Originally published October 10, 2015
The collapse of House Republicans this week is the logical result their party’s governing philosophy – or the lack of it. In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan told the nation, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Conservatives took that maxim to heart. So that some twenty years later, Grover Norquist, a Reaganite advocate of low taxes, could proudly proclaim, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
By the time that John Boehner became House Speaker and began presiding over the least productive Congress ever, it made sense for him to claim, with a straight orange face,
“We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”
The problem with a governing philosophy of “repeal” (especially with control of only one branch of government) is that it leads to government shutdowns, credit defaults and downgrades and “careening from crisis to crisis,” as Hillary Clinton once described it. What President Obama said is indisputably true:
“This is no way to run the greatest country on Earth.”
Yet Madison designed the People’s House as the branch of government most responsive to public opinion. And the Taliban wing of the Republican Party, also known alternatively as the Tea Party or Freedom Caucus, is nothing, if not responsive to the loudest wingnut yelling from the back row of its members’ town hall meetings in their gerrymandered districts back home.
Boehner has come to rely on the true “silent majority” in his caucus: namely, those Republicans who vote “no” but hope for “yes.” How else to explain his repeated flouting of the so-called Hastert Rule under which a Speaker only brings to the floor for a vote a bill that commands the majority of the Republican majority?
Boehner has been forced to break the Hastert Rule repeatedly in the last two and a half years to win support for must-pass legislation. He’s relied on Nancy Pelosi to bring the votes of her virtually unified Democratic caucus to pass key bills opposed by the Republican majority, including
- the fiscal cliff bill (passed by 191 Democrats and 85 Republicans)
- Hurricane Sandy relief (192 Democrats and 41 Republicans in favor)
- extension of the Violence Against Women Act (all 199 Democrats and 87 Republicans voting “yea”)
- raising the debt ceiling in 2013 after the Republicans shut down the government trying to abolish Obamacare (198 Democrats and 87 Republicans in favor)
- the “clean” the debt ceiling bill in 2014 (untethered to the Keystone Pipeline or increasing
- the military budget (193 Democrats and a mere 28 Republicans saying yes)
- the “clean” bill funding the Department of Homeland Security in 2015 (without rescission of President Obama’s executive orders on deferred action for undocumented immigrants) (193 Democrats and 28 Republicans)
- and most recently on September 30, 2015, the “clean” continuing resolution to fund the government (including Planned Parenthood) (186 Democrats and 91 Republicans)
As Denny Hastert, in happier days, predicted himself about repeated violations of his eponymous rule,
“Maybe you can do it once, maybe you can do it twice, but when you start cutting deals where you have to get Democrats to pass the legislation, you’re not in power anymore.”
Boehner’s “clean” C.R. last month was his eighth (and perhaps last) violation of the Hastert Rule. Before suffering a vote of “no confidence” led by the Freedom Caucus, he quit, explaining, “It’s become clear to me this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution.”
But now his handpicked successor, Kevin McCarthy, has withdrawn his name from consideration because he could not get enough votes from his own party. The hard right, however, lacks sufficient numbers to elect its own Speaker. But without its support, the regular right can’t get to a majority of the House either — leaving Boehner in the Speaker’s chair until he can be replaced.
Neither Paul Ryan nor anybody else foolish enough to take the Speaker’s gavel under current circumstances is the answer – because to gain the necessary support of the Freedom Caucus, he or she would need to promise a new government shutdown or national credit breach.
The solution is obvious. Boehner should assemble what in any other country would be considered a government of national unity. He planned to resign his seat in Congress and retire anyway. That means he doesn’t ever have to stand for reelection in a Republican primary again and has nothing to lose. He might as well leave on his own terms as a patriot, perhaps even a political hero! He can become the speaker he always hoped to be.
He could lead a coalition of the center right and the center left. It’s the same de facto governing majority of legislators that he’s relied on in the past to bypass the Tea Party rejectionists. Such a unity government could rule until the next election, when all bets are off. But in the meantime, it would keep the government open, pay the bills the government has already incurred without default and maybe give us something to be proud of: cooperation and common sense by our leaders. No, not you, Donald Trump.