Why is John Boehner so powerless?
December 21, 2012 7:22 AM   Subscribe

Why is John Boehner such an ineffective Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives? I can't remember there ever being a speaker so unable to deliver votes and negotiate on behalf of his caucus. I'm used to the speaker being a powerful figure. How did this happen? Is he lacking certain traits?
posted by Area Man to Law & Government (34 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Mod note: Folks, there's a workable askme-style approach to answering this as a polisci question; jokes about tears and handjobs do not cut it. Pretend like you know and respect the guidelines, thank you.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:30 AM on December 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah. It used to be the Democrats who couldn't their act together to vote as a unified front, and for years the Republicans were so damn good at doing so they steamrolled (and/or stonewalled) whatever they wanted. But after the 2010 midterm elections when the Tea Party movement got a bunch of new people without GOP loyalty elected, Boehner has just lost control. It's been fascinating to watch. I think it started with the debt ceiling deal and went down hill from there -- they don't want to answer to him/the GOP establishment, so they don't. And he doesn't know what to do.
posted by olinerd at 7:32 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tea Party members and an administration that leans far left rather than moderately left. Not sure if the polarization is going to end any time soon.
posted by uncannyslacks at 7:32 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

One way to look at it is that there's been a substantial shift in the composition of his party since he became Speaker - the people he can't wrangle aren't the same people who were running the show when he was first in a leadership position.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:34 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your criteria for efficacy depend on Boehner meaning what he says. I am not certain that is a useful measurement of efficacy either for Boehner or for politicians generally.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:35 AM on December 21, 2012

The question is itself indicative of part of the problem. Congress isn't supposed to be a bunch of representatives that are all committed to voting a particular way. I believe that Congress was always intended to have some independent thought. However, things have evolved such that a generation of people have little experience with a Congress that has a diverse membership with only loose party affiliations (reference: Democrats in decades past, etc).

So, in answer to your question, I would say, the "speaker being a powerful figure" is perhaps something to consider in a different light. Was the speaker always a powerful figure as you believe? Were speakers more able to determine the pulse of their caucus in order to be able to only negotiate where there was a high degree of certainty?

I would certainly agree with Dasein, where Tea Party members have become a significant wildcard. These people actively believe that the Dems are pure evil, and Dem policies are pure evil, even in the case of things like Obamacare which is basically what Romneycare was, and wasn't too objectionable to Republicans scant years ago.
posted by jgreco at 7:37 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

To clarify the Tea Party's role in all this...forgive me if I'm generalizing, but they don't really care about governing as such. They care about hewing to ideology. Government sliding into chaos and dysfunction suits them perfectly. Their goal isn't to forge a solution, it's to be able to demonstrate to their constituents that they've maintained their ideological purity.
posted by dry white toast at 7:37 AM on December 21, 2012 [45 favorites]

The problem honestly doesn't seem to be Boehner himself (who I don't particularly admire, but I doubt it's a flaw particular to his character), but the fact that the Speaker's power generally derives from his ability to lead a majority of the House, and the Republicans are fractured to the point that getting a majority of them to stand behind anything is difficult. There are old-fashioned fiscal conservatives, radical social conservatives, and kneejerk contrarians. Getting the latter two groups to cooperate with anything that looks even the slightest bit concessionary has been difficult at best, and in a crisis has apparently proven impossible.
posted by jackbishop at 7:39 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) put it plainly: “Nobody’s elected king in our conference.”

”And so I thought the speaker did a very good job of making the case for why this was a good proposal and at the end of the day though, it’s up to the conference’s will, is what happens,” Schock said. “Nobody can tell any duly elected representative who represents over 700,000 constituents how they have to vote. So you have to then respect the process and each individual’s vote.”

I think this is a bit of what happened. A large part of the House GOP resented Boehner's solo efforts and strong-arm tactics like stripping members of plum committee assignments. Part of this is a number of members in the right wing of the House reasserting themselves. It was as close to a vote of no-confidence as you get in the House.

