Column: Boehner is leading from behind
By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON — It’s time for the speaker of the House to start leading or leave. With some ingenuity, he might even be able to lead and keep his speakership.
We tend to think of John Boehner as the helpless pawn of an ungovernable caucus, under the thumb of ideologues who prevent the otherwise sane speaker from being the dealmaker he is at heart.
In this view, Boehner has little choice — he must capitulate to the anarchists’ demands or lose his speakership.
First, so what? Is the title worth the hassle? Does Boehner want to be remembered as the speaker who led his party — or, more accurately, followed it — over the cliff of shutdown and default? Let Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz be speaker if he wants the job.
Boehner has been practicing the tantrum theory of leadership: letting the crazies in his caucus have their meltdown until they’ve gotten it out of their system and are ready to listen to reason.
In the current situation, you could imagine that having the tantrum over funding the government could be usefully cathartic, clearing the decks for more reasonable behavior over the debt ceiling. Except that Boehner has been ginning up his caucus for a debt-ceiling fight, where he believes Republicans will have more leverage with the president (maybe) and suffer less political damage (doubtful).
Perhaps the fallout from a shutdown — among voters and in the market — would be chastening enough to convince Republicans to back away from the far more cataclysmic prospect of leaving the government unable to borrow enough money to cover its debts.
But as every parent eventually discovers, sometimes you have to step in and tell the kids to cut it out. Now. Because if you don’t, you will lurch from tantrum to tantrum, forever at the mercy of tiny terrorists. And these tiny terrorists have nuclear weapons in the form of a default on the debt.
Which brings me to the second response: Maybe Boehner has more power than he seems to believe. What if Boehner brought his proposed solution for funding the government to the House floor — even if it would require giving up relying on only Republican votes and instead relying on Democrats to help it pass?
Let Boehner dare his caucus not to follow him. How naive, you’re thinking. He’d be out as speaker before you could say Eric Cantor.
Maybe not. In the history of the House, no speaker has been forcibly removed from office. The closest things came, according to Catholic University political scientist Matthew N. Green, an expert on the speakership, occurred in 1910, when Republican Speaker Joe Cannon faced a revolt from a group of progressive Republicans and the Democratic delegation, which ended up stripping the heavy-handed speaker of some powers.
Notably, when Cannon requested a vote to remove him from office, the rebels caved, with Republican insurgents unwilling to accept a Democratic speaker. “I was given more votes than at the beginning of Congress,” Cannon observed in his autobiography.
Likewise, when Speaker Newt Gingrich faced a brewing coup in 1997, he simply refused to resign his speakership and warned the plotters (among whom was one John Boehner) that they risked ending up with a Speaker Dick Gephardt, the Democrats’ leader. That was not likely to happen, or if it did, to last for very long, but the insurrection quickly evaporated.
In the current situation, there’s no doubt that House Republicans seeking to oust Boehner could bring that effort to the floor; under House procedures, it would be a privileged motion entitled to speedy consideration.
But even if it were to succeed — presumably with a combination of Democrats and tea party Republicans — the Republicans would have to worry about what happens next. Under House practice, the speaker is chosen by a majority of those present and voting.
If Democrats voted present, Boehner could regain the speakership with a mere majority of his caucus — not a majority of the entire House.
If Democrats voted for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, it’s unclear that traumatized, fractured Republicans would be able to summon a majority of the whole House for one of their own — Majority Leader Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy or Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.
Challenging the speaker is risky business. Which is why it’s time for this speaker to start taking some risks — for his country as well as his legacy.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is ruthmarcus@)washpost.com.