The con­ser­va­tive coup

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DANAMIL­BANK Twit­ter: @Mil­bank

The chaos on Capi­tol Hill would be en­ter­tain­ing if the con­se­quences weren’t so se­ri­ous. The speaker of the House is sec­ond in line to the pres­i­dency, and since the found­ing of the Re­pub­lic the po­si­tion has been one of the most im­por­tant in gov­ern­ment, key to na­tional se­cu­rity and do­mes­tic tran­quil­ity.

Now a band of about three dozen con­ser­va­tive hard­lin­ers, ex­ploit­ing the par­ti­san di­vide, has es­sen­tially hi­jacked the cham­ber, re­duc­ing the speaker’s role to that of a fig­ure­head sub­servient to its wishes. This isn’t a lead­er­ship bat­tle; it’s a coup. The real ques­tion, then, is not why Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy (RCalif.) with­drew from the race. It is why any­body would want the thank­less job in the first place.

Rep. John Boehner (ROhio), af­ter fi­nally get­ting the prize he de­sired, spent the next 4½ years in mis­ery, per­pet­u­ally bad­mouthed and bad­gered by the Free­dom Cau­cus and other con­ser­va­tive mal­con­tents. When he fi­nally an­nounced his re­tire­ment last month, he did it singing “ZipADeeDooDah.”

Boehner’s un­der­study, Eric Can­tor, would have been speaker to­day — but his po­si­tion in lead­er­ship made him a fat tar­get for con­ser­va­tives, and he was ousted in a pri­mary in his con­gres­sional dis­trict.

Now McCarthy has been de­posed by a con­ser­va­tive re­bel­lion be­fore he even got to hold the speaker’s gavel.

And Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the man best suited for the job, says he doesn’t want to be speaker. Can any­one blame him? If he were to take on the as­sign­ment, there’s ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve that within months some­body would be draw­ing a chalk out­line around him, too.

The next speaker — who­ever that may be — will have to pick be­tween two poi­sons: Defy the few dozen con­ser­va­tive zealots who hold the bal­ance of power in the House and thereby lose the gavel, or sur­ren­der to the con­ser­va­tives and take the Repub­li­can Party (and per­haps the coun­try) into a quag­mire of de­fault and shut­down.

“I feel good about the de­ci­sion,” McCarthy told re­porters Thurs­day, min­utes af­ter with­draw­ing from the race. His smile seemed gen­uine enough, and he made no ef­fort to con­ceal his rea­sons.

“There’s calls into the dis­trict,” he ex­plained, re­fer­ring to the ef­forts by con­ser­va­tive groups to de­pose him be­fore he ever took the throne. “I don’t want to make vot­ing for speaker a tough one. I don’t want to go to the floor and win with 220 votes.” (A bare House ma­jor­ity is 218, and there are 247 Repub­li­cans.)

Even if Ryan or another fig­ure can tem­po­rar­ily unite the cau­cus, the con­ser­va­tives’ de­mands will in­evitably lead to chaos. As I wrote last week, they’re seek­ing not just show­downs over spend­ing but pro­ce­dural changes that would bring an­ar­chy, in­clud­ing un­lim­ited free­dom to amend leg­is­la­tion; a ban on leg­is­la­tion that doesn’t have the sup­port of a ma­jor­ity of GOP mem­bers; and a re­fusal to take up com­pro­mise leg­is­la­tion worked out by the Se­nate.

For all the grous­ing about Boehner cut­ting deals with Democrats, the out­go­ing speaker of­ten yielded to the con­ser­va­tive hold­outs. They got their shut­down, and they got their Beng­hazi se­lect com­mit­tee — which McCarthy, in an un wise mo­ment of hon­esty this month, ac­knowl­edged was for the pur­pose of dam­ag­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton po­lit­i­cally. Be­fore de­part­ing, Boehner is mak­ing good on a prom­ise to give con­ser­va­tives the Planned Par­ent­hood se­lect com­mit­tee they de­sired, even though three com­mit­tees were al­ready in­ves­ti­gat­ing the group and the chair­man of one of them said he had no ev­i­dence that the group had bro­ken the law. Call it the Planned Beng­hazi hood com­mit­tee.

Boehner of­ten had lit­tle choice: With Democrats vot­ing as a bloc, the loss of just 30 Repub­li­cans would bring leg­is­la­tion to a halt. Boehner oc­ca­sion­ally de­fied the mal­con­tents, but he even­tu­ally chose to quit rather than to seek a coali­tion with Democrats that would side­line the con­ser­va­tive hold­outs.

If Boehner wasn’t strong enough to do that, it’s hard to imag­ine a suc­ces­sor could. McCarthy — who gave his bene­fac­tor a grade of Bmi­nus in a Fox News ap­pear­ance — clearly was ter­ri­fied of the hard­lin­ers.

For good rea­son: They’re a rough crowd. Among the many tac­tics em­ployed against McCarthy in re­cent days was a let­ter from Rep. Wal­ter B. Jones (RN.C.) say­ing a can­di­date should with­draw “if there are any mis­deeds he has com­mit­ted since join­ing Congress.” This was widely in­ter­preted as tar­get­ing McCarthy.

The only thing that will likely end the thug­gish tac­tics is public anger— and pun­ish­ment at the polls — when the con­ser­va­tive hard­lin­ers are blamed for shut­downs, de­faults or what­ever else re­sults from their coup.

And who would want to pre­side over that?

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