You can read more from Politico's story about the collapse of "Plan B".
posted by inturnaround at 7:39 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would back those pointing to the Tea Party-led fracturing of the party, and add that Republican representatives seem to believe it toxic to sign on to anything that might make the president look successful, no matter whether a majority of the country seems for it. When Boehner tried to work something out with the president, I think he lost some number of representatives no matter what he was proposing.

In this instance, what he was proposing was risky to support anyway. Voting for it would be voting for a tax increase on the richest, which is where a substantial portion of the party's donations come from. Passing it could have put the Democrats in a bad position, voting against tax increases on the richest, but I think it more likely/important that it would have put these representatives in a position of running for re-election with this on their record: voting for a tax increase -- which Republicans appear to be entirely against in principle -- in the form of a bill that appeared to be doomed to fail anyway.
posted by troywestfield at 7:51 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tea Party hardliners who don't care about bringing the whole thing down are a huge part of Boehner's problem. Mefi's own John Scalzi has a good blog post about just this today.
posted by leslies at 7:51 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

The GOP is rent asunder and in Congress, many of its members hue to the line of no taxes, to the point that compromise is out of the question for those like the speaker who would try for negotiations and compromise. The truly strange thing? If we go "over the cliff:" then Dems can dismiss all the Bush tax cuts and get lots of money the GOP had not planned on giving back.
posted by Postroad at 7:53 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

To answer the further question of why the moderate "sane" Republicans don't just form an ad hoc voting bloc with the minority Democrats, you need to look at the threat of Tea Party candidates in nomination fights. Many of the Congresscritters are running scared of electoral threats not from the left, but from the right.

They thus perceive their electoral interest to "remain true" to the Republican stated positions and play truer-than-thou Kabuki to keep both their seats and positions in the party hierarchy (spots on committees, chairmanships, etc...). This is doubly true for Boehner himself, who is under constant threat from Tea Party pretenders to the chair.
posted by bonehead at 7:56 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Boehner's problem is that he isn't a majority Speaker, he's a coalition Speaker -- the House of Representatives right now has a Republican Party, a Democratic Party, and a Tea Party. Majority Speakers can lead by fiat and force. Coalition Speakers have to lead by wheedling and log-rolling (you know, politics). Boehner isn't good at that -- few Republicans are, because they've never needed that skill set.

Democrats are generally better at governing as coalition Speakers, because the Democratic Party has always had people willing to jump the aisle for one damn thing or another (Bart Stupak was consistently pro-life, Dennis Kucinich was pretty consistently anti-military-intervention), but they have had majority Speakers (Tip O'Neill comes to mind) when the Democratic Party had large enough majorities that they could afford to shed 20 or 30 votes on any given bill for log-rolling or personal beliefs or electability issues.
posted by Etrigan at 7:58 AM on December 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

Republicans have done such a good job at gerrymandering their districts that many of them have no fear of losing to a democratic candidate in the general . What they do fear is losing to an even more conservative candidate in the primary. So they have to stay as conservative as possible to keep that threat from happening.
posted by octothorpe at 8:04 AM on December 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

A little more about those revoked committee leadership positions:
Conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R.-Kan.), a freshman and Tea Party advocate, was one of the leaders in the revolt against Boehner. Earlier this month, the House Republican leadership, acting through its Steering Committee, stripped Huelskamp and Rep. Justin Amash and Rep. David Schweikert from committee memberships. Huelskamp, Amash and Schweikert believed they were stripped of their memberships because of their conservative voting records. Boehner and the Republican leaders, however, never clarified why they punished the conservative lawmakers.

"Republicans should not be forced to vote for a 'show' bill that asks us to compromise on our principles," Huelskamp said after Boehner cancelled the vote on Plan B.

