In most of the world, the one thing we can be sure of is constant change. In the US House, we have come to rely on inaction in the face of change as Speaker Boehner stood resolutely in charge of a body too fractured to do anything. As comedian Dave Allen observed, “When you’re up to your bottom lip in muck, there is only one rule – don’t make waves.”
A big wave is about to come through the US House as Boehner faces a serious challenge from the Tea Party wing of the party. So far, two Representatives, Louis Gohmert (R-TX) and Ted Yoho (R-FL) have announced they are challenging him. How exactly it will shake out is anyone’s guess, but something is about to happen. Make popcorn.
The tenure of Boehner (R-OH) has been a very difficult one at best. The fractured nature of the US House has caused a collapse that has passed remarkably unheralded as the body became paralyzed by indecision. Normally this would have been cause for great alarm, but for some reason no one has seriously made political points out of it. Things have been left to coast along since 2011 with no challenges from the left, right, or center.
Personally, my rap against Boehner has nothing to do with his politics. He has proven to be an utterly incompetent Speaker in the most fundamental way possible and should have been cast aside long ago. If the US House were to accomplish one thing every year it would be to pass an actual budget to pass on to the Senate – whatever may happen to it there. They haven’t been able to do that in Boehner’s entire tenure, relying instead on “continuing resolutions” that simply keep the government keepin’ on.
By missing his most basic responsibility year after year, Boehner can only be judged as a failure.
But that’s not the issue at hand in this challenge. Instead it’s a general frustration by the Tea Party, who has seen Boehner punt on everything that they hold dear. That includes defunding Obamacare, taking a tough stand on immigration, and a host of similar assaults on President Obama’s positions that never passed more than the symbolic stage. They have a right to be upset even if their positions are not necessarily popular.
The procedure in front of us is this: the election of a Speaker is done by a majority of the US House. If no one wins a majority of the ballots cast (that is, 435 minus those voting “present” or simply not there) they have another ballot until someone is elected. If only 30 Republicans vote for someone other than Boehner, they keep voting.
In the last election, 48 Tea Party endorsed candidates won seats in the House. If they remain solid there will be no Speaker on the first ballot. It is presumed by many people that if he fails on the first ballot Boehner will withdraw in favor of someone else, but that is far from assured. It is also hard to imagine anyone who would be acceptable to the establishment Republicans and the Tea Party at this time, so where this is going to go is anyone’s guess.
Gohmert, for his part, is a founder of the Tea Party Caucus – a group that despite a few attempts to revive it has become very dormant. Gohmert, along with co-founder Michele Bachmann (R-MN, now retired) has always been more of a show-boater than an organizer. He is, without a doubt, quite crazy – my favorite “Gohmertism” was when he compared gun control to bestiality. The stuff he says is famously fodder for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
He cannot possibly have a chance to become Speaker. But Tea Party endorsed candidates have to worry about their base and will have a lot of trouble not endorsing him. The scenarios that are likely to play out look something like this:
Scenario 1: Gohmert and Yoho do not have the votes to block Boehner and he is re-elected Speaker. In this scenario, the Tea Party loses any clout they may have and Boehner has a freer hand.
Scenario 2: Boehner is blocked and the Establishment puts forward another candidate who eventually wins. No one knows who that may be, but Paul Ryan (R-WI) is a leading possibility. The new Speaker has an even worse hand than Boehner did, almost certainly requiring a deal to win.
Scenario 3: The election goes on to many, many ballots and the moderates of both parties broker a deal that leaves both the Tea Party and the Establishment out in the cold. This has to be a longshot at best, but it would be fascinating.
For all the fuss and noise that Tea Party Republicans make, they are just 11% of the House. They have just enough power to create chaos or, as the last four years have shown, gridlock. The reasonable, thoughtful Republicans have rarely made the news but there is a near majority of them right now.
For example, last year Dave Camp (R-MI), Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, proposed a tax reform that would clean up a lot of the mess stuffed into the tax code and go a long way towards updating it for a new economy. He then promptly announced his retirement. Where will this sensible reform go? It’s hard to say, but one of the things to watch in the new Congress was what incoming Chair Ryan would do for reform.
In this chaos, we don’t even know if that will be Ryan’s position next week. He may be Speaker or, if he backs the wrong horse, shown the door. Who then will get this powerful post? We don’t know.
What we do know is that a huge shakeup is coming and that is likely to be a good thing. There comes a time in any poker game when all the chips are down and it’s time to show your cards. That time is now.
A wave of change of some kind is coming to the US House, and not a moment too soon. Like many moments of great change that have washed over the US as a whole, we can’t tell exactly where that will lead us in the short term or what the backlash will be in the long term. But it had to happen, and it’s good to get it over with.
But in these waves through the muck, someone is going to windup with a mouthful of it. We just don’t know who yet.