The House Leadership Crisis, Explained

Republicans in national politics all basically agree on the same agenda: keep taxes as low as possible, raise the eligibility ages for Medicare and Social Security and decrease their benefits, destroy Obamacare, gut the Environmental Protection Agency, force all women to bring their pregnancies to term regardless of circumstances, allow fundamentalist Christians to impose their beliefs on others, round up and deport all illegal immigrants, allow people to openly carry basically any firearm they want with as little hassle as possible, etc. Where they might disagree is on tactics that can achieve these goals. Current House Speaker John Boehner, probably because he has read the actual US Constitution rather than the imaginary one inside many conservative brains, understands that Republicans cannot ram through a radical conservative agenda while a Democrat is president.

The Freedom Caucus, a group of more than 40 far-right House Republicans (and perhaps there are dozens more House members who sympathize with its strategy), disagrees with Boehner. Its members literally believe that Obama will eventually sign the extremely reactionary bills they want to send him if only they shut down the government long enough or default on US debt long enough to show Obama that they are serious about holding the country and the world economy hostage to their demands. No joking here – shutting down the government and defaulting on US debt obligations are exactly the tactics they want the next Speaker to promise to use.

This time, the Freedom Caucus is up in arms over Planned Parenthood and want to cut its funding. This is the great cause, which the American people are overwhelmingly against, over which they want to see the world burn. Over in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is demanding cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Boehner shares all of these goals. What he doesn’t share is the Freedom Caucus’ apocalyptic vision that the chaos surrounding government shutdowns and US debt defaults will cause Obama to capitulate to all of their demands. That’s why Boehner wants to step down. Which brings us, finally, to explaining the House leadership crisis.

The House has 435 voting members. A Speaker must be chosen by an outright majority of members, making 218 votes the minimum threshold. Republicans currently enjoy a majority of 247 members to the Democrats’ 188. The Freedom Caucus contains at minimum 40 members. The math shows that if the Freedom Caucus refuses to vote for a candidate for Speaker, Republicans have at best 207 votes, not enough to elect a new Speaker. This is why Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become Speaker went down in flames. The Freedom Caucus refused to endorse him, leaving him without the necessary 218 votes.

Now, most Republicans would strongly prefer to elect a Speaker with votes only from their party. Majority parties are loathe to beg for votes from the opposition party in order to elect a Speaker. Why? Well, the minority party would most likely demand some real influence as the price for their votes. Democrats have been shut out of influential roles in the House since 2011 even though they have repeatedly covered Boehner and “moderate” (non Freedom Caucus) Republicans by giving them enough votes to pass routine spending legislation and authorization to pay US debts. As Martin Longman explains, the only meaningful House majority is the majority of members willing to keep the government operating and to pay US debts. At the moment, that is essentially a coalition of Republicans who understand the actual US system of government as laid out in the US Constitution and Democrats. Longman argues that this arrangement ought to be formalized by Republicans allowing Democrats to chair some House committees in exchange for votes for the next Speaker, thus freezing out the Freedom Caucus and relegating it to the sidelines.

Sounds easy, right? But it’s not! “Sane” Republicans who understand the limits of power in our constitutional system are always at risk of facing a primary opponent who undoubtedly will make them pay for any compromise with Democrats. Want to keep the government open? Congratulations, you win a Tea Party primary opponent! Want to pay US debts? Congratulations, you win a Tea Party primary opponent! House Republicans who don’t want to destroy the country are genuinely between a rock and a hard place. Lose your job and avoid global catastrophe, or keep your job and facilitate global catastrophe?

Obama has already made clear that Freedom Caucus and Senate Republican budget demands are non-starters. But isn’t Obama just as responsible for avoiding disaster? This is where the whole thing gets a little difficult to explain. Our system of government is predicated on deliberate compromise. We have seen all kinds of difficult or noxious compromises in order to preserve the Union in our history, beginning with the country’s original sin of allowing slavery in a republic supposedly founded on the ideals in the Declaration of Independence, on through the Missouri Compromise, and on and on.

Such compromises came about because usually a majority or plurality in power has never been willing to burn the country down in order to achieve all of its goals, instead settling for the proverbial three-fifths of a loaf. The one major exception to our long history of making compromises no one was fully happy with is the Civil War, and if anyone wants to criticize Lincoln’s decision to go to war against people committing treason in order to protect slavery, be my guest.