"On a separate note," said Huelskamp, "Republican leadership thought they could silence conservatives when they kicked us off our committees. I'm glad that enough of my colleagues refused to back down after the threats and intimidation, thus preventing the conference from abandoning our principles."
posted by Room 641-A at 8:05 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

xkcd's infographic of congressional makeup does a good job of illustrating the House's significant slide to the ideological right over the last few years. Even a relative conservative like Boehner isn't good enough for them.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:06 AM on December 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

The Republican Party has changed enormously over the past 20-30 years and can be thought of as split. The traditional more moderate type of Republican in the mold of George H.W. Bush, i.e., a conservative who is pragmatic rather than totally ideologically rigid, is now in the minority. The Republican Party is now dominated by far right-wing elements, including those associated with the Tea Party movement, who are absolutely unwilling to compromise on principles. Due to changed campaign finance laws, their existence is perpetuated by large business interests such as the Koch brothers who benefit from hard core conservative policies. Follow the money.
posted by Dansaman at 8:07 AM on December 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

To answer the further question of why the moderate "sane" Republicans don't just form an ad hoc voting bloc with the minority Democrats, you need to look at the threat of Tea Party candidates in nomination fights.

I think this gets to the crux of it more than anything. Boehner knows that in terms of policy, compromising with the President is the most sensible thing to do. But compromise->radical right wing primary challenges in 2014->Democrats take back the House.

(Also note that Democrats actually won more of the popular vote in the House this election. The Republicans control the House due to blatant gerrymandering. So Boehner is beholden to the Tea Party types and knows that the Republicans don't have anything near a strong popular mandate.)

I never thought I'd actually feel bad for that man, but I almost do. He has a fine line to walk.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 8:07 AM on December 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

You'd really want to hit teh googles to see what (if anything) the really heavy hitters -- ie Sarah Binder (but she's more Senate), Steve Smith, Dave Rohde, Dave Brady, Gary Cox or Mat McCubbins, maybe Frances Lee -- have said about these issues in the blogosphere. But I don't know offhand who's active there apart from Binder and to a less extent Smith.

But anyway, I expect they'd more or less agree with this:

It's less about Boehner than it is his caucus and, yeah, the Tea Party chuckleheads. Boehner faces a caucus split between what you might think of as old-style or "not crazy" Republicans and the Tea Party types. The problem is that he needs them both -- the number of uncrazy Republicans is less than a majority of the House, so to pass a bill over Democratic opposition or inaction requires the support of both uncrazy and batshit wings of the party. To a lesser extent, it's probably also about the Democrats being reasonably good at hammering on the wedge between the uncrazy and batshit wings.

The best example of this was the first time voting on Ryan's "cat food and fuck you" budget... the plan seems to have been a "have your cake and eat it too" thing where most Republicans would get to vote for this transparently bad policy but also get to see it fail when Democrats voted in lockstep against it. Pelosi ruined this when she got the Democrats to just vote Present, so the only way the uncrazy Republicans could stop it was to vote against their own proposal. Which is a bad thing if you're the leader -- you really really don't want to allow votes that split your party.

This is more or less what most existing theories of parties in Congress -- conditional party government and cartel models if you want to look up more -- would expect. "Classic" CPG would say that you'd expect a heavily divided majority to decline to give their Speaker sweeping grants of authority, and cartel models would suggest that facing this circumstance you'd expect the Republicans to focus more on preventing Democratic policies than enacting their own. However, I'm not sure how well either of those models can fully accommodate the really breathtaking extent to which the current House Republicans just don't give a shit about policy.

If you want to blame Boehner, I'd say the most you could really put on him is that his intel seems to be consistently lacking -- thinking that the Democrats were going to roll over and accept their assigned role as his foil, even though Pelosi had taken some serious steps in this direction even when she was Speaker, not being able to get accurate whip counts before votes, etc.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:11 AM on December 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

The Tea Partiers are important in this story, but it's also worth digging why they are important.

The GOP has no effective leader, and no clear consensus on what it stands for. On the one hand, there are those who wish to push further right - thereby clearing all ground to the left of those positions to Obama. Hence why Obama talks more about reaching out to Republicans. On the other, there are Republicans who wish to reclaim the right-centre of politics.

