At the beginning of 2015, I was talking with a congressman who was expressing his frustration with the leadership in Washington. “If we don’t do something about anything,” he said, “we’re going to be in big trouble.” With the announcement that House Speaker John Boehner will resign his seat at the end of October, we’re seeing those chickens come home to roost.
And yet, Boehner’s resignation has not come out of the blue. There’s been a long process gradually leading up to this moment. It started last year with Rep. Dave Brat’s historic defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The establishment was stunned. They couldn’t believe that the number two man in the House could so suddenly be ousted by an economics professor who spent less on his entire campaign than Eric Cantor spent on steak. It was a defining moment when grassroots America rose up to deliver the unequivocal message that no more would they allow their interests to be made subordinate to those of the special interests of the lobbyist class.
This was an opportunity for leadership to take note and listen to the people, but instead, they preferred to regard Cantor’s defeat as a fluke and carry on with business as usual. Just a few months after the Virginia primary, John Boehner held a closed-door, back room meeting to secretly craft a $1.1 trillion funding bill, a monstrosity combining 11 appropriations bills and a continuing resolution that would become known as the Cromnibus. This bill gave Democrats everything they wanted. It circumvented the spending caps created by the Budget Control Act of 2011 by abusively drawing from the Overseas Continuing Operations fund, a reserve intended for military emergencies. Fiscal conservatives were not consulted.
A month later, 25 courageous Republicans voiced their displeasure with the process by voting against John Boehner for Speaker of the House. While the media at the time regarded the effort as laughable, in fact it was a bold rebellion within his own party, made bolder by the knowledge that Boehner has historically taken revenge on those who oppose him. This time was no exception. Rather than seeing the writing on the wall, and trying to work with the freedom wing of the party, Boehner doubled down, stripping Rep. Mark Meadows and two other Members of their committee assignments as punishment for their votes. This turned out to be a tactical error of epic proportions.
Due to mass outrage over Boehner’s actions and overwhelming grassroots support for Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Republican was swiftly restored to his position, but it was too late. Boehner had shown his hand. He’d finally gone too far.
Throughout 2015, Congress failed to do anything significant. Despite the mandate they had been given in the midterm elections, observers could be forgiven for thinking that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi were still calling the shots. Where voters had been promised real reform of health care, education, the tax code, the protection of American civil liberties, and a reining in of the regulatory state, Congress dithered. Boehner and McConnell griped that they couldn’t do anything without a Republican president, all while caving in to the every demand of a Democratic one.
Just before the August recess, Mark Meadows released a resolution airing a list of grievances with Boehner, and calling for him to vacate the Speaker’s chair. While many congressmen no doubt regard the recess as a time of rest and recuperation, they were in for a rude awakening. At town hall meetings all over the country, Members were bombarded with messages from their constituents: Boehner had to go.
FreedomWorks alone collected over 4,000 signatures to a petition to stand with Mark Meadows. We drove 18,000 calls to Congress asking for new leadership, and 24,000 email messages. Another petition, asking Congress to fire Boehner as Speaker, received a whopping 130,000 signatures. The grassroots community was speaking, so loudly that Congress had no choice but to listen. Boehner’s resignation was the culmination of tremendous dissatisfaction among activists tired of being ignored. They wanted representation.
There’s a moral to this story. Anyone claiming the title of “Representative” had better mean it. Getting sideways with the grassroots, while once an acceptable price for buying K Street favor, has become a one-way ticket to unemployment. This is politics as it was meant to be.
So where does Boehner’s departure leave us? For one thing, the sense of accomplishment that comes from the change in leadership will energize the grassroots in a way we have not seen since the original tea party wave of 2010. After a series of demoralizing disappointments, like the Mississippi Senate race in 2014, the movement certainly needed a win, and now they have got one in a big way. There still remain many fights to be fought this year, and we will be there to fight them, but I predict the momentum from this victory, heading into the 2016 elections, will be something special to behold.
Adam Brandon is president and CEO of FreedomWorks.