An Alternate Take: Boehner’s Problem is not that the Speakership has Changed

It's a party thing.

John-Boehner

I would like to engage in some friendly dissent in regards to Doug Mataconis’ piece, Being Speaker Of The House Isn’t What It Used To Be.

My basic retort would be:  there have not been any major changes to the office that would explain Boehner’s current woes.  As an aside, I would also say that comparing any given Speaker to the major historical examples, like Sam Rayburn, Joseph Cannon, John McCormack, Tip O’Neill, and Newt Gingrich is to create false comparisons.  Run of the mill Speakers are more common than are the standouts.  Of course, Boehner is a standout, too, but because of his weakness.
What is missing from an analysis that states that something has changed in the nature of the job of being Speaker is to miss that the job of Speaker of the House is fundamentally one that is linked to partisan powers (i.e., to party, not to the office itself).  The changes to earmarks, for example, is not enough to explain the current dynamic.

Yes, the Speaker is a constitutional office.  But, quick:  what does the US Constitution say about the Speaker and the powers of the office?  The answer is:  very, very little.  Indeed, the Speaker makes all of one appearance in the main body of the constitution:  Article I, Section 2 notes “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.”* There is nothing in the constitution about powers, qualifications, or anything else.  There is no reason, for example, that the Speaker of the House could not function like the Speaker of the House of Commons in the UK and be a non-partisan, solely procedural actor.

The Speaker of the House, however, quickly became a partisan office after the development of political parties in the US (indeed, the current office  of the Speakership is not what the Framers had in mind, by definition, since the Framers did not foresee the development of political parties as permanent legislative actors).  With the development of parties came legislative majorities and those legislative majorities could pick the Speaker.  As the top figure in the majority party, the Speaker took on new, long-term significance.  It is a party thing.

As such, while the Speakership is a constitutional office, its powers are linked to the power, cohesion, and goals of the majority party.  Newt Gingrich was an effective Speaker (at first) because his party was unified and energized by winning the chamber for the first time in four decades.  Tip O’Neil was effective because he had large majorities to work with, and so forth.

John Boehner is weak at the moment because he is having to deal with a fractured caucus driven by a highly ideological faction and even those not in that faction feel threatened by possible primary challenges in their home districts.  Again:  it’s a party thing.

Boehner is not failing to control his caucus because his powers have been diminished or because of some evolution in the Speakership, but he is in the position that he is in because his party is not cohesive and he would lose his position if he attempted to go to the Democrats for votes.  At this point I think it goes beyond just Boehner:  there are enough Republicans scared about their nomination prospects that there are not enough of them to jump ship and vote for a clean CR with House Democrats.

This is all about party dynamics, party goals, and party nominations.

*The Speaker appears again in the 25th Amendment in regards to presidential incapacitation.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    An.
    An Alternate Take.
    Damn Public Schools.

  2. @C. Clavin: Actually, it was me changing the title from “A Dissent” to “An Alternate Take” without changing the article.

    Thanks for the note.

  3. grumpy realist says:

    OT, but everyone remember the band of birfer dweebs patriotic god-fearing truckers who were going to shut down DC traffic with umpteen trucks?

    Yeah, I thought so.

  4. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist: All is proceeding as I have foreseen.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Not in any way defending Mr. Boehner’s performance but the three notable speakers you mention other than Newt Gingrich were the longest-serving speakers in history. That would at least suggest that a little more analysis that focused solely on their first few years’ tenure in office would be needed to make any comparison.

    I also wonder if the characterization of a lack of cohesion within caucuses isn’t suspect. Isn’t the Republican caucus actually voting together? The real problem in cohesion is between caucuses not within them. The most conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most liberal Republican. That really is a dramatic departure from the House of 20 years ago.

  6. @Dave Schuler: Agreed about longevity

    I take the point on cohesion in terms of outcome, but I think that the general weakness of the Speaker in this context is because he is trying to contain internal divisions.

    And yes: polarization is a major issue in terms of the overall situation.