In short: the defining feature of the current GOP is that it is anti-Obama and obstructionist. This is not to say Republicanism per se is hollow. But when a party is serious about electing two successive VPs who are economically illiterate to pair up with more moderate presidential candidates at a time when the economic policy is the single largest issue on the political landscape, it is a bellwether for how much consensus there is within the party to develop a meaningful and united party line.

Those representatives elected on a Tea Party mandate, whether they truly believe it or not, have got into power by holding the GOP hostage. It would be political suicide for them to both give in or be seen to give in on such a central tenet of the Tea Party philosophy. Hence why rejecting Boehner's proposals makes no strategic sense (it strengthens Obama) but does make individual sense for each of them. It is more politically expedient for them to divorce themselves from any decision to increase taxes.

Long term, the Tea Party's expectation is that politics will swing back to the right again, as per Reagan after Carter. This is, IMHO, based on the mistaken view that Obama is running a leftist tax and spend administration, and that the electorate will figure this out over the next four years. As MeFi's own jscalzi has rightly analyzed it - whatever Boehner's faults as a speaker, he is on a hiding to nothing because there is no acceptance within his own party on their strategic direction.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:24 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tea Party members and an administration that leans far left rather than moderately left. Not sure if the polarization is going to end any time soon.

Both US major political parties sit far to the right of what the rest of the developed world calls left. It's like saying a 5'5" guy is really tall be cause the only other guy around is 5'2".

As far as his lack of power I think it's as simple as trying to herd cats. The Republican party now has a substantial percentage of members who are off the charts nutbars, Boehner seems relatively sane, pretty tough ship to steer.
posted by Cosine at 8:24 AM on December 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

Boehner is a LN(E) guy trying to lead a House GOP that is now largely CE.
posted by fleacircus at 8:25 AM on December 21, 2012

I think Karl Rove was accurate to say that the Republican party is in disarray because they have stopped looking at the long term battle strategy and are instead looking at the short term. This leads to lots of infighting.

Interestingly enough, it was Karl Rove himself who paved the way for this. His political masterstroke for the Republican party was claiming the religious mandate - if you do your research, you'll see that religious voters spread their votes relatively evenly between parties prior to Rove's organized attempt to establish religion as the Republican party's central role and thus create a huge voting bloc that would support his party no matter what. What he didn't seem to realize is that this was a devil's deal - the voting bloc he assimilated would influence the Republicans far more than the Republicans influenced them. The huge fissures you see now in the Republican party are the natural outcome of trying to fuse those wildly divergent viewpoints into a single political entity - it was inevitable that there would eventually be an internal schism. Boehner just had the bad luck of being in charge when this pot finally bubbled over.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:26 AM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

The huge fissures you see now in the Republican party are the natural outcome of trying to fuse those wildly divergent viewpoints into a single political entity - it was inevitable that there would eventually be an internal schism.

I don't disagree that there's a schism, but I don't see it as being religion-driven. The fundamentalists who want no abortion or gays could coexist very well with the ones who want no taxes or gun control*. It's not an ideological schism, it's a procedural one -- as you say yourself, it's short-termers vs. long-termers. The Tea Party didn't rebel because the GOP was getting too religious.

* -- Yes, I'm oversimplifying the positions, but you know what I mean.
posted by Etrigan at 8:48 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

... an administration that leans far left rather than moderately left. Not sure if the polarization is going to end any time soon.

And yeah, not this. If Obama actually were far left, the moderate Republicans could make enough outraged noises to get some unity in their party. The problem is that Obama has been proposing mildly centrist things in troubling times where there's actually, you know, stuff that needs to be done. The not-crazy conservatives want to come to the table and solve problems, but back in the carefree 80s and 90s they all got drunk and tattooed "compromise = death" on one ass cheek and "hardcore conservative 4 life" on the other, with "death to liberals" and "destroy government" on their pecs, and it's got to the point where most of them actually believe that as philosophy instead of posturing. Anne Coulter begat Michelle Malkin begat Michele Bachmann all from the fetid flesh of Limbaugh. So they've painted themselves into a corner, where they are being hoist with their own petard, which was forged in their temple, and is wielded by the snake they cradled in their bosom.
posted by fleacircus at 9:02 AM on December 21, 2012 [18 favorites]

Having seen a similar evolution in Canada in the 90's from Reform to governing Conservatives, I think it's important to note that the Tea Party wing has not yet felt the sting of public responsability.

