Opinion: Boehner is leader in name only

The sparks flying from the polarized politics that shut down the government make it hard to see how history will record these events.


Only one fact will clearly hold over time: Never before in American history has the Speaker lost control of his caucus to people who are not elected members of the House.

ADVERTISEMENT
National Review reported last week that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told key members of the GOP House caucus to oppose Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) plan to move away from stalled efforts to derail the Affordable Care Act and instead begin negotiations on the debt ceiling.

The conservative publication’s story described the Speaker’s leadership team as “startled by Cruz’s attempt to shape House strategy and work against the Speaker.” It was more than an attempt. The House members followed Cruz’s instructions.

The more liberal New Yorker also appeared stunned at the ability of people not in the House to undercut the chamber’s Republican leadership.

“In previous eras, ideologically extreme minorities could be controlled by party leaders,” wrote Ryan Lizza. “What’s new about the current House of Representatives is that party discipline has broken down on the Republican side … Boehner has lost his ability to control his caucus and … outside interest groups can now set the national agenda.”

It used to be far-fetched to imagine that ideologues, radio talk show hosts, far-right fundraisers and conservative think tanks could usurp political power from the Speaker of the House. But that phenomenon is now so widely accepted that a recent magazine cover featured the headline: “John Boehner Doesn’t Run Congress, Meet the Man who Does.”

The man really controlling Congress, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, is former GOP Sen. Jim DeMint, now head of the Heritage Foundation.

In June, Cruz, DeMint and several outside hard-right groups defied Boehner by pushing elected members to vote against a farm bill and food stamp bill backed by House Republican leaders. In July, they fomented more rebellion against the Speaker by opposing a GOP housing and transportation bill.

When the Speaker put forward his plan to include a call for ending funding for the healthcare plan as a symbolic amendment that could be stripped out by the Senate, the outside groups and Cruz dismissed it as weak and insisted on an all-or-nothing approach.

When that fight started, the House leadership team estimated they had 170 votes, a clear majority of the caucus.

As Boehner was swamped by the shrill rants of right-wing television and radio hosts, and fundraising ads run by strictly conservative groups, the political balance among his House GOP caucus shifted to the far-right.

The stampede ran over Boehner and he lost control. Now out of 232 Republicans in the House, he has at best 80 votes at his command.

Boehner could only gather 49 votes for a bill to fund federal disaster aid earlier this year. He got 85 GOP votes for a fiscal-cliff budget deal and only a slightly higher 87 for reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

In this current dynamic, the Speaker could assert himself by combining the votes loyal to him with votes from Democrats to gain passage of a budget bill.

But, like many of his fellow Republicans in the House, he lives in fear of a challenge to his job by a candidate funded and cheered by outside personalities and fundraising groups.

He has opted to hold on to the title of Speaker but not the power of the office as he defers to Cruz, DeMint and the House members under their control.

It is striking this is not a coup against Boehner led by anyone in the House leadership. It is not the work of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) or House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Boehner’s top lieutenants.

The people who have grabbed the reins of leadership have no standing as elected members of the House. They are a fiercely ideological Texas Senator and leaders of outside groups who raise money and get media attention by attacking fellow Republicans as insufficiently conservative.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Cruz’ ability to control Tea Party votes in the House means he has now joined Boehner in holding a position never previously known to exist, called “Joint Speaker of the House.”

Fear of outside players has left Boehner in such a weakened state that he could not admit to fellow Republicans that he supports government subsidies for healthcare plans offered to Congress and their staff.

Reid released emails last week in which the Speaker asked for help in protecting the benefits for people working on Capitol Hill while publicly supporting legislation to end the subsidies. His public posturing was pandering to outside conservative critics.

It is a low moment for the Speaker.

Boehner’s tenure has left Republicans in Congress with a 17 percent approval rating in the latest Quinnipiac poll, the lowest in history. Democrats have now jumped to a 9-point lead when voters are asked which party they are more likely to support in the next congressional election.

History will also make note of that.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.