  7. john personna says:

    Boehner is not failing to control his caucus because his powers have been diminished or because of some evolution in the Speakership, but he is in the position that he is in because his party is no cohesive and he would lose his position if he attempted to go to the Democrats for votes.

    That was definitely true last week.

    It might even be true this week.

    I’m not sure it will be true next week.

  8. john personna says:

    Put another way, liberals accused the Republicans and Tea Party of being synonymous. Teas tried to make that happen, by a institution of their will as Republican will.

    In light of that, and the cratering of the Republican brand, the correct answer is not:

    “will people forget in time for the next election?”

  9. @john personna:

    I’m not sure it will be true next week.

    I think the issue is longer-term than that. For example, even if the GOP capitulates, what will be the responses in the 2014 primaries?

  10. Brett says:

    To emphasize it has not changed, think about the LAST speaker. Nancy Pelosi never had these kind of troubles, and managed to keep her caucus united both in the majority, in the minority before 2006, and in the current climate. It seems that of late, the Democratic caucus is much more willing to be led, and I doubt this would change if Pelosi became speaker again.

  11. john personna says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Would you accept that the GOP (to the extent that it is distinguishable from the “populist right”) needs to push the “irrationals” into a subservient position, now or later?

    I do, and so I interpret your 2014 question in that light. If the irrationals are still fighting for leadership, then 2014-2016 will be very messy.

  12. john personna says:

    (By “irrationals” I mean “moms don’t let your kids to go college” Santorum and “end times” Bachmann.)

  13. Snarky Bastard says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: pass the popcorn is the appropriate response to the 2014 GOP primaries no matter what

  14. C. Clavin says:

    This is Boehner’s problem:

    Conservatives from all circles are gathering in Washington, D.C. this weekend to address the 2013 Values Voter Summit.
    Hosted by the Family Research Council, the annual summit runs from Friday through Sunday, containing a star-studded schedule of speakers that includes Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

    You have the homophobic FRC, Rand Paul –an anti-interventionist who wouldn’t vote for the CRA today, Michelle Bachmann who thinks we are in end-times, and Ted Cruz who led the GOP down the shut-down path without a clear strategy in place.
    It’s not Boehner’s problem…it’s the GOP’s problem.
    This is what passes for today’s Republican Party…along with Jenos and JKB.

  15. @john personna: The thing is, I don’t think that the irrationals won’t have the upper hand in the 2014 primaries.

    It would appear that a substantial part of the GOP is now controlled by said irrationals and there is no mechanism for the more mainstream GOP to assert control. The bottom up nature of the nomination scheme means that the populist can drive nominations and uncompetitive districts mean that they will win the seats in question. No matter how the current standoff ends, this won’t be the end of the irrationals.

  16. john personna says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    If so, good thing I went (small-i) independent in the first Bush administration, and beat the rush.

    But darn it, I wish the rationals would stand up and be counted.

    [edit, that was unclear, the first GWB admin. I liked the “first Bush” and was one of those rare birds who voted for his re-election.]

  17. john personna says:

    @C. Clavin:

    This is what passes for today’s Republican Party…along with Jenos and JKB.

    I called it the Troll Party a few days ago. People probably thought that was a slur, but really, trolls are the last true constituents they have.

  18. @john personna: You and me, both.

  19. Mikey says:

    @john personna:

    But darn it, I wish the rationals would stand up and be counted.

    Are there enough left to matter?

  20. Ron Beasley says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It would appear that a substantial part of the GOP is now controlled by said irrationals the Koch Brothers and the Heritage Foundation and there is no mechanism for the more mainstream GOP to assert control.

  21. john personna says:

    @Mikey:

    Seriously? It depends on whether we truly have a “bar-bell” political distribution these days, or if there is bulk in the middle. Perhaps a political scientist can help out ..

  22. @john personna: The problem is, and this what I was trying to argue the other day about districts, is that regardless of what the national distribution is, the district-level distributions are not bell curves. The vast majority of them skew left or right and are safe.

    We do not, therefore, get a House that is reflective of national sentiment and the competitive forces are channeled in a way that rewards the irrationals.

