John Boehner Has Speaker Tenure for Life—If He Wants It

AP Photo/Molly Riley

Don’t worry about John Boehner. Yes, there seem to be near-constant rumors and suspicions of a revolt against him, and Republican members of the House have been conspiring with Texas senator Ted Cruz. But it’s unlikely to actually cost him his job. He’s probably going to survive and remain as speaker of the House just as long as he wants to. At least, as long as divided government and the Republican House majority last.

Over at The New RepublicNoam Scheiber argues that Boehner’s job will “almost certainly” be lost if he allows the debt limit to be raised with mostly Democratic votes. That’s probably wrong. To see why, however, we need to step back.

See, the reasons that Boehner has seemingly been five minutes from getting ousted throughout his speakership have nothing to do with Boehner; they’re structural. Which means that any possible speaker—Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann, or Ronald Reagan risen from the dead—would have pretty much the exact same problems.

Essentially, it all comes down to one quick equation: divided government plus Tea Party equals one frustrated speaker. Divided government, especially in a partisan era, sets up a basic fact that nothing can pass into law without both the speaker and the president signing off on it. That’s no big deal for most parties and their congressional leaders, but this particular party, with its Tea Party hyperpartisanship, has a particular aversion to compromise—especially with the Kenyan socialist in the White House, but also with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

That combination is bad enough if there’s something a party wants to do; it’s even worse when there’s something it must do, such as funding bills or increasing the debt limit. It sets up as convoluted a situation as one can imagine for the speaker: Boehner has to somehow wind up with something that both he and Obama can live with without appearing to compromise, and generally without even negotiating. Fun!

Indeed, it’s even worse than that. Republican politicians are constantly terrified of being seen by their constituents as squishes or RINOs (Republicans in name only), which means that mainstream conservatives—who, by any rational standard, are in fact very conservative—try hard to prevent any distance from opening between themselves and those at the extremes of their party. Not only that, but because the party doesn’t really have policy goals to speak of outside of ever-lower taxes for rich people, the differences between the extremes and the mainstream tend to be over tactics, not substance. All of which doubles back on itself to re-enforce the strict “principle” of avoiding negotiations and compromise.

Again: None of that has anything to do with John Boehner. Nor is there anything that any speaker could really do about it.

The incentives driving members of the Republican conference are all external to Congress; they’re found in Tea Party politics, the ways that the Republican-aligned press works, and other things that no speaker could do much to change. Since everyone—and especially any potential successor speaker—knows all of that, it’s unlikely that anyone would mount a coup against him. Any successor would rapidly find himself or herself with exactly the same problems plus one: There would be a new precedent established for what to do with the speaker when things go wrong—overthrow them.

Besides, it’s likely that most mainstream conservatives in the House Republican conference appreciate what Boehner does for them. He schedules plenty of votes on nutty nonsense that allow them to show off as “true conservatives.” That’s what the latest round on the continuing resolution to avert government shutdown on Saturday night was all about. He sometimes chooses losing a fight to cutting a deal, which goes well with the preferences of the Tea Partiers they are most sensitive to (yes, that’s crazy, but it’s not crazy for the speaker to be responsive to his conference). It’s likely that when Boehner has brought measures to the House floor to pass with mostly Democratic votes, as he did with the fiscal-cliff bill and as he may well still do for the continuing resolution and the debt limit, that most Republicans who vote against those bills are happy to see them pass—without their votes. The truth is that mainstream conservative representatives are probably pleased, too, that Boehner winds up as the scapegoat in some of these confrontations. Better him than them.

For most House Republicans, John Boehner is doing what they need him to do, even when they’re (publicly) upset with him. And he’s further protected because the same things that might make him vulnerable make the job unappealing for anyone else. It’s easy to see why all of that might make him happy to step away from the job voluntarily … but if he wants it, and he keeps finding ways to avoid the very worst calamities, the job is probably his for a good long while.

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