Boehner’s resignation offers many challenges
J ohn Boehner appears to have stunned everyone, including friends and allies, with his announcement on Sept. 25 that he is leaving the post of speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives — and also retiring from Congress. This concludes a tour of service in the top leadership post that has been especially difficult.
Boehner is a partisan Republican but also a dedicated legislator. He has rightly taken pride in getting the job done. That has meant compromise on occasion with Democrats while working simultaneously to hold together increasingly fractious House Republicans.
The Republican right wing contains zealots who can barely contain their glee that Boehner will soon be gone. The tea party may be fading as an electoral force, but the uncompromising movement remains highly influential in Congress. Their outlook is essentially narrow, shortsighted and ultimately counterproductive for their party as well as the nation.
Several dozen stalwarts in the House of Representatives are fundamentally opposed to government, period. A shutdown is for them welcome, no matter how inconvenient for working people in government, and in the wider economy.
Right- wing Republicans had threatened to oust Boehner if he permitted a federal budget to be passed which included funding for Planned Parenthood. Controversial videos which allege a callous attitude by that organization regarding use of fetuses greatly stoked the always emotional debate over abortion.
In 2013, Republicans managed to shut down the government for 16 days as part of the effort to derail the Affordable Care Act. Then and now, Democrats led by President Barack Obama used the Republican effort to political advantage. Boehner’s move makes a shutdown less likely.
The current situation further increases the influence of House Republicans who are able to get results without open warfare with the ideologues. Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the ways and means committee, likely will accumulate even more influence. His gracious statement describing Boehner’s resignation as “an act of pure selflessness” sets the right tone.
With Republican turmoil in the House, attention turns to the Senate, and in particular the role of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He is rightly respected as a pragmatic and effective deal maker. Currently he is pressing a spending bill which avoids defunding Planned Parenthood and funds the federal government into December.
The practice of holding the federal budget hostage to controversial partisan party maneuvers has now gone on for many years. In 1994, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives after 40 years in minority status. Their majority was led by new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who dramatically accelerated the trend of shifting that office from a relatively nonpartisan to highly partisan pulpit.
Then as now, White House Democrats and Congressional Republicans played an escalating game of budgetary chicken. The federal government was shut down briefly. In the political and public media maneuvering, President Bill Clinton was able to put the onus squarely on the Gingrich Republicans.
Publicly cool and politically cunning, Clinton moved ahead in the public opinion polls. He was helped by emphasizing fiscal restraint. In the 1996 presidential election, he defeated Republican nominee Senator Bob Dole.
Democrat Sam Rayburn of Texas remains the longest-serving speaker of the House. From the 1940s into the 1960s, he successfully practiced bipartisanship, despite the difficult politics of that era.
Rayburn possessed exceptional political skills. Today’s Democrats and Republicans are more sharply separated ideologically, which makes leadership even harder. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact him at acyr@ carthage.edu