Follow the bouncing something, as the spectacle inside the House GOP seems a performance for the ages. As the factions line up, Speaker Boehner’s allies are scorching the insurgency:
GOP lawmakers who’ve stood by Boehner’s side throughout his rocky five-year tenure as Speaker bitterly blamed the right flank for forcing a contested leadership race less than a year after the party won control of Congress in the 2014 midterm elections.
A fired-up House Ethics Committee Chairman Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), speaking not long after Boehner dropped the bombshell at a Friday conference meeting that he’ll leave Congress at the end of next month, ripped into hard-line conservatives.
He accused them of opposing Boehner at every turn, and noted they have “never had a horse of their own.”
“Any jackass can kick down a barn door. It takes a carpenter to hang one. We need a few more carpenters around here. Everybody knows it,” Dent said off the House floor.
Leadership allies are frustrated by what they see as a repeated exercise in futility.
And the hardliners posture:
A co-founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus has a warning for any Republican hoping to replace outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio): No one will get the promotion without our blessing.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a sharp critic of Boehner, said Friday that there are roughly 40 members of the group — and another 20 conservatives outside of it — who won’t back any new Speaker who fails their litmus test for conservative purity. And the group’s leadership endorsements, he warned, will be “a collective, corporate decision.”
“We have enough votes in the House Freedom Caucus to prevent anybody from being Speaker. We will be a voting bloc,” Huelskamp said.
“We’re looking for someone who, number one, has conservative principles and actually can articulate them, but also … follows through on John Boehner’s  promise … [to] open up this House and let conservatives have a shot at things,” he added. “And at the end of the day, the Democrats had more shot at amendments than conservatives. So we’ve gotta talk about process as well.”
This is the point at which we are supposed to make some sort of joke about things either starting or ceasing to make sense, and it is our shame to disappoint you; there is no baseline by which the idea of making sense makes any sense.
These are, after all, House Republicans. They would be wise to heed Mr. Dent; recalling that Boehner stayed on essentially in hopes of forestalling utter collapse among Congressional Republicans, it is worth remembering his reaction to caucus unrest all of three weeks into the session:
“I prefer that we avoid these very contentious social issues,” said moderate Rep. Charlie Dent, reprising comments he gave in the closed-door conference meeting. “Week one, we had a speaker election that did not go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two, we got into a big fight over deporting children, something that a lot of us didn’t want to have a discussion about. Week three, we are now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes and incest for minors. “I just can’t wait for week four.”
To the one, it seems easy to have seen coming. To the other, here we are with an astounding maneuver of statesmanship intended to forestall a government shutdown over abortion politics for all of three months. Something about futility goes here; the social conservative wing of the Republican Party will be its ruin. After all, just what are these principles? As near as anyone can tell, it has something to do with women having too many rights, gays having too many rights, and we can rest assured there’s another Obamacare vote waiting in the wings.
Their effect is demonstrated in a curious 2013 episode Steve Benen recalled in the wake of Speaker Boehner’s announcement:
One my favorite moments of House Speaker John Boehner’s tenure came in July 2013, when the Ohio Republican sat down with Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” The host asked the GOP leader a question on the minds of many.
SCHIEFFER: Any way you cut it, and whoever`s fault it is, you have presided over what it perhaps the least-productive and certainly one of the least popular congresses in history. How do you feel about that?
BOEHNER: Well, Bob, we should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.
As we talked about at the time, it was an unintentionally amusing exchange. Boehner was effectively trying to rebrand failure – instead of finding solutions to ongoing challenges, the Speaker argued Congress should be focusing on undoing solutions to previous challenges.
But the argument suffered from one serious flaw: Congress was historically inept, but it wasn’t repealing any laws, either. In effect, Boehner was arguing, “Sure, by your standard, I look like a failure, but I prefer my own standard, by which I’m still a failure.”
