The Speakership Circus

by John Lawrence

Time for a little “Congressional Jeopardy.” The answer is “Speaker Boehner.” What’s the question: well, could be, “Who is the Speaker of the House.” Or, if you believe the current rumors swirling around Capitol Hill, could soon be, “Who is the most recent former Speaker of the House?”

Do the rumors of a palace coup by disgruntled Republicans have real legs, or are they more in the “end-of-summer-let’s-make-up-some-hysterical-stories” tradition? Now that Hillary Clinton has said she is “sorry,” or that she’s sorry we are sorry, we sure need a new crisis.

Enter the “Dump Boehner” movement. The Republican Conference, which whipped itself into a frenetic whirl five summers ago with the phrase “Fire Pelosi,” now may be turning its heavy guns on another Speaker: its own. Just before leaving for the August break, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows announced that he might just demand a vote on a motion to vacate the chair (i.e., to tell Boehner, as Donald Trump might tell someone on The Apprentice, “You’re fired!”). Rep. Dave Brat, who knows a thing or two about dumping Republican House leaders (he successfully primaried Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014) is skeptically watching his leadership’s handling of upcoming decisions on the continuing Resolution, Planned Parenthood, the debt ceiling and the Iran agreement, and he doesn’t sound inclined to sign up for membership in Boehnerland. “We’re fed up,” Brat bratily says. “It’s tsunami time. Throw everybody out.”

Really? Is Boehner so flawed, so inept, so disloyal that he should suffer a fate unlike that of any other modern Speaker: involuntarily tossed from the podium mid-term? To hear Boehner loyalists tell it, such an action would be wholly unjustified since, as Politico reported this week (evidently with a straight face), “Boehner insiders argue [this has been] one of the most productive sessions of Congress in a long time.” How long? Since 2011, when the Republicans took over, and since when they have done little but (a) vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act 55 times and (b) kept government open and not in default?

Actually, it is precisely those housekeeping measures that infuriate the 50-60 Tea Party zealots within the GOP conference who then intimidate a significant number of other Republicans who are not anxious to face multi-million dollar primary challenges. One is hard-pressed to find any vote of substance since the Republicans became the majority where Boehner (or Cantor, before his humiliating demise at the hands of Mr. Brat) could scare up the necessary 218 votes without begging Democrats to supply the needed votes, which enrages the Far Right.

That dissatisfaction led a record number of Republicans to oppose Boehner’s re-election as Speaker last January. Just two years earlier, he had barely cobbled together the needed number when Tea Partiers criticized him for his earlier collaboration with the hated Democrats. As that 2013 vote neared, I advised friends in the press that only 17 defections would doom Boehner’s campaign for a second term with the gavel. The reporters scoffed at my predictions, asserting Republicans would never vote for Nancy Pelosi (the Democratic nominee for Speaker), but as I pointed out, they didn’t have to vote for Pelosi, they just needed to withhold their support for Boehner, deny him a majority of those voting (the constitutional requirement), and there would be a second ballot that likely would not feature Boehner as the leading candidate.

Ted Cruz may have been the most public face of the GOP’s “shut-it-down” faction last year (an event which cratered the Republican brand, from which it has not recovered), but there are plenty of House Republicans who would view a government shut down as a welcome victory. A poor performance by Congress is nothing to be feared in the Tea Party playbook, because incompetence helps enhance a vision of Congress (and the federal government) as a failed institution. Very Orwellian: failure = success. Where’s the problem?

Boehner evidently doesn’t think there is one yet. The threat of the coming confrontation “does not make it more difficult,” he professes. “I’ve got widespread support in the Conference and I appreciate that.” Yes, but does he have 218 votes to pass key legislation, without again asking Nancy Pelosi for Democratic assistance? If not, seeking her assistance will add fuel to the simmering fire to take out Boehner before the end of the current Congress.

Democrats have some real opportunities in the likely confrontation, quite apart from whether they have a strong possibility of regaining the majority in 2016. Boehner’s need for Democratic votes empowers Pelosi and the Democrats. Add obnoxious riders to those bills (think a ban on funding Planned Parenthood), and forget about getting Democratic votes. The more Democrats in the House, the greater their leverage to keep appropriations and other urgent bills clean of the kinds of goofy riders Boehner would otherwise attach to satisfy his extreme faction.

Democrats can ramp up their demands. There has always been resentment that Republican leaders come to Democrats late in the process, after the CRs have been written with insufficient funding for Democratic priorities. Democrats have had to clench their teeth and vote for a lot of legislation they had no role in writing because they are unwilling to allow government to close down. As it becomes apparent that Boehner is stuck without a working majority, Democrats can increase their demands, if they are willing to stare down Boehner over a shutdown for which he would undoubtedly bear the blame. The Democratic leadership could make it clear to Boehner that the price for Democratic votes must include action on long-stalled legislation that enjoys widespread bipartisan public support including climate change and responsible gun measures.

It goes without saying that any capitulation by Boehner would make life with his “No Caucus” even more difficult. Well, that’s why the Speaker gets the big office and the larger salary. And yes, it may mean that come January, 2017, the votes may not be there for Speaker Boehner, but the way things seem to be trending, that might happen anyway, and sooner. Boehner needs to put the functioning of Congress ahead of his own status as Speaker of a demoralized and derelict institution.

Lastly, what would happen if a challenge to Boehner materialized in the next month or so? He might need Democratic votes to retain the speakership of a Republican Congress (the vote would not be Boehner versus Pelosi, as at the beginning of the Congress, but whether to vacate the chair). Would Democrats vote to keep Boehner in place, knowing of the torrent of abuse he will receive from his nihilist faction? Would they let him lose to promote the first-rate chaos that would ensure? Would Pelosi emerge as Speaker?

Whaaat? Well, no, she wouldn’t, of course. But the speculation about chaos in the Speaker’s chair reminds me of the greatest case of such confusion in political history. Willie Brown had been speaker of the California Assembly for a record 14 years when the Republican tidal wave of 1994 resulted in an Assembly composed of 40 Republicans, 39 Democrats and one independent. It certainly looked like the end of the Brown era: but the wily Willie had one more maneuver up his sleeve.

Brown secured the expulsion of one Republican because he had simultaneously been elected to the state Senate. Now things lined up the way Brown liked them: 39 for the Republicans, 39 for the Democrats, and one independent (though really a Republican), Paul Horcher of Whittier (birthplace of Richard Nixon; can it get better than this??). Horcher was no fan of GOP Speaker-in-waiting Jim Brulte, so he did what any troublemaker armed with such a mischievous opportunity would do: he voted for Brown!

Republicans were dumbfounded. A month earlier, they had won the Assembly by campaigning against Speaker Brown and now, the new Speaker was … Willie Brown. Horcher, for his trouble, was promptly recalled by voters in his district. Six months later, Brown (who had yielded some of his powers to a bipartisan committee) decided it would be more fun to be mayor of San Francisco, and prepared to depart the Assembly. Again, the Republican thought they finally would capture the speakership for Brulte.

Actually … no. Brown engineered the election by a 40-38 margin of Orange County Republican Assemblywoman Doris Allen who was annoyed at the lack of GOP party support in her recent re-election campaign. Speaker Allen – elected with all Democratic votes plus her own – only served three months before she, too, was recalled. Finally, a Republican got to serve as the Speaker of the Republican Assembly, but for less than a year, because Democrats won back control in 1996. By which time, Willie Brown was Mayor of San Francisco.

Moral of the story for House Republicans: be careful, you may not be able to control the political firestorm you ignite, especially if a crafty San Franciscan is in the House.