Popular culture/the media/the chattering classes have not pinned any (legislative) failures on this coalition. They have not made any decisions which had major negative effects. One of the transitions from protest movement to governance is being held to account for the consequences of ideology.

There's a certain "fuck it all, let the worst happen, and then they'll all see" mentality on both radical right and left wings at the moment. This naivete is really dangerous. While I think the Tea Partiers may indeed doom their movement by forcing an even worse recession than we've seen to date, it's going to be the US public, and by extension, the rest of the world that suffers the most as a result. It's entirely possible the world could be backed into crisis by idiots (mostly on the right, but some on the left too) itching to pull the triggers.
posted by bonehead at 9:12 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Several factors:

1) The rise of super-pacs means that individual members no longer rely on the party leadership for funding and other support needed to win local elections.

2) Congressmen in gerrymandered safe districts who don't need to appeal to the middle to win.

3) The willingness of outside groups to fund primary challengers for anyone that doesn't hew to the hard right line.

Basically, the GOP has split into two parts -- the tea party, funded by the Koch Brothers and other hard-right outside groups, who are winning based on glenn-beck fueled paranoia about the power of the federal government, and hard-right economic policies; and 'traditional republicans' -- a shrinking minority in the party that won elections based on the traditional three pillars of republicanism: Christian conservatism, economic conservativism, and defense spending.

Boehner is essentially unable to get legislation passed using only members of his own party, so he's going to have to put together a coalition of maybe 50-100 republicans who can vote with democrats, and it's going to shatter the party.
posted by empath at 9:21 AM on December 21, 2012

What makes you think he's ineffective? I think he's been effective at blocking anything progressive, and keeping Obama from accomplishing as much as he and the country want. Congress seems to be going home and allowing the US to have a big tax increase, and draconian spending cuts. He'll take credit for the spending cuts, and blame Obama for the end of the tax cuts. Man, I am so unhappy w/ this Congress.
posted by theora55 at 12:56 PM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

theora55, you could say that Boehner was succesful at playing misère -- the blocking game, the "party of no" stuff. But what that really reflects is their overall inability to craft an alternative policy scheme that would be passed and signed by an opposing-party President. More strategically, from 2011 on, you could have said there was a value to that game in that it was part of the GOP strategy to hobble Obama and prevent his re-election. Any real value to this approach, then, was made bankrupt on election day (or sometime before, if you subscribe to the prediction markets and such). I have said for years that the GOP loves to run against Congress even when they control it, and yet here they have shown themselves to be successful only at getting Congress to do nothing. It's their base who are concerned about this and I don't think the November results or the failure of the Plan B vote indicate that the party is wildly enthused with what he can do, at this point. One thing they counted on was that the structure of the fiscal cliff and, indeed, the very wording "fiscal cliff" would sound like a dire emergency that skittish Democrats would shy away from letting happen. Well, their own caucus is running more scared from their own shadows now than Democrats who are increasingly confident that the country will blame the Republicans for any consequences.

I'd like to back up the discussion a bit and look at those Speakers of yore -- Tip O'Neill, for example. What they were working with was a Congress made up of parties that overlapped. The Democrats had a straight majority in the House for decades, but if you looked at members ideologically there were many conservative Democrats (mostly Southern) who, during the 1970s and 1980s, were converted to or replaced with conservative Republicans (the Lee Atwater "Southern Strategy" for the GOP). In the 1990s and 2000s you saw the purging of moderate GOP members for more ideologically pure Republicans. What this ultimately resulted in was an ideological canyon between the parties. It's really no longer seriously possible, as it used to be, to craft a coalition from the people in the other party who have a lot of sympathy for your own ideology. Thus the current Speakers -- Pelosi and Boehner -- have had to work pretty much with their own caucus and razor-thin majorities.

