Boehner's decision was act of faith and courage

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE (R-Ohio) has announced his resignation from Congress, meaning he'll give up his Speakership and his safe House seat, but he did it for substantive reasons, not political ones, even though it also makes sound political sense for him to step down.


A devout Catholic, one of 12 siblings, and emotional — he often weeps publicly — he's been trying to wrangle a visit from the pope for more than 20 years, even urging former Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.), also a Catholic, to issue the invitation. Watching the pope's address to Congress, millions also witnessed Boehner's emotions; he couldn't help but weep. His decision to step down, therefore, was an act of faith and courage. He took to heart what Pope FrancisPope FrancisSCOTUS is blocking federal executions and it's the right thing to do Judge in same-sex marriage denied communion at Michigan Catholic church Pope appeals to world leaders to renounce nuclear weapons MORE said about community, the greater good and sacrifice.

Some may argue that Boehner's decision to abdicate his prominent position (there have only been 53 individuals elected Speaker since 1789) was a political act, since he expected a challenge from the right. Politics may have played a minor part in his decision, but unquestionably he was moved by the pope's remarks and acted upon them. Having pushed to issue the invitation, and fulfilled his desire with the pope's acceptance, Boehner looked on the visit as a fitting tribute to his Speakership, punctuating the visit with active acceptance of one of the pope's admonitions: sacrifice for the greater good. While I can't prove what motivated the Speaker, I can reasonably speculate what human nature calls one to do. As Boehner reviewed the political landscape ahead — contentious budget battles, a likely challenge to his Speakership, more conflict with President Obama's unilateral actions, a national debate over America's best direction — I assume he also opted for less being more: less responsibility for congressional conflict, more freedom and fulfillment of a greater purpose.

In 2015, Boehner's good friend, former Iowa Rep. Tom Latham (R), first elected in 1994, relinquished his congressional seat, opting to spend time in Florida where the sun usually shines, golf courses abound and meetings every 20 minutes are rare. Such a lifestyle would be attractive to Boehner, having served his country, sacrificed for the greater good of the institution to which he's given much of his life (the House), been prominent in the development of public policies in the face of an often hostile electorate and taken to heart the pope's message of sacrifice for the greater good.

Boehner first entered Congress from Ohio's 8th District in 1991. He became the 61st Speaker in 2011. At age 65, he was neither the oldest nor the youngest Speaker to ever serve. He faced divided government (a Republican-led House and a Democratic-led Senate) until 2015, yet the Congress remains separated from the presidency by more than political party affiliation. In 1990, he was one of the "Gang of Seven," young Republican members who resisted Democratic Party leadership in the House, condemning unethical practices. Deep philosophical differences between Boehner and other House members currently exist and philosophical divisions between House and Senate Republicans are common, in spite of Boehner's conservatism. Trying to get all Republicans to agree on policy matters has been and will continue to be a daunting challenge for any Speaker, even as Obama often ignores Congress's role in making public policy. Boehner's job was to navigate these difficulties. It's understandable why he might opt to let others do so, and start anew, but that motivation was secondary to his religious reasoning.

Always a political supporter of new members and candidates with high potential, Boehner was famous for traveling cross-country by customized bus to support Republicans in tough political contests and to support incumbents. A "people-lover," he was usually a fundraising draw, often up for a golf game on America’s best golf courses (he and the Golf Channel's David Feherty held an interview about golf and politics last July). He was one of the House's finest golfers and renowned for his graciousness, according to his golfing pals.

John Boehner, a respected leader by most standards and wise to the practical nature of politics, will be missed in the House for his wry sense of humor, his experience in understanding the political process, his wisdom in calculating the sense of Congress and the needs of members as well as the emotion he brought to the institution he so loved. 

But he will be remembered best for resigning for a substantive reason: a decisive act of courage and faith.

Nethercutt is a former U.S. representative from Washington state, serving from 1995 to 2005.