    As I have argued before, a congressional popularity in the single digits and a re-elect rater of 90% means the feedback loop is not working too well.

  23. john personna says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The problem is, and this what I was trying to argue the other day about districts, is that regardless of what the national distribution is, the district-level distributions are not bell curves. The vast majority of them skew left or right and are safe.

    But surely not every “solidly red” district is end-the-fed-gold-standard nuts.

    Of course, a friend once told me that “my problem was” that I was an optimist who thought he was a pessimist.

  24. C. Clavin says:

    @ Ron…
    I think the Koch’s are trying to wash their hands of these knuckleheads.
    DeMint and the Heritage Foundation? They haven’t caught on yet…they are still believing the bubble.

  25. john personna says:

    Perhaps we can hope that this is at least an end to “reasonables” being primaried by “irrationals.”

  26. David M says:

    @john personna:

    Perhaps we can hope that this is at least an end to “reasonables” being primaried by “irrationals.”

    I’m not holding my breath. I’d be shocked if the end result wasn’t the GOP base seeing “moar teabagging” as the lesson to be learned here, after the GOP opted for defeat when certain victory was imminent.

  27. Mikey says:

    @john personna: If that didn’t end with Akin getting thrashed by McCaskill, it won’t end anytime soon.

  28. @john personna: The real question is, and I do not have good data, as to content of the primary electorate in those districts. It would seem that a lot of them are well-fed on Fox news and talk radio, and are true believers.

  29. john personna says:

    @David M:

    I’m not holding my breath. I’d be shocked if the end result wasn’t the GOP base seeing “moar teabagging” as the lesson to be learned here, after the GOP opted for defeat when certain victory was imminent.

    Well OK, but where are the wing-nuts demanding that?

    Chirp … Chirp.

  30. john personna says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Well, I did see one random guy on Twitter who thought that it was good news states were taking over national parks …

  31. I don’t think you are saying anything significantly different from what I did. It’s a combination of structural changes in Congress such as the elimination of earmarks and, to some extent, the fact that the GOP has put term limits on Committee chairs, combined with changes that have made forces outside Congress more relevant than Leadership that has led to the present situation. Boehner’s problems would exist regardless of who was Speaker, and may well exist for future Democratic Speakers as well depending on how they deal with the changes that the GOP has made in House procedures of late.

  32. @john personna: Indeed.

    Getting back to something you noted above, the country is clearly getting more polarized, and that is being reflected in these races.

    See, also: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-09/gerrymandering-didn-t-cause-the-shutdown.html

  33. john personna says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Was it just me, or was that comment completely free of any discussion of GOP radicalism?

  34. @Doug Mataconis: Except that I don’t think the current situation has anything to do with earmarks or committee chairs, etc. I don’t think that the job itself has changed enough to account for the situation. I think it is a direct result of the partisan aspects of the office and the nature of the current GOP coalition.

  35. C. Clavin says:

    @ JP…
    Of course it was. Gunga Din Mataconis just carries the water.

  36. Steven,

    Those changes aren’t the sole explanation for the current situation, but they clearly also aren’t a non-factor IMO.

  37. @Doug Mataconis: Non-factor? Perhaps not, but I don’t think they explain much, nor do I think that they have changed the Speakership all that much. I am not so sure that the members who are driving this situation, for example, would be easily paid off by earmarks.

    If you are guaranteed re-election, why would you need an earmark for your district? These guys are true believers in their ideological perspectives.

  38. David M says:

    @john personna:

    Well OK, but where are the wing-nuts demanding that?

    Chirp … Chirp.

    They may be quiet, but I can’t imagine they have come around to the reality that the Tea Party shut down / debt ceiling plan was dumb and ended up being a disaster. I’ve given up on peak wingnut.

  39. MM2 says:

    @Brett: It seems like the Dems in congress at least were able to understand that Pelosi was going to get them the best feasible result, and didn’t listen to all of the internet bleating about DINOs and blue dogs and “let Republicans have everything they want and people will get so angry that the fallout will result in liberal paradise”.