In traditional poli-sci theory this makes them much more vulnerable. They can't horse-trade guns for butter or whatnot as someone like Tip could. They have to come up with very precise proposals and execute them flawlessly. Presumably this offers an opportunity for a really good master of the legislative process -- I think Harry Reid is an example. The House isn't the same sort of animal as the Senate in many ways, so the Speakership is a cross to be borne as much as a sword to wield. You need superb intel and crack whips who are absolutely loyal, but that same poli-sci tells you the whips are much more beholden to the membership than to you.
posted by dhartung at 3:24 PM on December 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

You haven't read enough history, Area Man. Various House Speakers have been brutally unsuccessful at maintaining a coalition within their own party long enough to get much done.

It's a fairly rare thing to be able to lead a coalition for any length of time greater than about two terms, in any legislative body.

And in our particular model, with no way to call early elections, no bonanza of parties and clearly delineated factions, etc., it's even harder than usual. Boehner's at a disadvantage in being a) kind of a jerk about stuff (like Gingrich), b) being the only one of the four who is running a "majority" of the side opposite the President's party, c) being the only branch leader who's a Republican (Reid and the President are basically the heads of the Senate and the entire Executive branch, and the USSC doesn't count,) and d) having to deal with huge restructuring within his party while all of this is happening. He is handling the restructuring thing very badly.

It's actually rather similar to what was happening to the Federalist party in the 1810s, the Whig party in the 1850s, and the Democratic party in the 1960s and 1990s. We don't necessarily want to say that John McCormack was an "ineffective" Speaker just because the Democrats were ripping their coalition apart while he was their named leader; he had no role in the various social justice/youth movements that led to that. (I don't agree that things went badly for him primarily because he "wanted to be liked.")

Leading a caucus in Congress is less fun and more dangerous than herding feral cats with nothing but a blindfold on, in any event. It's on my list of "you couldn't pay me enough" jobs.

Also: Representatives are always touchy and self-absorbed; they spend all but about two months of their entire term running for re-election. And they are far more likely to lose a primary campaign than Senators are, in part because their races are significantly cheaper to enter and very few people are motivated to vote in every off-year election - and those who are motivated, are more likely to be motivated to run the suckers out of office or to be angry about an issue you had to vote for. Honestly, the most dangerous thing in the world for a member of the House of Representatives to do is vote on a significant issue. Pelosi and Boehner have exponentially more difficult jobs than Reid and McConnell do.

Anyway! My favorite recentish memories of Congressional nonsense are when John Boehner tried to oust Newt Gingrich as Speaker, and when I sat in the gallery of the House and watched Denny Hastert totally fail to bring the House to order (he actually gave up after a while and sat down; I was an idealistic teenager and thus completely appalled.
posted by SMPA at 7:31 PM on December 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Circumstances have created a situation where Boehner is a less powerful speaker than he would have been otherwise. Gingrich and Hastert slowly made it policy that bills in the House would not get voted on unless they could command a majority of the Republican caucus. Over time, this evolved into the rule that a bill would not be brought to the floor unless it commanded an absolute majority of votes solely from Republican House members. This wouldn't have been too much of a problem from 1994-2006, but the influence of the far right members elected in 2010 means that Boehner has no leverage to tell them to get bent by bringing a bill to the floor and passing it with votes from "mainstream" republicans and Democrats willing to go along: he has to round up 218 Republican Congressmen to get anything done, which is particularly challenging when the issues are controversial or smack of any kind of accommodation with the president. He has little leverage and his fate is tied to the willingness of the far-right members of his caucus to go along with him.
posted by deanc at 10:29 PM on December 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

The drafters of the Constitution debated gridlock, including proposals to bring in the Supreme Court. However, the argument that this would lead to far too strong a central government won out. What we experience today is pretty much what was intended.

... and ineffective? That is a matter of perspective.
posted by Ardiril at 1:49 PM on October 1, 2013

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