Boehner’s style: Why a weak Speaker is just what conservatives need

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Published on May 28, 2013

Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen write in Politico today on something I’ve asked Republican members of Congress about whenever I’ve been able. John Boehner, R-Ohio, they note, is an extremely weak Speaker of the House.

And that’s not intended as a put-down. In fact, I believe it’s a positive step in the evolution of the office, coming on the heels of the two most powerful leaders in the history of Congress — Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Tex. and Speaker Nancy Pelosi D-Calif. Recall that their terms at the top were disastrous, each ending with a thorough repudiation from voters.

Here’s how Politico puts it:

Boehner by recent historic standards and measures is a relatively weak speaker right now. But, in fairness, it’s not clear a more bullying or forceful leader would fare much better with this gang of Republicans or in this dysfunctional Congress.

Boehner runs a House in which many of the traditional levers of power are gone and of little use: earmarks for members’ districts, important committee assignments and the backing of party leaders for reelection. Most young conservatives don’t care about any of the three — and, in fact, see all of them as manifestations of what’s wrong with and corrupt about Congress and their party. They get more mileage from snubbing their leaders.

The authors’ gratuitous line about a “dysfunctional Congress,” in my opinion, suggests they’ve almost missed the point of their own piece. But it’s an important piece that you should read. This Congress and its predecessor actually work the way Congress is supposed to. They are not dysfunctional unless you believe the purpose of Congress is to serve the President of the United States.

When it comes to legislative leaders in a body like the House of Representatives, there are two models. One is the DeLay-Pelosi model. It works like this: The party leaders are like bad parents whose only tools of persuasion are threats and bribes, and they use them liberally. Unpopular legislation is rammed through the body without any consideration or concern for public input. The party leaders do not ask, but tell members how they will vote. Members who vote the wrong way without permission, or who cause trouble by bringing up the wrong amendments, are ruthlessly punished with the loss of their earmarks and prized committee positions, now and (depending on the seriousness of the offense) into the future. Vote for an amendment to cut spending across the board, and your pet bill will be buried in committee.

Congresses in the Pelosi-DeLay style do lots of affirmatively unpopular things. So they have to maintain their majority through a combination of pork-barrel spending and aggressive outreach toward and cooperation with K Street.

Then there’s the Boehner model, which simply acknowledges that nobody can control the beast, so you have to let it move around a bit and work with it. The current Speaker, lacking pork with which to grease the wheels (thanks to the earmark moratorium), is forced instead to operate by building trust and consensus among his members. He has to make compromises within his own caucus. He has to allow amendments, conversations and floor votes that never would have been allowed in the DeLay or Pelosi eras. At this moment, that means he has to work with House conservatives even when he finds it uncomfortable or politically suboptimal. In this model, it’s clear who members work for — their constituents, not the party leaders in Congress.

So which one of these systems do you think is really “dysfunctional?” I think the answer is obvious.

Perhaps Boehner seems less a conservative than some people would like, but that’s really beside the point. It’s not about Boehner, and Boehner might be the person who realizes that better than anyone else. Right now, conservative members of the House wield far more power than they did before — not only because their ranks have grown, but also because the pressure on them to conform is far less centralized and less effective.

If you want proof that this system is better for conservatives, consider this: Some of the conservative members who have pushed back hardest against leadership (and won) during the 112th and 113th Congresses are the very same ones who, in the DeLay era, were co-opted and voted for Medicare Part D a decade ago under pressure from party leadership. (Think, for example, of Steve King of Iowa.)

Or consider this: Republican leaders, instead of punishing members for voting to cut spending across the board, as they did routinely in DeLay’s time, decided this year it was better and easier to accept across-the-board cuts through sequestration than to succumb to pressure and give President Obama yet another tax increase. So far, it has turned out to be a brilliant calculation and a triumph of outside-the-Washington-box thinking.