    The GOP has elected enough of the true believers (or people who know that it’s in their best interest to fake it) that the congressional Republicans will only accept the terms of the local branch of Tea Party Patriots.

    Should a short term CR or debt limit increase pass, I would not be shocked to see someone bring a bill to the floor down the road that includes the last GOP wish list as well as a demand that Obama step-down upon signing the bill into law. Assuming A Stockman/Gohmert type doesn’t try to get too clever and bring to the table a CR bill that includes articles of impeachment.

  40. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @john personna:

    Well OK, but where are the wing-nuts demanding that?

    Today, Ted Cruz at the Value Voters conference. Got a big cheer too.

  41. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I have to agree with your assessment. We only need to look back to his immediate predecessor to see an example of a functional Speaker who managed to lead her caucus through a wide range of votes for four years with fairly standard levels of sausage-making, even working in a bipartisan way to deliver votes on emergency financial crisis response legislation in the fall of 2008 that were probably not to her Party’s political benefit.

  42. Grumpy Realist says:

    We’re all dancing around the fact the Boehner will do ANYTHING to keep his Speaker’s position.

  43. dazedandconfused says:

    I tend to agree, the nature of the Republicans in congress has to be taken into account. For example, the pre-Civil Rights Act / Nixon’s “southern strategy” Republicans were vastly different from the Republicans of today. Thinking anybody can herd the cats they have now because others have done so before assumes too much.

    I think Barney Frank might have it right. He mentioned the other day that the Wall Street robber barons (that includes the Kochs) became so enraged at Democrats for attempting to limit their game they attempted to bolster and control the Republican party by means of providing massive publicity and supporting a primary challenge against any Republican that didn’t toe their line. It seemed like it was working well too. Very few Americans care enough about primary’s of House members, and that process isn’t difficult to control.

    The recklessness of this approach may have been revealed to them by this debt ceiling crisis. They found themselves with a bunch of people running the party, and the House, who actually believed the BS, making them truly ignorant, even demented, dangerously incompetent, and in possession of immense power. General Ripper-ish situation.

    Let’s hope the healing process has begun.

  44. john personna says:

    A good article at The New Republic gives rich history of the GOP and their relation with internal radicals. Of note:

    One could argue, of course, that the Republican Party will readapt to its rightwing base and eventually create a new majority of “true fiscal conservatives” who will disdain compromise. But there is reason to believe that Chocola and the Club for Growth will never achieve their objective. Rightwing populism, like its predecessor, Christian conservatism, is intense in its commitment, but ultimately limited in its appeal. Tea Party Republicans and the outsider groups probably had their greatest impact when they were still emerging phenomena in the 2010 elections. But when the Republican Party becomes identified with the radical right, it will begin to lose ground even in districts that Republicans and polling experts now regard as safe. That happened earlier with the Christian Coalition, which enjoyed immense influence within the Republican Party until the Republican Party began to be identified with it.

    The Last Days of the GOP

  45. john personna says:

    Also

    Echevarria added that while the Democrats also had an extreme faction, it had no power in the party, while the Republican’s extreme faction did. “The extreme right has 90 seats in the House,” he said. “Occupy Wall Street has no seats.” That realization could lead business to resume splitting its contributions, which would spell trouble for the Republicans.

    While Doug worried about “Occupy” pooping on police cars, radicals invaded his own house.

  46. stonetools says:

    With all of this talk, there is only one short term solution for the mess : a wave election returning the House to Democratic control. Everything else, mentioned here , is bullsh!t (or if you want a nicer, $50 word, nugatory) unless we can do that.
    The most earnest calls for the irrationals to behave will fall on deaf ears because the irrationals were sent to Congress BY irrationals with instructions to BE irrational.
    The best intentioned reform schemes in the world have zero chance of passing the current legislature, since the irrationals aren’t going to vote themselves less power.
    At this point, the only chance of fixing the system is to work to vote the b@stards out in November 2014. What’s irritating is the pundits who keep telling us how impossible it is to do that. Well, let’s start thinking about how to make this possible, because that’s the only way we’re going to enact these highfalutin’ reforms.

