by Chera LaForge
It’s been a big week for the United States Congress. On Thursday, they hosted Pope Francis in a joint session, an event possible only because of the long-time efforts of Speaker of the House, John Boehner. On Friday, Boehner announced his resignation from his leadership position and congressional seat in a closed door meeting of the Republican caucus. Boehner’s resignation ends an interesting and tumultuous period for the Republican leadership. In 2014, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA) lost his Virginia primary race to an unknown economics professor and Tea Party candidate, Dave Brat, the first sitting majority leader to lose his position. And while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would eventually win handily in both races, he faced an expensive primary battle from the right and a highly qualified Democratic challenger in the general election. The electoral challenges leadership has faced in the past two years mirror the increasing difficulty of managing the increasingly conservative Republican rank and file.
The resignation of Boehner isn’t actually as abrupt as we might expect. Vote View predicted that Boehner may be “one casualty of this fight over Planned Parenthood” on September 19 and rumors were floating that Boehner supporters in Congress were trying to prevent his ouster until after the Pope’s visit. Yet, Boehner’s challenges reach back much farther than the most recent threat of a government shutdown. In July, House Freedom Caucus member, Mark Meadows (R-NC), filed a motion to vacate the chair, arguing that Boehner had tried to consolidate power, punish members that voted against his wishes, limited the power of the legislative branch, and bypassed the wishes of most of the Republican caucus. While the motion didn’t move beyond being referred to the House Rules Committee, it did cap off two cycles where an increasing number of Republicans voted against his campaign for the speakership. At the start of the 114th Congress, 25 Republicans voted against him, casting ballots for a wide array of other members including Louis Gohmert (TX), Jeff Duncan (SC), Daniel Webster (FL), and Kevin McCarthy (CA). At the start of the 113th Congress in 2013, nine Republicans had voted against Boehner.
The speaker’s role is not an easy one, especially in an era of increasing polarization both within the chamber and across the country. With the growth in the number of conservative, Tea Party Republicans in Congress, Boehner’s position became increasingly imperiled. These members pushed for hardline responses on issues like defunding Planned Parenthood, primarily because their personal ideology and district make-up allowed for it. However, as Speaker of the House, Boehner had to balance multiple strategic considerations. The move to defund Planned Parenthood has been described as “quixotic” by The Washington Times, primarily because it faced no chance of passing the Senate (and, in fact, the Senate vote failed 47-52 yesterday) and President Obama had threatened to veto the legislation even if it had. Forcing a government shutdown because of the issue could be disastrous for the Republican Party moving into an election season, a point Boehner was well aware of. During the last government shutdown in 2013, Gallup found favorability for the Republican Party fell to a record low of 28 percent, a much lower rating than the Congressional Democrats held (43 percent). While the members who pushed for Boehner to hold a vote on the issue may have been safe, vulnerable Republicans in more moderate districts might not have been. The speaker’s role is to ensure those members and the party hold the majority.
The question still remains why Boehner chose to resign from not only the speakership, but also the Ohio District he has held since 1991. Career decisions often involve multiple calculations and it’s difficult to know exactly what Boehner was thinking. Perhaps he was inspired or chastened by the Pope’s message to seek compromise and collaboration. More likely, however, Boehner’s retirement and resignation was a strategic one. It seems likely that Boehner would have faced an increasingly hostile Republican caucus, one that seemed dead set on removing him from his position. Whether the removal was a voluntary one or a high profile conservative coup to vacate the chair, Boehner would have been in a weakened position heading into the 2016 elections. While the Ohio 8th District is solidly Republican, it wouldn’t have prevented a strong primary challenge from the right. Boehner’s resignation removes him from the ensuing battle over the shutdown and helps to maintain some of his legislative legacy. Who will replace him and what effect his resignation will have on the potential shutdown is still up in the air, however.
Chera LaForge is an assistant professor of political science. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her main research interests lie in Congress and legislative behavior. Specifically, she looks at how progressive ambition impacts the quality of representation and campaign behavior.