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Why divided government is killing John Boehner

/ Managing Editor - December 18, 2013

This is a guest post by Cornell College political scientist Hans Hassell.

House Speaker John Boehner’s recent criticism of conservative groups, and the members of his caucus who follow them, has again highlighted the schism between the speaker and conservative Republicans evident during the government shutdown and debt ceiling negotiations two months ago. Boehner (R-Ohio) has had to walk back many of the agreements that he negotiated with Democrats in the Senate and the White House, fearing that he could not muster the 217 votes needed. Indeed, to end the government shutdown in October  he needed the help of Democratic votes. The majority of Republican House members objected. And this week, a higher percentage of Democrats than Republicans in the House voted to pass the bipartisan budget negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Why have Republicans repeatedly made Boehner’s life so difficult?

My new research suggests one answer to that question: divided government.

I arrived at this conclusion by compiling public opinion polls about the speaker of the House that span the period 1982-2009, including the speakerships of Tip O’Neill (D), Jim Wright (D), Tom Foley (D), Newt Gingrich (R), Dennis Hastert (R), and Nancy Pelosi (D). I measured opinion of the speaker among the public as a whole and among Democrats and Republicans separately.

One of the key findings is that during periods of divided government in which one party controls the White House and a different party controls the House, approval of the speaker drops among members of the public in the speaker’s own party. The very people you might expect to rally around the speaker actually have the opposite reaction.

One reason is that divided government is often frustrating for the majority party. Members of the public in the speaker’s party appear to become disillusioned with the speaker’s inability to implement policy. Divided government reveals how limited the speaker’s power really is, since there is no way to enact legislation into law in the face of a presidential veto threat or opposition in the Senate.

The importance of divided government was evident even before Boehner became speaker. Consider Newt Gingrich. His approval among his fellow Republicans plummeted during the conflict with the Clinton White House that resulted in the government shutdown of 1995 and 1996. The fallout ultimately undermined his reputation and eventually led to his resignation. Likewise, Democratic approval of Nancy Pelosi was trending downward while Democrats clashed with the Bush White House over the Iraq War following the Democratic takeover in 2006. Pelosi’s approval, however, rose immediately among Democrats following the inauguration of President Obama, and then remained high. 

You can see these trends in this graph of public approval of the speaker, broken down by members of the speaker’s party and the minority party:

Interestingly, divided government does not directly affect the opinions of the minority party or independents.  Instead, its effects on these groups derive more from how divided government affects news coverage.  Divided government exposes the House speaker to more media (and therefore public) scrutiny.  This coverage then appears to make the minority party and independents less favorable toward the speaker.  Even neutral news stories have this effect, likely because they provide information about the speaker’s positions, which informs the minority party and independents about any of the speaker’s policy positions that are different from their own.

As such, it should not be surprising that the approval of the House speaker declines in both parties during this time. The reasons, however, are different. Partisans in the minority react to new information about the speaker’s preferred policies. Meanwhile, the speaker’s own party becomes frustrated with the speaker’s limited powers. Both circumstances suggest that Boehner’s situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon.