Boehner resigns, now what?

Robert Van Houweling, Department of Political Science, Affiliated Faculty

John Boehner shocked the political world Friday when he abruptly announced his impending resignation as Speaker of the House. From the House altogether, for that matter. The early betting is that he will be replaced as Speaker by conservative favorite Kevin McCarthy of California.

The move was immediately precipitated by two factors. The first is long-standing unrest along the right flank of the Republican House caucus with Boehner’s leadership. Conservatives have, in particular, expressed public frustration with the few occasions where Boehner has relied on Democratic votes to secure the passage of various measures necessary for the continuing functioning of the government (e.g. appropriations bills, increases in the debt ceiling).   

The second is the return of this familiar crisis in a particularly potent form that activated both the anti-social spending and anti-abortion elements in the Republican Party. The issue is an insistence by this united coalition on the right of the party that the House strip funding from Planned Parenthood before passing a bill that would enable the continued operation of the Federal Government. To keep the government open, Boehner was going to have to once again act contrary to the right edge of his caucus.

The difference this time was that the unrest appeared to have risen to a point where Boehner’s position as Speaker itself was finally in jeopardy. Enough members of his own caucus appeared ready to vote against him that there was a credible threat he would lose the speakership or be forced to depend on votes of Democrats to keep the post. Actually making good on this threat was going to be quite difficult for a variety of reasons. However, rather than test that proposition (or maybe simply out of exhaustion) Boehner decided to surrender – just as his critics accused him of doing unnecessarily in confrontations with Democrats.   

This surrender brought cheers when Marco Rubio announced it at the Voter’s Values Summit. And, somewhat ironically given the elation at the summit, it will also probably resolve or postpone the government funding crisis at hand. Boehner will be free to cross the right wing of his caucus and allow the bipartisan passage of a government spending bill that includes funding for Planned Parenthood. There is even rumbling that he will further betray the seemingly victorious wing of his caucus by dealing with other impending crises on his way out (e.g. the debt ceiling).

However, in the long run, one has to wonder if the right of the Republican caucus will miss Boehner. He, after all, provided substantial “cover” when they failed to prosecute an absolutist agenda that many observers see as fantasy in a Washington controlled partly by the opposition party. When this agenda failed they could blame him, when it did so again, they could call for his firing. They could satisfy and excite the activist elements in their constituencies, without belonging to a party responsible for a prolonged and unprecedented failure of government.   

Once the right wing of the caucus installs a Speaker acceptable to their camp, they will have to figure out how to navigate this obstacle course somewhat differently. When their agenda has failed, they have had an easy out of blaming Boehner. Expectations will be running quite high among the participants of the Voter’s Values Summit and the like. Meeting these expectations may prove quite difficult.

Rob Van Houweling is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Berkeley and an affiliated faculty member of IGS.