Boehner’s dilemma

As the deadlocked US government moves inexorably towards a shut down, it may be good to see how it has come to this. Last Friday, I attended a discussion led by one of my colleagues in the political science department. I have always found him to be very enlightening because he takes a hard-edged, data-driven approach to politics and he did not disappoint this time either. He shed many interesting insights into what lies behind the current situation.

It is not secret that there is an internal war within the Republican party, especially in the House of Representatives. He says that the major problem that has led to the current impasse is that John Boehner is in an unenviable position as a Speaker in that unlike previous Speakers, he is not in a position to deliver Republican party votes on any given issue because he does not have control over his caucus. But the problem is not that he is a ‘moderate’ confronting Tea Party ideological extremists. He said that Boehner is as ideologically extreme as any of them. In fact, in measures of ideology (and political scientists have measures for these things) Boehner is well above the median Republican values for right wing extreme ideology. He also reminded us that Boehner came in to Congress as a Republican ‘bomb thrower’ in the camp of Newt Gingrich where they decided that they would flatly oppose anything they disagreed with, even if the government shut down, as it did back then too.

So if Boehner is as much an ideologue as the Tea Party, what is the problem? He said that the division is not based on ideology but between those who are deal makers and those who are purists. While Boehner’s views haven’t changed, his experience with the Gingrich shut down debacle made him into someone who felt that deals had to be made for the sake of governance. In fact, he had even tried an abortive coup against Gingrich that was exposed and failed. Boehner has become a deal-maker and faces a Republican caucus in which a significant number are purists who are not interested in making deals.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives is strong and can deliver the votes when he or she has the power to reward and punish members to get them to vote his or her way. These rewards and punishments took two forms: providing earmarks for their districts as bribes; and by appointments to plum committees and chairs of committees and subcommittees.

Both those things have disappeared. As a result of the push by John McCain and others against what was perceived as the corruption caused by earmarks (which actually make up a very small part of the budget), earmarks have been pretty much forbidden. Furthermore, many of the purists would refuse to be bribed in this way.

The second change is even more dramatic. Because Congress has pretty much stopped legislating, committee positions and chairpersonships are not seen as valuable anymore because they don’t really do anything. People have even turned down appointments to the House Appropriation Committee and its associated subcommittees. These used to be highly coveted because they set the budgets for the year and lobbyists would shower money on committee members to sway them. People would beg to be put on them. But since we have not had any real budgets for years, passing just continuing resolutions, these committees are seen as not being relevant anymore and a waste of time. It is much more fun to grandstand. After the 2012 elections, Boehner fired some committee chairs for defying him in the earlier Congress but that did not serve the purpose of intimidating others to obey him, the way it might have done earlier.

This leaves Boehner with little leverage over his members. So according to my colleague, he thinks the only way Boehner can get any budget and debt deals done is to try and quietly persuade some of his Republicans to break ranks and vote with the Democrats and pass continuing resolution and debt ceiling bills. Of course, such people will face the wrath of the purists and only those in safe districts will do so.

So that is where things stand. As I have said many times before, this is not the way to run the world’s biggest economy.


  1. raven says

    Very clear and illuminating.

    OK, our democracy has failed and frozen up. Way it goes, I guess. I always, didn’t want to live in a failed nation state.

    The next step is obvious. What can we do to survive the Tea Party attacks on our country? I tossed my TV during the Reagan adminstration and never got another one. While it made no difference, it did help me sleep at night. Out of sight, out of mind.

    This time I’m not going to toss my internet. But I might change the channels a lot.

  2. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Hard to feel sorry for Boehner -- but then also hard not to.

    If its okay to do so here, (my apologies and please let me know if not) I found this post on Jim Wright’s Stonekettle Station blog :

    summed the current mess up well and powerfully.

    I wish y’all over there in the States good luck in getting through this okay.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    And let’s not forget the other culprits here: the American People.

    I heard a DJ expressing disgust about all of this the other day, and then he said, “I have a new slogan: Re-elect nobody.”

    That attitude is a large part of what got us here. The anti-incumbant wave is why we have so few deal-makers and compromisers left.

    When people show up in Washington, they tend to be ideological purists. Over time, they get some of the edges rubbed off, they make a few friends on the other side of the aisle, and they FIGURE OUT HOW THE GOVERNMENT WORKS.

    Anti-incumbancy leads to government by amateurs.

  4. trucreep says

    This is a really interesting take on the current situation. Especially to how the Speaker is able to control the caucus and wield power. There’s a whole side to Congress that most people don’t understand as it’s all procedures and in-house rules.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    Mano Singham: Nope, I am still in Canada, returning later today.

    I hope you get back before the government shuts down and they close all those customs checkpoints.

    raven: I tossed my TV during the Reagan adminstration and never got another one. While it made no difference…

    Except to the person who was walking beneath your window that day.

  6. dean says

    When Boehner threw in with the Tea Baggers (motto: If the black guy is for it we’re against it) on this it convinced me that he is more concerned with keeping the title of Speaker than he is in trying to stand up and lead: appearance over principle, in other words.

    brucemcgee1962, I agree with your comment.

  7. rdmcpeek43 says

    @ #3/ StevoR: Thank you for the link to “” That was fascinating reading and so very true. Will “we” ever learn?

  8. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    To be fair, raven didn’t say xe tossed it our the window only that xe tossed it. Could’ve just bene tossed inside her living room and made a mess of the floor / walls / ceiling.

    Also Raven didn’t say xe didn’t look where xe was tossing it first!

  9. eigenperson says

    I will feel sorry for Boehner at exactly the same instant that he decides to act like an adult and abandon the Hastert rule.

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