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This is why John Boehner’s resignation might not matter much at all

- September 25, 2015

The surprise news that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will resign the speakership in October heralds the close of a tumultuous period in House leadership — and the opening of a new period likely to prove just as tumultuous.  A large, divided Republican conference — no matter who leads it next —  will find that it has no greater ability to rein in the power and size of government.

Why are the prospects for change so slim?  And what are the implications for Congress this fall?

First, no matter who steps into Boehner’s shoes, he or she will face the challenge of leading a fractured party conference.  As a matter of political math, larger majorities also tend to be more diverse. The splinters in the GOP conference generated the challenge to Boehner, and a new leader can’t make those divisions go away, especially if the conference elects current majority leader Kevin McCarthy of California in Boehner’s stead.

Moreover, as political scientists Jeffery Jenkins and Charles Stewart have argued, party conferences have come to own the choice of the House speaker: Whoever the House elects will have to have secured the support of a conference majority. The couple dozen (if that) conservatives from the strongly conservative Freedom Caucus who advocated Boehner’s ouster are unlikely to command a majority within the House GOP.  It’s also possible that choosing a speaker on the eve of battles over spending and the debt limit — rather than at the outset of a new Congress — may dissuade some dissidents who might otherwise try to prevent the party nominee from winning a majority vote on the House floor.

Second, don’t forget the Senate.  Obviously, the new House leadership still faces the challenge of legislating in a bicameral Congress.  Even if a shakeup in the House leadership were to pull House Republicans to the right, there would be no change in the paramount goal of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell: Keep the Senate in GOP hands in the 2016 elections.

That goal requires McConnell to keep the government open and to chart a course that does not veer too far to the right.  So long as McConnell needs Democratic votes to legislate and so long as he needs to protect his GOP colleagues running in blue states, a shift to the right in the House would be unlikely to throw McConnell off course.

Third, my sense is that Boehner’s departure might not significantly change the congressional dynamics to unfold this fall over funding the government and raising the government’s debt limit.  Uncertainty over how the politics will play out will surely rise.  But the same challenges remain, even under a new House leadership. Consider the three biggest hurdles:

  1. October shutdown: My sense is that Boehner’s resignation lowers the temperature over an Oct. 1 shutdown (if it were ever elevated).  The Freedom Caucus in effect gets Boehner’s scalp and can no longer hold it against him when the speaker relies on Democratic votes to keep the government funded temporarily. Democrats would likely have provided those votes anyway, at least eventually, even if Boehner had not announced that he will step down. In fact, my hunch is that the GOP dissidents wanted the speaker to rely on Democratic votes to bolster their case against him.  Boehner’s announcement today makes it easy for him to rely on Democratic votes for a short-term bill to keep the government funded, undermining conservatives’ strategy of forcing the speaker to turn to Democrats at his peril. Conservatives’ focus surely shifts to the coming fall battles.
  2. Fiscal 2016:  A change in House leadership still leaves in place the greater challenge: how to build a supermajority for funding the government this year and possibly next.  Democrats still want to raise the Budget Control Act caps on domestic discretionary spending, or at least to bring back parity with non-domestic spending.  Republicans remain divided between defense and deficit hawks, further complicating negotiations over whether or how to raise spending caps. A new House leadership has little bearing on Senate Democrats’ capacity to exploit Senate rules and constrain a Republican Congress from further cutting funding for Democratic priorities.
  3. Raising the debt limit: Could a new House leadership feel more pressure to cater to conservatives trying to hold an increase in the debt ceiling hostage to their policy demands?  It’s not clear to me that a rightward shift in the House would necessarily change the underlying political dynamics.

McConnell seems to recognize the responsibility that falls to a Congressional majority not to cause the government to default.  And Senate Democrats hold the balance of votes necessary to get it done.  Further, President Obama has made clear — following his successful stance in 2013 — that he will not give in to any GOP demands tied to raising the debt ceiling.

Ultimately, an increase in the debt limit — let alone a longer term solution — will require some votes (if not a majority of votes) from House Democrats. New House leadership is unlikely to change that underlying calculus — so long as a new speaker believes that the public would blame House Republicans were their party to push the government to default.

In sum, the next House speaker will inherit the challenges facing any congressional party leader today.  The speaker has to balance the demands of all ideological factions of their party with the demands of protecting the party brand name and responsibly leading the whole House.  As Boehner’s speakership attests, that’s a tough — perhaps impossible — row to hoe for even the most adept congressional leader in today’s partisan, polarized and deeply competitive political world.