Boehner's Conundrum

by Michael Sean Winters

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We can all be forgiven for not even knowing that there was such a thing as a “motion to vacate the chair,” seeing as the procedure has not been invoked in over 100 years. But, Cong. Mark Meadows of North Carolina proposed such a motion yesterday, in effect calling for the ouster of fellow Republican Cong. John Boehner from the Speakership of the House of Representatives.

Two columns in this morning’s Washington Post pinpoint the deeper problem Speaker Boehner faces – and the obvious solution. Dana Milbank writes:

“Legislating is hard work,” the speaker said.

Yes, and Boehner is making it harder by attempting the futile strategy of governing only with Republican votes. This puts him on the fool’s errand of trying to satisfy ideologues such as Meadows, a founding member of the three-dozen-strong House Freedom Caucus, which split from the conservative Republican Study Committee because it found that caucus insufficiently doctrinaire.

And, E. J. Dionne writes:

The House GOP (and this applies more than it once did to Senate Republicans as well) includes a large and vocal minority always ready to go over a cliff and always ready to burn – fortunately, figuratively – heretical leaders and colleagues. More important, a significant group sympathizes with Boehner privately but is absolutely petrified that having his back when things get tough will conjure a challenge inside the party by conservative ultras whose supporters dominate its primary electorate in so many places.

Both Milbank and Dionne are right to recognize that the so-called Hastert Rule, by which bills are only brought to the floor for a vote if they enjoy majority support from the GOP caucus, has given an out-sized influence to Boehner’s right flank and that the obvious solution is to do away with the Hastert Rule, which is not an official rule anyway, and govern from the center, forging bipartisan consensus on measures that would easily pass with both Democratic and Republican votes.

There are two deeper problems than the Hastert Rule however, one of them functional and the other philosophic, and both rooted in the vision of the founder fathers. The functional problem is that the Constitution entrusts the drawing of congressional districts to state legislatures, that is, to the most political of the three branches of government. In 2010, when Democrats got clobbered across the board, the GOP not only gained control of the U.S. House, but more problematically, it gained control over so many state legislatures and governorships that they were able to redraw congressional districts after the 2010 census in a highly partisan way, solidifying their majority in Congress, but making many districts so overwhelmingly Republican, members of Congress are not wrong to fear a challenge in the primaries. In a ruby red district, and a low-turnout primary – and all primaries are low-turnout events – a moderate Republican can easily beat the Democrat in November but is forever vulnerable to a primary challenge from highly motivated ideologues beforehand. I fear that the next round of redistricting, after the 2020 census, could produce a similar result on the left: 2020 is a presidential year and the electorate will be far more left-leaning. Many states have opted for non-partisan redistricting, done by (relatively) disinterested parties, such as a panel of judges. More states should follow suit.

The deeper problem is that our system of democratic governance is now paralyzed by the very mechanisms that were designed by the founding fathers to facilitate, not hinder, expressions of popular will. We have lost any sense of the common good in our political discourse. The “enlightened self-interest” that the founders thought would approximate the common good is not very enlightened these days, and the self-interest has become refined by the fires of partisanship. The common good is a concept that is deeper than mere bipartisanship, it requires that the good of each and of all be the objective, but mere bipartisanship would be a step in the right direction nonetheless. I would not be entirely happy with what a bipartisan majority would yield, especially on issues having to do with trade and fiscal policy. But, it would be far preferable to what we have today, in which a minority of ideologues can cripple the government. And, God willing, the Holy Father will encourage members of Congress – and the people who elect them – to put the common good back at the center of our political discourse come September. Hopefully, some will listen.

I use the verb cripple advisedly. In the autumn, Congress must pass a transportation bill and an education bill and a budget and a debt ceiling extension. Unless Speaker Boehner ditches the Hastert Rule, those fights will also be held hostage to the far right caucus. If Congress does not pass a debt extension measure, the still fragile economy could tank. Anyone who drives around any part of the country knows that the transportation bill is very needed: Even if the bipartisan bill in the Senate fails to take the obvious step of raising the gas tax, a bill is better than no bill.

Speaker Boehner is a decent guy. I have a soft spot for a fellow smoker and an even softer spot for someone who is so incapable of preventing himself from tearing up when he gets emotional. If he were to ditch the Hastert Rule and actually move serious pieces of legislation like immigration reform, he could go down as a great Speaker and his party could face the electorate with some accomplishments to show, and not merely rely on carefully drawn districts to retain their majority. In DC, alas, short-term self-interest rules the day and there do not seem to be so many grown-ups around. It is not merely a Republican problem: Find the Democrat who is willing to openly express disgust at the Planned Parenthood videos! Unless we get some leaders, real leaders, who are willing to speak out on behalf of the common good, and to risk their political careers on its behalf, both parties will continue to be beholden to their ideological extremes. Men are not angels, but they need not make themselves instruments of the destruction of the country’s polity either.  

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