One might have thought Republicans would make an effort to find a compromise, at least, rather than just negating the participation of six minority delegates (one of whom, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, is elected by more American citizens than the representatives of 20 U.S. states) but then again, no one is surprised by the Republicans’ tin ear on the subject of minority rights.

The Republican Rules also allow Speaker Boehner to continue to sue President Obama’s use of Executive power. Boehner’s use of taxpayer funds to hire high-priced attorneys to sue the President has a bit of a history, going back to his controversial decision to defend the Defense of Marriage Act after the Obama Administration refused to continue to do so. The controversy stems not only from the substance of the suits, but the fact that Boehner initiates the legal action in the name of the House, with the purported agreement of a bipartisan committee that is supposed to approve such legal action. But Boehner does not even ask Democratic Members of the BLAG to vote anymore; he just depends on his reliable GOP majority to launch costly and futile legal challenges.

The lawsuits, however, serve to focus attention on what might well emerge as the historically significant issue of the 114th Congress: the struggle between the White House and the Congress over the appropriate balance of power. Even many Democrats who support President Obama’s expansive use of Executive powers on health care, immigration, the minimum wage and marriage equality have quiet concerns about resurgence in Executive authority at the expense of the Congress. Since the days of the Imperial Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, congressional leaders in both parties have bristled at presidential overreach as they sought to re-establish equity among the branches of government. There is understandable concern that Obama’s actions, unless cautiously undertaken, could undermine much of the progress made on restoring Congress to its Constitutional role as the first branch of government.

Yet two points deserve to be noted on this subject. While Obama has indeed acted unilaterally on a number of high-profile issues, his use of Executive Orders actually is the lowest of any President in a half century. Obama has averaged just over 33 orders a year since entering the White House, compared to Gerald Ford (nearly 69 times per year) and Richard Nixon (over 62). Even Ronald Reagan, who supposedly disdained actions by the federal government, dwarfed Obama’s use of Executive Orders by 47.6 to 33.6 per year.

Secondly, no other President has faced the steadfast, even zealous, hostility from the other party as has Obama since the moment he entered the White House. The relentless attacks have involved not only substantive issues but ludicrous and baseless personal attacks on his religion, his birthplace, even his citizenship. If Congress is incapable of passing legislation to address hot-button issues, many of which like immigration and marriage equality enjoy broad bipartisan national support, Obama is left with few options unless he simply wants to concede the management of government to Republicans who cannot even pass the policy goals they propound. Abandoning Executive authority would also represent a blow to the proper balance of power. The failure of Congress to send the President legislation has largely abrogated its right to assert claims about presidential usurpation. Yet Obama will have to be measured in order to be sure he avoids giving credibility to the irresponsible charge made against his Constitutional exercise of political authority.

One final thought for this opening day of the 114th Congress. Few House members were more influential in resurrecting the role of Congress as a coequal branch of government back in the 1970s than Don Edwards of California. Quiet, thoughtful, honest, direct, and widely respected on both sides of the aisle, Edwards was among the earliest opponents of the war in Vietnam and among the most diligent critics of Watergate. On this opening day, Don Edwards turns 100 years old at his home in California, and as the cards and emails pour in to pay him well-deserved tribute, everyone who still believes – or wants to believe – that Congress can be a constructive force on behalf of the American people, and the world, should take a moment and say a word of thanks to Don … and “Happy Birthday,” too.

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