And the list is long; in the question of principles versus politics the result really does look like the hardliners are trying to prove the thesis that government just doens’t work. There was the hilarious occasion that Sen. Mitch McConnell, then the Minority Leader of the upper chamber, miscalculated his approach and ended up filibustering his own amendment because he hadn’t expected Majority Leader Reid to allow it for a vote, but that was just the Kentucky senior being himself. Mr. Boehner’s most infamous retractions have been forced by his own caucus, leaving the Speaker to appear flaccid, incompetent, and even worse than useless. Continuing resolutions, fiscal cliffs, immigration relief, and the one time he suffered a hard backlash from his establishment sector he ended up pulling an abortion bill. Which, in turn, led the gentleman from Pennsylvania Fifteen to his exasperated review of the first three weeks of the session.
This is the quandary. It is akin to the proposition of the Constitution as a suicide pact, or even the question of Kim Davis. What is the solution when the function requires dysfunction? What the House GOP faces is that the House does not always win. The likely successor, Mr. McCarthy (CA-23), faces a continued right-flank insurgency akin to what Speaker Boehner has endured, essentially grinding governance to a halt in the House as formerly routine legislation now routinely faces suicide pact dissent. To the other, a Speaker satisfactory to the hardliners would in effect accomplish the same thing; as Ezra Klein considered of the post-policy phenomenon two years ago:
What lies under the recent policy stagnation is clearly obstructionism―or, if you prefer, the gridlock of divided government. After all, 2009 and 2010 were only a few years ago, and they were the most rapid period of policy accomplishment in generations. Democrats didn’t run out of agenda. They ran out of votes.
The right way to approach the question of policy exhaustion, then, is to reverse the gridlock and ask what the two parties would do if they had commanding majorities in Congress.
And we know exactly what they would do: Shut down the government over abortion; shut down the government over the PPACA; shut down the government over immigration reform. Fumble VAWA. Botch the Farm Bill. Screw the Highway Bill. Speaker Boehner had to pull his own fiscal bill after the caucus refused to line up. A Congressional Whip is not a proper parliamentary whip; to the one, we have no three-line whip, and, to the other, part of the House Freedom Caucus insurgency is about the fact that Speaker Boehner dared punish hapless dissent, including Mr. Webster.
And while it is easy enough to point out that the GOP seems amid the slow-motion horror of being consumed by its own hellspawn, an absolutist bloc coddled and cultivated for a generation with reckless delicacy, we might also worry that this is only the leading edge of the storm; beware any sudden calm. It really does not seem so unfair to wonder, as we have, just who is actually in charge of the Republican Party right now. And this isn’t the question about the talk show hosts, but, rather, an apparent dearth of effective leadership between the circus they call a presidential campaign, the embarrassing failure they call the House of Representatives, and a Republican National Committee that stopped being useful years ago, and, like Speaker Boehner, could only hope to be merely useless.
The idea that this right-wing revolt could actually run the House is laughable, but in this case it is also specifically part of the problem. Looking forward, the near term future of the House seems rather quite grim; they will not be getting much done in any case. The only real question is just how undignified a show House Republicans are willing to put on. For its part, the House Freedom Caucus seems prepared for indignities aplenty.
It would be funny except we really are verging into territory where prognostication fails, and while it probably will not go so far, this thing really could turn into a proper American disaster.
Benen, Steve. “The legacy Speaker Boehner leaves behind”. msnbc. 25 September 2015.
Dumain, Emma. “Roskam, Still Coy on Leadership Plans, Inserts Himself Into the Fray”. Roll Call. 26 September 2015.
Klein, Ezra. “Is Washington in a ‘post-policy era’?”. The Washington Post. 16 August 2013.
Lillis, Mike. “Freedom Caucus flexes muscle in Speaker’s race”. The Hill. 25 September 2015.
Marcos, Cristina. “Furious Boehner allies lash out”. The Hill. 26 September 2015.
Newhauser, Daniel and Lauren Fox. “GOP Leaders Pull Abortion Bill After Revolt by Women, Moderates”. National Journal. 21 January 2015.
Wong, Scott. “Rep. Webster on Speaker’s race: ‘I’m in this to win'”. The Hill. 26 September 2015.