Will Boehner step down before the next debt ceiling fight?

Bill Whalen Research Fellow, Hoover Institution
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It’s early February of next year and House Speaker John Boehner’s outlook is a dreary as the winter forecast for Capitol Hill.

Amidst its second impasse in the last four months over extending the government’s debt limit, the House’s nerves are frayed. As are Boehner’s – so much so that he takes to the well on the floor of the House Chamber and delivers a soliloquy the likes of which Washington hasn’t heard since March 1968.

Tears in his eyes, the Speaker delivers this message to his colleagues:

“If they the Democrats do mount another round of heavy attacks, they will not succeed in destroying the fighting power of South Vietnam the GOP and its allies friends at Heritage.

“But tragically, this is also clear: many men – on both sides of the struggle – will be lost. A nation that has already suffered 20 years of warfare partisanship will suffer once again. Armies on both sides will take new casualties. And the war will go on.

There is no need for this to be so.

With Americans sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under change right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s David Gergen’s/David Brooks’ hopes for peace in the balance moderation every day, I do not believe I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party caucus for another term as your President Speaker.”

The odds of Boehner “pulling an LBJ” and making himself a lame duck sooner rather than later? (House Speakers traditionally waiting until post-election to make their plans known, but February also being the filing deadline for congressional candidates in Ohio)

They might be stronger than you think.

Here’s why: the numbers 12 and 4.

The former is the sum of terms Boehner has served in the House. It’s also the number of siblings his mother and father raised. A House Speaker who turns 65 two weeks after next year’s midterm vote might be amenable to calling it a career and making some quick and easy lucre, a la Trent Lott in This Town.

And there’s the matter of the 12 Republicans who voted against a second speaker term for Boehner back in January – a number that could snowball throughout 2014 if Republican rancor over the shutdown and its mixed results fails to dissipate.

As for other number, 4, that’s the total of years Boehner will have ruled the House by the end of 2014. It’s also the same stretch of time that Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich wielded the Speaker’s gavel.

Pelosi, of course, lost her job due to popular sentiment – the 2010 GOP landslide. Gingrich’s demise, on the other hand, was an inside job. After two terms as Speaker, his personality had worn thin (who else but Newt could call himself a “definer of civilization”). Gingrich also correctly assessed, after losing seats in the 1998 midterm election, that he had become a net liability for his party. Better to surrender the speakership willingly, as he did, than have it taken away by the caucus.

The other reason why Gingrich was expendable: after only two terms, his revolution had lost its steam with Republicans having cut deals with Bill Clinton on a balanced budget and tax cuts. There was no policy encore, no revised “Contract With America” to put forward.

That takes us to Speaker Boehner and his current dilemma. The problem isn’t one of Gingrichian proportions – not in the sense that Boehner’s personality or a lack of a follow-up act are to blame. For Boehner, the problem is trying to get the curtain to rise on a first act.

And it’s trying – and failing – to escape what’s become the congressional equivalent of an infinite loop of failed tactics and gestures.

That loop began in December 2010 with the release of the tax-and-cut report by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform – aka, Simpson-Bowles – that promptly went ignored by Congress and the White House. 2011 saw a congressional “super committee” (formally, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) that failed to reach a consensus on deficit reduction – this, only months after an 11th-hour deal avoiding a government shutdown. 2012 saw Paul Ryan’s ill-fated “Pathway to Prosperity” and a fall election that, rather than offering clarity, continued the status quo in Washington. That takes us to 2013 – when you think about it, back to 2011 and 2010 – and more shutdown drama and another by panel tasked with addressing the deficit monster.

Maybe the cynic in Boehner sees 2014 as another year in the loop, with little prospect for change if the midterm election yields the same split Congress.

Or maybe Boehner sees something on the horizon: a GOP identity crisis, with the House Speaker becoming some hopefuls’ pet piñata.

Again, the Gingrich lesson.

Had he stuck it out in 1999 and 2000, Gingrich might have found life easy – at least as far as national politics were concerned. Back then, only two candidates had a serious shot at the party’s nomination – then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain. Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative” – a nuanced way of distancing himself from Gingrich and House GOP zealotry, without debasing the Gingrich Revolution itself. McCain was a self-styled “maverick” – he picked fights with congressional Republicans (most notably, Mitch McConnell and campaign finance reform), but otherwise was betting more on biography and personality than ideology to carry the day.

If only life were that that simple for Speaker Boehner as Republicans turn their attention to 2016. Rare for the GOP in modern times, there is no heir-apparent to the party’s nomination – no frontrunner at this point.

And that doesn’t bode well for Boehner.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is recruiting Tea Party candidates for Republican primaries (as he recently did in North Carolina’s Senate race). A bevy of “Washington doesn’t work, but my state does” governors – New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal – will use Congress as the butt of their sound-bites (Christie, who’s up for re-election next month, is already at it).

And perhaps most problematic of all: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

For Boehner, Cruz is a quadruple threat: he’s a steady media presence who can rile disgruntled conservatives, and thanks to Senate filibuster rules, he can gum up a deal in the off chance that Boehner ever does strike a deal with Senate Democratic leadership. As seen during the shutdown, he isn’t adverse to meddling in the House Republicans’ affairs; unsatisfied with that or over House outcomes, like Rand Paul Cruz may choose to meddle in Republican primaries (Boehner was challenged by a Tea Party activist in his 2012 reelection bid).

Not that Boehner is intimated by Cruz’s newfound status as the new “it boy” of Republican discontent, but he may fast grow sick of it (if he hasn’t already). But if he’s not, and wants to devote 2014 to both escaping the infinite loop and improving the Republican brand, here’s a suggestion:

Ethics and standards.

At the heart of Gingrich’s “Contract With America” were such concepts as making Congress live by the same laws it passed (not the case with Obamacare), auditing the institution for waste and fraud, limiting the terms of committee chairs (and, ultimately, a Citizens Legislature Act that would have limited all members to only six terms in the House (defeated in March 1995 on a 227-204 vote).

Boehner could devote 2014 to devising a new contract – this one devoted to ending such nefarious practices as members using leadership PACs to underwrite lavish lifestyles. He could go to the floor well and, rather than quit, read chapter and verse from Peter Schweizer’s treatise on congressional corruption. Some members won’t care for that intrusion – and should the votes fail, as they did with regard to term limits, it gives Boehner all the more reason to walk.

However, it speaks to a political reality for a Republican Party looking to rehabilitate its image and win national elections: in order to win policy debates, the GOP first needs to regain the moral high ground in Washington.

And if that quest for higher ground in 2014 results in more scorched earth? Maybe Boehner calls it a day and Republicans begin the search for a new Speaker.

About that choice – check out the rules: anyone can hold the job, not just a sitting member of the majority party.

Given the House’s seemingly infinite tactical loop, why not make is a leadership loop as well?

Is anyone up for . . . Speaker Gingrich?