As John Boehner enters his fourth year as House speaker, his own website biography reflects little in the way of major legislative accomplishments while holding the gavel. Instead it mentions that he ushered in a ban on earmarks and a requirement for bills to be posted online before a vote.
And so, with a little more than a year left in his current term, the nation’s 53rd speaker faces a choice: He can spend the next year much like the last, trying to reconcile the rambunctious tea-party wing of his conference with more-moderate Republicans in a stand against Democrats in the Senate and the White House. Or, he can work with House Democrats and a loose coalition of roughly 30 Republicans who have teamed in the last year to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, supply funding for victims of Hurricane Sandy, and end the government shutdown.
“History generally looks kindly upon those individuals who either stood outside the pack and displayed foresight and courage, or those with a knack for compromise and getting the job done,” said political pollster and author John Zogby. “It is hard to remember much written about those who simply kept their job.”
He added: “If a portrait in the hall and a wiki stating his title are sufficient, so be it.”
Boehner’s current strategy has brought more conflict than comity in recent months, but it has earned him a measure of respect within his conference—especially among freshman and sophomore conservatives—even as Republicans have been wounded in nationwide polls.
Yet there are also those who say he is squandering his leadership position in the face of enormous crisis, too often handcuffed by his own party to pursue compromise and legitimate legislative achievements.
“My sense is that John Boehner’s best legislative days are behind him,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at George Washington University.
But not necessarily his days as speaker. The Ohio Republican is planning to run again for his congressional seat in 2014 and his spokesman, Michael Steel, says he “has been clear, publicly and privately, that he intends to be speaker again in the next Congress.
“And frankly, the idea that he might ever abandon his members and his principles is a stupid liberal fantasy,” Steel said.
What is clear is that Boehner is now almost halfway through his second session as the House’s top leader (he’s been the top Republican in the House since 2007, before the GOP took over the majority in 2011) and it would be very difficult to replace him.
House rules make it very hard to depose the speaker. One ham-fisted effort by several conservatives earlier this year failed to even generate a challenger bold enough to put his or her name out publicly. Even if one were to emerge now, the rules hold that a speaker must be elected by a majority of the entire House. That means any such challenger would require the near complete support of Boehner’s own conference and, lacking that, some unlikely support from Democrats.
Equally clear is that Boehner does have options in the time before he stands for a vote on his speakership again. There have been several instances in recent months in which Boehner has enjoyed the reliable backing of a “center-left” coalition of Republicans who, combined with large numbers of House Democrats, are capable of passing vital legislation.
This coalition includes 30 Republicans who voted to end the shutdown, to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and to grant funding for Sandy victims. There are 44 who voted for at least two of these bills. Fully 87 Republicans helped to pass last month’s legislation to restart government funding and extend the debt ceiling, joining 198 Democrats in approving it against the opposition of 144 Republicans.
This group doesn’t recognize itself as a single organized caucus, and it is a mix of Old Bull members, younger Republicans, and longtime friends of Boehner. Looking at this, some congressional experts suggest Boehner could work to unify coalitions of Republicans and Democrats to support compromise solutions on fiscal matters, entitlement and tax reform, pieces of immigration reform, and other policies.
“History can be kinder to a leader who crossed the lines than someone who always stayed in between,” Zogby said.
But others offer pessimism. Being a unifier is “not how he got the job,” says Rice University political scientist Paul Brace.
Brace notes that Boehner was elected to Congress in a solidly Republican district by challenging a scandal-ridden incumbent, and that his career benefitted from opportunities arising from tumult in Republican leadership.
“He is a Chamber-of-Commerce or country-club Republican that achieved leadership largely because of divisions within the GOP, not because he could unify the party,” Brace said.
Binder recalled a time when Boehner had a reputation as a legislative deal-maker, citing his contributions to the No Child Left Behind law from his perch on the House Education Committee.
But she also said that “leading from the speakership is hard—he can’t command loyalty from his rank and file. And given the Far Right’s resistance to compromise and given the speaker’s unwillingness to govern with Democratic votes, his opportunities for landmark legislative deals seem particularly slim.”
William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Senate Budget Committee staff director, says the question is whether anyone else—such as Majority Leader Eric Cantor or Budget Chairman Paul Ryan—could do any better.
“At the end of the day, his legacy might simply be that he kept the House in Republican control,” Hoagland said. “Or maybe not.”
This article appears in the November 13, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as John Boehner’s Big Choice.