Speaker of the House is a terrible job, and John Boehner’s tenure as speaker was particularly terrible. To perform his job — and prevent catastrophic economic consequences for the whole nation — Boehner had to navigate 1) increasingly emboldened hardliners within his own caucus and his party’s electorate, 2) a flawed constitutional system that justifiably left Republicans frustrated, 3) a legislative cartel that forced Boehner to personally shame himself every time he tried to rein in the hardliners. On Friday, Boehner decided that he’d had enough of this tight rope walk; come November, he will no longer be speaker.
And there is no guarantee that Boehner’s successor will be able to walk this tightrope without falling to their doom — and potentially bringing the nation’s economy down with them.
For four years, Boehner’s been caught between hardline conservatives who insist on pressing the Republican Party’s agenda by any means necessary, and his own understanding that perpetual shutdowns are a road to economic ruin and political oblivion. Boehner spent months trying to avoid the government shutdown that occurred in 2013, then he had to accomplish the difficult balancing act of ending it without triggering a revolt within his own party that would doom his speakership. With another potential shutdown just days away, the hardliners were threatening to call a “no-confidence” vote on Boehner unless he agrees to tie continued government funding to a provision defunding Planned Parenthood.
Had Boehner wanted to remain speaker, this was likely to be what his life looked like. Year after year. Until Republicans either lost the House or gained control of all three levers of our democratic government.
When Boehner’s successor is selected, the GOP’s hardliners will have the fresh taste of blood in their mouths. They are likely to demand that candidates for the job show much more appetite for extortionate tactics than Boehner did. With Boehner gone, the next shutdown is much less likely to be averted — and it is likely to stretch on for much longer.
Moreover, a poll from last May found that 75 percent of Republicans “want GOP leaders to challenge Obama more often.” The hardliners have every reason to believe that their voters are on their side.
The hardliners also have a point. Indeed, they are, as much as anyone, a victim of a flaw at the heart of our Constitution.
The Failure Of Presidential Democracy
The United States is unusual among modern democracies because we elect our executive separately from our legislature — a system known as “presidential democracy.” Unlike a parliamentary system where the executive is chosen by the governing coalition within the legislature, America has three separate elected power centers which frequently are not all controlled by just one party. This is the reason for the gridlock that has seized Washington since Republicans regained the House in 2011 — gridlock that caused a government shutdown in 2013 and could easily cause another one next month.
When such impasses arise, presidential democracies are ill-suited to break them. As the late political scientist Juan Linz explained in a famous essay, both the party that controls the executive and the party that controls the legislature have equal claims to democratic legitimacy, there’s no “democratic principle” that allows one party or the other to claim a greater mandate from the people, and “the mechanisms the constitution might provide” to resolve an impasse “are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.” As Linz ominously warns, this can lead to a collapse of the democratic system. “It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power.”
So when Republican hardliners express frustration with the fact that they are unable to advance its agenda, they are not making a frivolous complaint. Republicans owe their majority in the House to a valid election (although the size of their majority is almost certainly inflated by gerrymandering) and can legitimately claim that President Obama’s refusal to implement their agenda was a repudiation of the election that brought House Republicans to power.
The only problem with this complaint is that it works equally well for President Obama. He can just as easily claim that Republican refusal to implement the White House’s ideas is a repudiation of his own election to the White House. And, even more importantly, Obama has the power to veto bills. If Boehner wanted must-pass legislation such annual appropriations or debt ceiling hikes to become law, he had to cut a deal with the president, and that meant sticking a thumb in Republican hardliners’ eyes every single time.
Boehner’s job was also complicated by the fact that the Republican majority largely runs as a “legislative cartel,” an arrangement where a bloc of lawmakers comprising a majority of a legislature all cast their votes together, even if a minority of the bloc disagrees with the votes they’ve agreed to cast. Under the informal “Hastert Rule,” the speaker typically will not bring a bill to the floor unless it enjoys majority Republican support. Thus, even if a bill funding the government or raising the debt ceiling has broad bipartisan support, the Hastert Rule dictates that the bill will not even receive a vote if a bloc of Republicans constituting less than 30 percent of the overall House oppose it.
In reality, the Hastert Rule is much more of an aspiration for Republican speakers than a rule — so much so that its namesake, former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), labeled it a “non-entity.” But even its theoretical existence was a thorn in Boehner’s side. Every time Boehner relied primary on Democratic votes to push through a must-pass bill, Republican hardliners seethed and plotted against him. They also complained to GOP voters that this was just one more example of Boehner’s perfidy. To prevent a revolt, Boehner often had to stage embarrassing political theater where he would honor the Hastert Rule until it was obvious beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only way to overt a crisis was to bring a bill most Republicans opposed to the floor.
More than four years into Boehner’s speakership, its a miracle that he managed to navigate this landscape for as long as he did — and there is little wonder why he’s ready to abandon this job. In the short term, moreover, the fact that Boehner will not resign for more than a month is good news for the nation’s economy because if gives him a lame duck period where he can pass one more bill to fund the government — most likely relying heavily on Democratic votes — before leaving the task of managing his unruly caucus to the next sucker. If Boehner doesn’t want to leave his successor with a potentially impossible task right out the gate, he will make sure that his last gift to the nation also includes a considerable increase to the debt ceiling.
But Boehner can only put off the next potential shutdown (or debt ceiling breach) for so long. The next time this battle arises, Boehner will not be around to navigate the treacherous path that leads to the government remaining open.
There’s no guarantee that anyone else can walk this path.