  47. trumwill says:

    @Brett: Ya beat me to it (the downside to not coming around as often). Nancy Pelosi didn’t just not have the problems that Boehner does, but she should be considered shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats. Regardless of the politics, she was extremely formidable. (Her party didn’t always give her enough credit, in my opinion.)

  48. steve s says:

    before the internet, the Bircher types were useful idiots who would vote for the GOP, but couldn’t get organized and funded enough to wield power.

    Add a few Tea-funding billionaires, FoxNews, and the internet, and it’s a whole different ballgame. Boner is a victim of changed circumstance.

  49. steve s says:

    grumpy realist says:
    Friday, October 11, 2013 at 14:48
    ___
    OT, but everyone remember the band of birfer dweebs patriotic god-fearing truckers who were going to shut down DC traffic with umpteen trucks?
    ___
    Yeah, I thought so.

    Any moment, that brain-damaged fellow will be around to tell us 17 million semis ground DC to a halt.

  50. Ron Beasley says:

    While I don’t think John Boehner is the sharpest knife in the kitchen I really do believe he is up against a mission impossible. I doubt that the strongest speaker in history could herd the cats that make up the Republicans congress. We basically have two or perhaps three parties that call themselves Republicans. I don’t see how this ends well for the Republicans or the Country.

  51. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Great article. I think you’ve really touched on all the key issues and I agree with the analysis.

    The problem Boehner faces is that he’s dealing with an especially fragmented coalition in the section of Congress where local politics (and the “base”) wield the most power.

    In fact, I think it’s telling that the most vocal, in-party criticism of the Tea Party Caucus comes from the areas where said base has the least amount of power. There’s a reason why it’s the Coastal, larger city Republicans like Peter King who are going after the “defund Obamacare” tactic. These are the individuals least likely to face a serious challenge from their right regardless of what happens.

  52. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I am not so sure that the members who are driving this situation, for example, would be easily paid off by earmarks. If you are guaranteed re-election, why would you need an earmark for your district? These guys are true believers in their ideological perspectives.

    Exactly. In fact, their rhetoric (and that of their supporters is exactly that). As I heard Rush Limbaugh AND Sean Hannity both express today — “Conservatism isn’t adherence to policy, it’s adherence to principles!”

    This particular line of thought really began to rise (most recently) to national prominence with Sarah Palin’s VP run and then was picked up by Tea Partiers. It’s why the “incorruptable” label is so accurate. These are people who are directly defining themselves against the RINOs who said one thing and did another. They have promised that the words that they speak — the words of their heart — are always equal to their actions.

    Harkening back to Calvinists, there’s no room for interpretation (or weasel wording). Their promise is to do EXACTLY as they say.

    And the problem is that they have promised — in many cases I think out of being non-cynical true believers — more than can be possibly be delivered. Thus any compromise becomes a capitulation.

    And conservatives don’t capitulate — only Republicans do that. And these folks are not Republicans.

  53. HelloWorld! says:

    The religious right has been systematically killing the republican party since the Moral Majority was formed in the 80’s. They embraced it, and now its all coming to a head. If JB had been a leader he would have seen it coming and stood for principles. It might have cost him the speakership early on but could have given him the speakership later.

  54. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    Another dynamic of this issue is “both sides do it” as espoused by Doug and a host of other minions. Cases in point: several of my friends and relatives keep finding themselves gobsmacked by my “shift to socialism” as demonstrated by my disbelieving what passes for information on Fox News and WorldNet Daily. When I ask them if they are really in favor of what the conservative movement is offering for economic and social policy, they say “of course not, but you don’t understand that the leftists are even more evil even though they are offering policies with which I would agree if only they weren’t coming from the left.”

    Our own Doug is an example of the phenomenon. While he has many times disagreed with what is going on on the right of the spectrum, he still has stated outright that “there are no circumstances where I can see voting for a Democrat.”

    The definition of insanity is said to be “doing the same thing but expecting a different result.”