On Friday morning John Boehner announced that he will retire from Congress at the end of October, meaning that he will also step down as Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives. He has held the latter post since 2011, having been elected to it after the Tea Party wave of 2010, when Republicans picked up more than 60 seats in the House—enough to take control of the lower chamber.
Perhaps inevitably, given that timeline, Boehner’s tenure as speaker has been an unusually embattled one. He was elected by Republicans, but given the timing, he owed his victory to the Tea Party. Conservatives in the House, with an attitude of entitlement that will be well familiar to those of us who follow Texas politics, have therefore considered the House speaker to be properly beholden to their interests, rather than those of the party writ large, much less the chamber, or Congress, or the people of the United States.
The popular right-wing belief that Boehner has betrayed the cause is dubious: regardless of his own ideology, his official mission, as speaker of the House, is to move legislation through a chamber with 435 members, none of whom are exactly alike and almost half of whom aren’t even Republicans. And arithmetically, the idea that Boehner would be deposed by fellow Republicans was untenable. The Tea Party faction in the House has never had enough votes to replace or remove him. The most recent effort to do so, led by North Carolina’s Mark Meadows ended in embarrassment, for the insurrectionists, in July.
Still, Boehner’s own statement acknowledged that for him to continue as speaker would guarantee ongoing internal dissension: “It was my plan to only serve as speaker until the end of last year, but I stayed on to provide continuity to the Republican Conference and the House. It is my view, however, that prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution.” And conservatives, who were apparently as surprised as everyone else by this morning’s announcement, have been quick to cast Boehner’s statement as proof that he had finally conceded to the will of We the People. Caitlin MacNeal, at Talking Points Memo, gathers some of the more gleeful reactions.
And so I’ll confess to some morbid curiosity about the results of the leadership scramble triggered by Boehner’s announcement. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader—and number-two under Boehner—appears to be the frontrunner to replace Boehner as speaker. He once enjoyed more support than Boehner among the House’s conservative faction, although that has obviously abated as he ascended in the leadership ranks, and if McCarthy actually becomes speaker, it’ll be a matter of months before he’s every bit as much of a bogeyman as Boehner was. What would have happened in 2015, if conservatives in the Texas House had succeeded in their quest to elect Scott Turner as speaker? That was an idle counterfactual back in January, since it was so clear that Turner wouldn’t become speaker, and Turner himself didn’t seem to want the job. But Republicans in the U.S. House might be about to face the music. They might be better off scrapping amongst themselves until Nancy Pelosi wrests the gavel from the majority by subterfuge.