So here’s something I’ve often wondered over the last few years. What exactly would happen if John Boehner bucked the right-wingers in the House? You know—if he gave us one of those heroic Hollywood moments that we so long for in this sail-trimming city and gave a big speech about how he was putting principle ahead of politics and the consequences be damned.
You know what I think would happen? If, say, he followed Mitch McConnell’s lead and allowed a vote on a clean DHS-funding bill? After all the dust settled—nothing. Oh, the dust would fly to the heavens for a few days. Tea Partiers would scream about his betrayal. Rush Limbaugh and all the rest of them would fulminate. There’d be a few breathless stories about how his speakership was in mortal peril. And then, something else would happen in the news cycle, the intoxicating effect of the drug of munity would wear off, and we’d be back to exactly where we were before the dust went skyward.
We have a dysfunctional legislative system, and one of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional system—indeed the main hallmark of a dysfunctional system—is that no one is held accountable for anything they do. And there’s no reason to think Boehner would be held accountable by his right wing.
First of all, they don’t have the votes to oust him. In his last speakership election, 25 Republicans voted against him. That’s a chunk, but it’s a small chunk. And besides, who are they going to replace him with? Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who seems not able to count noses and who isn’t particularly well liked by his GOP colleagues? Majority Whip Steve Scalise, now branded as a white-supremacist sympathizer? One doesn’t expect much of today’s GOP, but I doubt very much that even this hardened assemblage would want to be led by a man with that charge hanging around his neck.
So the whole business is ridiculous. And in fact, if you look closely at the record, you see that Boehner has bucked his right wing. Although “bucked” isn’t really the right word, since to buck means to resist with some show of strength. Boehner never does that. What he does is that he hews to the right-wing line rhetorically for as long as he possibly can, and then, when it’s two minutes til midnight and it’s obvious to everyone that he has to bend, he bends. He did it on the debt ceiling. He does it on budget questions. And there’s always a great deal of sturm and drang, but soon enough, it’s back to business.
Think here about the famous Hastert Rule, that a Republican leader can’t bring anything to the floor that doesn’t have the support of a majority of the Republican majority. This has come up a number of times in the last four years, and always the line is: Oh my God, he can’t break the Hastert Rule! Dare he break the Hastert Rule? His speakership is in grave jeopardy if he breaks the Hastert Rule! No, Lord, not the Hastert Rule!!
Well, he’s broken the Hastert Rule three times. The first time was on the fiscal cliff negotiation at the beginning of 2013. On that one, 85 House Republicans voted for the compromise bill that emerged, and 151 of them voted against it. The second time was on Hurricane Sandy relief, which happened just a couple of weeks after the fiscal cliff vote. That time, 49 GOPers voted for the relief, and 179 against. And the third came a little more than a month later—two years ago tomorrow, in fact—when the House passed a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. That time, 87 Republicans voted aye, and 138 nay.
So look at that record. In two months’ time, Boehner violated the allegedly inviolate Hastert Rule three times. And what happened to him? Well, we’re still calling him Mr. Speaker, last I checked. The right wing has not mutinied. And in fact the dark little psychological secret is that the vast majority of them have no interest whatsoever in mutiny. It’s far better for business for them, back in the home districts, to be able to scream betrayal and present themselves to their rabid constituents, the kind who just might go organize themselves to find a primary challenger to run against them, as the true defenders of liberty against all the sell-outs and ideological harlots they have to contend with on a daily basis, Boehner included. Gower Champion couldn’t choreograph it any better.
If I’m right about all this, and I am, then the question is why Boehner can’t, just once, show some stones and say, at 10 or 15 minutes til midnight rather than the usual two, “Sorry, we’re gonna do the reasonable thing here, and save this other fight for another day?” Well, some have argued that it may be in this case that he doesn’t actually know whether he has the votes. But I think that’s a reach. He’s got 245 Republicans. There are 188 Democrats, presumably all of whom would vote for a clean bill. So he’d need about 30 Republicans to back a clean bill. If he can’t get a mere 15 percent of his caucus to vote for a clean bill, maybe he’s got no business being speaker anyway. That would mean breaking the Hastert Rule, but as we’ve seen, he’s paid no price for that in the past.
And look at what happened in the Senate after McConnell decided to be reasonable. The vote was 98-2! The holdouts were Jim Inhofe and Jeff Sessions. Ted Cruz voted for the clean bill! Mike Lee! Joni Ernst and all the new red-hots. McConnell called the radicals’ bluff, and they folded. I say there’s every reason to think that roughly the same thing would happen in the House.
It’s often said in Washington that Congress is held captive to the hard right. But that’s not it. Boehner could break that hold if he wanted to. So it’s not really the radicals who are to blame, but Boehner’s refusal to be their leader and tell them “this is the way it is.” That’s the one thing, as their leader, he’ll never do. You know—lead.