January 3rd’s vote to reaffirm John Boehner’s position as Speaker of the House and head of the Republican Party in that chamber is but the latest of multiple GOP failures in recent months. Under normal circumstances, the reelection of an incumbent Speaker of the House is a smooth and simple process. It is highly irregular for a Speaker to lose his seat for any reason other than his party losing their majority in the House or for his own retirement from congressional politics. That said, the current state of the Republican Party is far from regular.
In the wake of a presidential election in which the Republican candidate was too much of a centrist to adequately differentiate himself from the failure of an incumbent that is President Obama and following senatorial elections in which voters across several states rejected Republican candidates from the Religious Right, the path forward for the Republican Party ought to be clear: a rejection of both narratives in favor of a new, principled, free market-oriented platform. Certainly, many on the Right are reaching that conclusion – others, particularly GOP leadership, are not.
John Boehner’s leadership in the House has been dismal. While the leadership of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate has not been markedly better, Speaker Boehner’s particular worthiness of harsh scrutiny arises from his position of preeminence — the fact that, unlike McConnell in the Senate, his party is in control of the chamber he oversees. While McConnell can only delay or foil Democratic legislation through filibuster and legislative tact, no bill can pass through the House of Representatives without Republican support. As the most powerful member in the House and the ranking Republican, blame falls soundly on Speaker Boehner for the number of bills that have slipped through his chamber to the benefit of the President and the detriment of the nation — such as paltry cuts to “future spending” in the first bout of debt ceiling talks, the NDAA, and the STOCK Act among others.
It is counter-intuitive — even purely incomprehensible — for Boehner to yield ever further at the bequest of President Obama when Republicans lost only seven seats in the House from the previous Congress, maintaining fifteen additional seats over the majority marker of two hundred eighteen seats. Yet this is precisely what the Speaker has repeatedly done. Rather than taking a principled stand on his “No Tax Pledge”, arguing that tax increases on anyone is unacceptable, and letting it fall on the president’s shoulders for raising everyone’s taxes due to his own unfaltering nihilism, Boehner forewent his pledge and did what now appears natural and expected from him: compromising on principle, and supporting a tax increase on top income earners. Though the Speaker’s “Plan B” fiscal cliff bill failed to pass the House (the better that it did), he accepted a “compromise bill” struck as a result of talks between Senate leadership and the White House. For the bill to be signed without further debate, it would have to be passed without amendment. The bill passed the House with the support of the Speaker and eighty-four other Republicans, while one hundred fifty-one Republicans voted against the bill. The bill passed with Democratic support that more than doubled the GOP support (one hundred seventy-two votes). To those who remember the passage of Obamacare, this should be eerily reminiscent of that day, as Republicans in the House were disallowed even the opportunity to reform an already bad bill for the sake of getting it to the president’s desk without further debate in Congress – but this time, that denial came from within their own party.
That was but the most recent stain on John Boehner’s legacy as Speaker of the House. Just a few weeks prior, he had enacted what is now infamously referred to as the “Tea Party Purge”. Legislators like Rep. Amash, Rep. Huelskamp, and Rep. Schweikert – the first two avid members of the Tea Party Caucus – were removed from their spots in prime committees. All three men had opposed the Speaker on several occasions, breaking with GOP ranks in the name of fiscal sanity – the most obvious example being their opposition to the Speaker’s hikes in the debt ceiling. It was an act of revenge, and a warning to all other Republicans: fall in line or be punished.
Fortunately, the warning appears to have gone unheeded. Previous celebrations by the Left over the “death of the Tea Party” following the 2012 election proved premature, as the vast majority of the Republican Caucus in the House refused to vote for a bill fronted by the Republican Establishment as “politically necessary”. Hopefully, the Right is growing tired of playing politics to the benefit of the president and their opposition, and are, at long last, coming to stand on principle.
Unfortunately, they could not do so quickly enough to unseat the Speaker of the House. Though Majority Leader Eric Cantor opposed the fiscal cliff bill (incidentally, former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan voted in favor of the bill– a surprise to all except those who have so much as glanced at his congressional record), no Republican stepped forward as an alternative. Supposedly the number of Republicans willing to unseat Boehner was sufficient to do it, but they lacked anyone around whom they could rally. The adage that one cannot beat someone with no one (QED, Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney) proved consistently true, as the only thing keeping Republicans from defecting was the absence of someone to replace Boehner as Speaker of the House.
This is but a continuation of the same problem faced in the Republican primaries: a Tea Party willing and ready to push the Republican Party in a new direction, but no viable candidate through whom they could effect this change. Whether through fear of retribution or the sincere absence of a viable challenger, no alternative candidates for the speakership emerged in the 113th Congress.
As time passes, leaders will emerge. What the reelection of Speaker Boehner means for the 113th Congress is, as of yet, uncertain. If he maintains the same pattern of leadership, he will likely continue behaving as if the Democrats control all of Congress rather than just one branch of it. If so, the American people can only anticipate that his party will maintain the same pattern of opposition demonstrated on the fiscal cliff issue. To do all that is within their power to prevent further action resulting from the unholy union between the Republican Establishment and the Democratic Party is all Americans can hope for, and all they can ask.