I don’t want to overstate things, but that’s essentially where we are now. Obama does not want to set a new precedent in which a small minority – and from his point of view, a small minority that is an extremist faction – is allowed to hold the government hostage to its maximalist demands. If the 40-plus member Freedom Caucus is allowed to dictate deeply unpopular terms to the rest of the country then our form of representative government is again in a crisis different in degree but not in kind from that which precipitated the Civil War. What’s the point of a president if less than 10% of House Representatives, mostly hailing from the country’s backwaters, are able to tell that president – one from the opposite party, no less – what to sign, no negotiation?

This probably sounds like an exaggeration of the actual situation, but it’s not. The Freedom Caucus is that recalcitrant, and Boehner and McCarthy and everyone else have not been able to reason with it. The last hope for a Republican unity candidate for Speaker would seem to be Paul Ryan (R-WI), Mitt Romney’s pick for Vice President in 2012, darling of the mainstream media, and unapologetic con man. Some Freedom Caucus members have said nice things about Paul Ryan, but why would he possibly want the job? To become Speaker with only Republican votes, Ryan would have to promise the Freedom Caucus he would hold the government and US debt commitments hostage to their demands until Obama agrees to pay the ransom. Then, once Speaker, Ryan would be faced with two impossible choices. Either he’d have to follow through and shut down the government and default on our debts, causing pain at home and perhaps worldwide catastrophe, or he could screw over the Freedom Caucus, pass budgets and authorization to pay US debt with the help of Democrats, and suffer the same fate as Boehner and McCarthy. Either way lies ruin and humiliation and an end to any ambitions Ryan has to one day run for president.

So, it all comes back to an intra-Republican Party argument over tactics. Many Republicans who disagree with most everything Obama and Democrats stand for understand that, at the end of the day, Obama cannot allow a conservative rump to demand 100% satisfaction of their demands and 0% concessions in order to avoid a government shutdown and default on US debts. These “reasonable” Republicans agree with Obama and Democrats on at least one thing – burning the whole thing down is not an option. They understand that, in our system of government, they have to take their case to the American people and go out and win congressional majorities and the presidency. If they can’t do that, then they have to live with divided government and negotiate.

Freedom Caucus members insist on trampling the conventions of our political system, which have generally worked out for 200-plus years, and want to see what happens after they set the whole thing on fire.

It’s really not clear how this plays out. The best thing for everyone – except, one supposes, for the Freedom Caucus – might be for Boehner to stay on in a kind of caretaker role, as Josh Marshall explains. He would answer to no one and could use whatever coalition he pleases to pass whatever he wants. Enough Democrats would be willing to help him pass budgets and a US debt payment authorization that don’t monkey around too much with Democratic spending priorities. If he was really feeling emboldened, Boehner could even try to revive things like comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship that Democrats can accept.

The latter is extremely far-fetched and Boehner staying on in lieu of Republicans electing a new Speaker is unlikely. But it’s one unlikely alternative among several unlikely alternatives. Does Boehner stay on and see the country through the 2016 elections that will hopefully change the status quo? Do enough Republicans pressure Paul Ryan to run for Speaker, elect him, and can he survive in that role AND keep the government running AND pay US debts? Do 218-plus Republicans and Democrats join together in an unprecedented coalition government, elect a Speaker and share power in the House, thus officially recognizing the current de facto ruling coalition? Does some other Republican emerge who can bring the Freedom Caucus to heel without fearing for his or her job?

I don’t even know how to begin handicapping these possibilities. Let’s just hope that two additional unlikely alternatives, a government shutdown and/or default on US debt, don’t happen.

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4 thoughts on “The House Leadership Crisis, Explained

  1. […] I share Marshall’s exasperation with much of the media for belatedly and grudgingly coming to realize that the Trump phenomenon is a thing that is real and that he has a real constituency. The inmates are close to complete control of the asylum and many of us have seen this coming since at least 2010. Even if Trump loses, which Marshall thinks is still likely, the Republican Party is beholden to the people fueling his rise. These would be the people who give us deposed Speakers of the House and government shutdowns. […]

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