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C is for coup?

/ Managing Editor - December 21, 2012

This is a guest post by Matthew Green.  He is the author of The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership.


Last night Speaker John Boehner tried to pass his “Plan B” tax proposal for resolving the impending fiscal cliff. But despite cajoling by Boehner and other party leaders, the bill was pulled when not enough Republican votes could be found. With the House now in recess, and with less than two weeks before the cliff arrives, people wonder whether the next step – Plan C, if you will – stands for Compromise or Cliff.  (Or maybe Calamity.)

Could it also stand for Coup?  Boehner was counting on passing the tax bill in order to strengthen his bargaining position with President Obama and show that the House GOP was a serious player in resolving the fiscal cliff. Instead, Boehner appears unable to command his party, and some have called his future as speaker into question. Ezra Klein speculates that not only could the Ohioan be challenged by conservatives in the next Congress, but the failure of the tax bill “makes that challenge more likely.”  TPM’s David Kurtz goes even further: “In a parliamentary system, he [Boehner] would resign and his party would elect a new leader.”

I think a note of caution is called for. Sarah Binder rightly notes that it’s early yet for such speculation. It is also important to keep in mind that, while contested elections for speaker were not uncommon in the 19th century (as described in Jenkins and Stewart’s excellent new book), challenges against incumbent speakers in the modern era are exceedingly rare – and when they do happen, they are prone to failure.

This is in no small part because the three things needed to successfully remove an incumbent party leader are hard to come by. First, there has to be a willing and viable alternative candidate. Obviously, no Republican will vote for Nancy Pelosi. The most likely Republican candidate, Eric Cantor, stood behind Plan B and has been steering clear of speculation that he hungers for Boehner’s job. Maybe there are others besides Cantor, but I honestly can’t think of who they might be. (Of course, we can’t forget that the Constitution does not preclude non-House members from running for Speaker. Anyone for Newt?)

Second, there has to be a large enough bloc within the majority party sufficiently disgruntled to vote against Boehner. How big a bloc is needed? To win the nomination for Speaker, it must constitute over half of the party, and there’s zero evidence that Boehner’s opponents command anywhere near that kind of support. (Besides, the GOP already nominated Boehner in November.) To win on the floor of the House itself, the bloc can be smaller. If just 17 of the 234 Republicans in the 113th Congress refrain from supporting Boehner or Pelosi, no candidate will have an absolute majority.

But the latter scenario still leaves open who the alternative speaker would be. Klein suggests that Cantor could throw his hat in the ring if the speakership election is thrown into turmoil, but this assumes the majority leader is willing. And it’s a dangerous game if it doesn’t work. Should it fail, and House Republicans gain seats in 2014, Boehner may not need those 17 Republicans to be elected speaker again and would feel free to punish their earlier apostasy. (This is what happened to House progressives in 1924 after initially refusing to vote for their party’s candidate for speaker in 1922.) Keep in mind, too, that it will be a different party voting for speaker than the one in the House now. Many Republicans in the 113th Congress will be freshmen (perhaps elected with the help of Boehner himself, and thus loyal to him), and any lame-duck Republicans who opposed Plan B won’t be there.

Finally, because a bloc rarely emerges on its own, a successful challenge needs a well-run campaign behind it. There’s not much time left to put one together. I doubt Boehner sit idly by and wait for that campaign to develop, either. He would likely follow the lead of speakers like Tip O’Neill and Newt Gingrich who, facing rumors of uprisings at various points in their tenures, made sure to crush them before they metastasized.

At root, the question of Boehner’s future is about the difference between what political scientist Charles O. Jones called substantive majorities and procedural majorities. Party leaders can lose the first (majorities on specific bills) so long as they don’t lose the second (majorities in support of their power over the chamber). Speakers in the past have passed major bills without the support of their party (like NAFTA, for instance) yet were not removed as a result. But the recent practice in the House of only bringing up bills with the support of a majority of the majority party – the so-called “Hastert Rule” – has threatened to conflate the two majorities. To reduce the stakes for both his speakership and for the fiscal future of the country, Boehner will need to decouple them. Soon.

Updated Oct. 9, 2015