The GOP Meltdown in Congress

by Michael Sean Winters

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I have enjoyed my “fortnight of freedom” from writing about politics, concentrating on the papal visit, the Kim Davis mess, and then the synod. But, time waits for no man and for no blogger, and a lot has happened in the political realm in the past couple of weeks.

The biggest development, of course, was the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, one day after the pope visited Congress. Boehner is a good man but he proved not to be a man capable of seizing the moment and the moment called for him to break with the crazies in his own caucus, and yank his party back to the center, leading a bipartisan consensus of the center to handle the nation’s business. Had he been willing to consign the informal Hastert Rule, which held that the Speaker only brings bills to the floor if they have a majority of his own caucus, to the ashbin of history, he could have passed comprehensive immigration reform, helping 11 million fellow Americans emerge from the shadows. He could have unlinked votes to raise the debt ceiling from partisan negotiations: It is true that votes to raise the debt ceiling gave the GOP huge leverage, but some levers are simply too awful to be useful, and that particular lever was never used and should have been abandoned, explicitly, showing that some things are so obviously in the national interest, they cannot be subject to partisan negotiations.

Boehner may have lacked the political courage to undertake this shift to the center, but he did not lack political calculation. If he had broken with the Hastert Rule and governed with a bipartisan majority, he and every GOP member who voted for bills like immigration reform would have exposed themselves to a primary challenge from the Tea Party brigade. The previous House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss in a GOP primary last cycle sent shockwaves throughout the GOP caucus. Having created and coddled the Tea Party tiger, the GOP leadership had to ride where the tiger wanted to go.

Every Speaker, Democrat or Republican, wants to keep his party in power. Boehner surely thought that having the Democrats retake the chamber would be bad for the country. That is why he is a Republican. And, exposing his members to primary challengers seemed like a no-win proposition. Even if the member fought off the primary challenge, he or she would be hobbled going into the general election. And, if the primary challenger won, he or she might be too extreme to win in November. I think this fear was over-stated: Since the re-districting in 2011, so many districts are so ruby red, a Republican schnauzer could win the general election. But, that same re-districting made each district so overwhelmingly Republican, the primary elections really could, and in Cantor’s case really did, feed the extremist wing of the GOP. That, too, was a prospect I suspect Boehner did not relish. He may have been in a no-win situation but, still, it is a shame he did not go down fighting for something worthwhile like immigration reform.

Boehner seemed like a man from a different era. He smoked and he drank – no wonder I have a soft spot for him? He was committed to the institutions he loved, the Congress and the Republican Party. In the end, he failed both, leaving a legacy of dysfunction in the Congress and an ungovernable GOP caucus.

It is a measure of the rawness of ambition in this town that anyone would want Boehner’s job. Tomorrow, the GOP will likely select Cong. Kevin McCarthy as their choice and he will inherit the dysfunctional Congress and the unruly caucus Boehner leaves behind. It remains to be seen if, at month’s end, the entire caucus will back him when the Speaker is formally elected by the entire House. McCarthy can afford to lose 29 Republican votes in the full house, and not one more. The prospect of multiple ballots for the Speakership would be a circus Washington has not seen in almost 100 years!

“Speaker Kevin McCarthy.” The phrase does not roll off the tongue because it is so rare that a coherent sentence ever rolls off his tongue. McCarthy has trouble with basic syntax. Listening to him mangle his words in an interview on television can be painful. (Republicans who think America should adopt English as our official language might need to think twice!) That said, he is getting a bum rap over his comments on the relationship between the Select Committee on Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. All the media and all the Democrats expressed themselves shocked, shocked to think that politicians had been motivated by politics in opening that investigation. Neither party likes to admit that one of the best reasons to control either chamber of Congress is because it confers the power to issue subpoenas. With divided government, you may not get your policy objectives enacted into law, but you can make life hell for the other team.

The more interesting contests within the GOP will be for the rest of the leadership team, the Majority Leader, and Whip, etc. If the Tea Party crowd does not snag one of those posts, they may well threaten to withhold their votes for McCarthy for Speaker in the full house. McCarthy will need to decide how to handle them. I doubt he will do the thing that Boehner has refused to do, take them on. He could, for example, say that if they do not come together and support the full slate, there are thirty relatively moderate Republicans prepared to cast their ballots for Cong. Nancy Pelosi to become Speaker! That is not going to happen. I fear what will happen is more of the same, throwing the Tea Partyers a bone or two, hoping it will assuage, when it will only awaken, their appetite.

The leadership contests come at a time when the base is especially empowered. There is a reason Donald Trump surged to the lead in the polls: The extremists within the GOP have another important name, the base. Trump and others have been serving up red meat all summer. How that broader political climate will impact the selection of the GOP House leadership is not hard to guess: The extremists are empowered and those who want to responsibly govern are cowering. The sanity caucus within the GOP will only reclaim its authority when it allows the crazy caucus to nominate one of their own for president, and watch him or her lose 40 states. Until the crazy caucus has a “Goldwater moment,” they will remain as restive and reckless as they can be. If you are expecting Congress to get anything done soon, I have a bridge I built in Brooklyn that I should like to sell you.



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