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Boehner’s Leadership Vacuum

The speaker is well liked--and that’s the problem.


Boehner: Speaking at Economic Club.(Chet Susslin)

While it’s commonly heard around town that there is a leadership vacuum, maybe it is also accurate to say there is a followership vacuum, particularly on the Republican side.

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Late in the afternoon on Sept. 21, 48 House Republicans defied their party’s leadership and voted against the continuing resolution (House Roll Call 719). Without question the vote was an embarrassment to the House Republican leadership and a reflection on the GOP majority in the House. Continuing resolutions are not votes on personal convictions or ideology. They aren’t free votes, votes where the majority party’s leadership understands that members might choose to go their own way. Whenever a CR is voted down, it makes the majority party look dysfunctional, particularly at a time when the U.S. economy is so fragile. A Gallup Poll released this week showed that a record 81 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed, and only 19 percent were satisfied (clearly no one I’ve run across lately).

To be sure, only six Democrats voted in favor of the CR; 182 voted against it. Sadly, we are now at a point where minority-party members in the House are allowed to sit back and throw rocks -- the solace of being largely irrelevant, a benefit long enjoyed (or exploited) by Democrats and Republicans alike in the House.

In the House, the majority party has the responsibility for governing. Among the four dozen Republicans who gave their own party and leadership a black eye were three of Speaker John Boehner’s colleagues from Ohio -- Steve Austria, Jim Jordan, and Mike Turner -- as well as four of Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s fellow members of the California delegation -- John Campbell, Dana Rohrabacher, Ed Royce, and Tom McClintock.  It used to be that having a member of your state’s delegation in one of the top leadership position’s conferred certain big benefits and equally significant responsibilities. To Majority Leader Eric Canter’s credit, his eight Republican colleagues from Virginia all voted with the leadership on the CR.


But another way the system is supposed to work is that members who are given choice committee responsibilities are supposed to support the leadership on votes such as this one; it is the price of not being relegated to a backwater committee. But among the 48 defectors were four Republicans on the Appropriations Committee: Steve Austria again,  Tom Graves of Georgia, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, and Jeff Flake of Arizona. The Budget Committee featured a half-dozen members who chose to embarrass their leadership: Justin Amash of Michigan, John Campbell of California, Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, McClintock from McCarthy’s Golden State, and Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina. 

The coveted Energy and Commerce had two GOP members show their ingratitude to their leadership, Phil Gingrey of Georgia and Michael Burgess of Texas, while the Ways and Means Committee just had one, Kenny Marchant of Texas.

In a subsequent vote just after midnight on Sept. 23, the continuing resolution did pass, this time with 24 Republicans bucking their leadership, half of the original 48. Those transgressing a second time included Appropriations Committee members Austria (noting again from Boehner’s Ohio), Graves and Lummis, Budget Committee members Amash and Huelskamp, Gingrey from Energy and Commerce, and a second Ohioan, who will be facing off with Austria in a GOP primary thanks to redistricting.

In the old days, no freshmen and few sophomores were put on major committees and no one was put on those top committees unless they showed a degree of responsibility and dependability. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich started putting freshman on key committees as a way to boost their fundraising, and since then we have seen an influx of members of uncertain or undependable states rewarded with some of the choicest committee assignments in the House.


Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy have not asked for my advice on this matter, but here’s my free advice to the leadership (which would also be offered to House Democrats if they were in the majority and faced this situation): Pick out a handful of the 48 and make them regret that they ever got out of bed last Wednesday. Toss them off of choice committee assignments, pull subcommittee chairmanships, and deny requests for foreign junkets. When asked to do something for those members that would make them look good back home, just say no. Votes have consequences and if leadership is to be respected, it also has to be feared.

Part of the problem is that John Boehner is widely acknowledged to be a great guy. While Boehner is known to have a firmer side, he has never held the job of whip, either in the majority or minority role, and occasionally he needs to be a real SOB and punish someone and make it stick. The last Republican speaker, Dennis Hastert, was also a great, truly gregarious guy, but he had Majority Leader Tom DeLay on board as “The Enforcer.” Somebody out of this threesome at the top of the GOP leadership will have to play the role of SOB or there will be many repeats of this embarrassment. 

Disciplining members is obviously easier said than done, but a place to start is to pick someone who may well lose reelection anyway and is not particularly popular with colleagues. Boehner doesn’t have to do that too many times before his conference members will think long and hard before casting a vote that will so clearly embarrass the leadership.

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