Why Boehner will (probably) keep his job

Written on March 6, 2015

There is an article in Politico making the rounds implying that John Boehner’s speakership might be in jeopardy. The logic goes that conservative Republicans have gained enough sway to get their own way within the Chamber and or caucus. This was followed up with a piece about how most Democrats won’t support such a coup, with one saying “I’d probably vote for Boehner [because] who the hell is going to replace him? [Ted] Yoho?.” This implies that Congressional Democrats are wary of a Boehner replacement for ideological reasons. In this post, I want to give a little context about how Congressional parties change and how Speakers get toppled.

The ideas of a more ideological grouping of a Congressional party gaining power and also the toppling of a Speaker are not unprecedented but they have not happened at the same time. If conservatives want to gain more influence in the House, they should gain more influence in their caucus. If they want to topple the Speaker, then they should hope that Boehner centralizes all the leadership in himself in such a way that there is an incentive for Democrats to replace him and also with a promise of more decentralized leadership and also become ideologically tolerable to the minority party.

On the first point, liberal Democrats took over the Congressional Democratic caucus and were able to change how the House operated, ultimately marginalizing southern conservative Democrats. The events in that sentence took a long time and the resignation of a President to accomplish. Beginning with the 1958 election, liberal Democrats started getting elected while, in part, attacking the dominance of southern Democrats in the House. During this period, conservatives dictated policy outcomes and all avenues of policy making which drastically bottlenecked what Democratic presidents could accomplish. Anyway, liberals kept gaining members relative to conservatives in the Democratic caucus, and with the Watergate election of 1974 they gained a critical mass where they could basically seize control of the caucus on most fronts and begin dictating policy outcomes. For instance, up until that point, committee Chairs were appointed by seniority. Since southern Democrats had been there forever, they chaired all the committees and were a very real pain in the side of liberals. Once liberals started flexing their muscle, chairs had to be elected by the caucus. This meant that if a (then) chairman was not sufficiently in line with the caucus they would be replaced. There were a slew of other changes, so much so that the mid 1970s are called the reform period in Congress. One moral of this story is that the tried and true way of changing the way Congress makes policy is to change the way your caucus operates. To do that requires a majority of likeminded people in the party to make that happen. With the case of conservatives in Congress, it seems likely that they need more time and more members to be truly effective on that front.

A second moral is that Chamber leadership is as strong as the caucus/chamber allows it to be. If the conservatives were powerful enough in the Republican party, they could force changes in how the leadership operates. More importantly is that since the reform period in the 1970s, both parties have become more unified and have given their leadership more power to better represent the rank and file (see this wonderful article for an excellent description of this process occurring) at the expense of power to minority party members (among others). Even if conservative Republicans are more conservative than the “regular” Republicans, the two Republican groups are still relatively close together. In the 1930s-1980s, it was a regular occurrence that there were Republicans members of Congress who were more liberal than their Democratic colleagues. This is definitively not the case in modern times.

The fact of that particular matter is that ideological diversity is required to overthrow a Speaker on the House floor. There are no conservatives in the Democratic party (at least relative to the Republican party) and there are no liberals in the Republican party (at least relative to the Democratic party) in Congress. The last time a Speaker was overthrown, there was a large amount of ideological diversity among the two parties and both the majority party and minority party were left out of policy decisions. Both majority party members and minority party members thought the Speaker was too heavy handed and both groups wanted a larger say in Congressional policy outcomes. Conversely, the modern minority party has no part of governing in the House of Representatives anyway. That means there is no real reason why they would support a change in Speakership because they have nothing to gain powerwise from supporting a new Speaker and lots to lose ideologically.

It is precisely that reason why conservatives are forced to work within the paradigms of old. There is absolutely no ideological reason for Democrats to go along with people who are far to the right of even the most moderate members of the Democratic caucus so any floor strategy involving Democrats is out. So, excepting the rare possibility that Democrats find an electoral incentive to work with conservatives to remove Boehner, that strategy is out. What is left is that conservatives have to endure and hope they can keep gaining more and more power in their caucus so that they can finally start making the changes they desire. 30-50 members of a 247 member caucus may be enough to embarrass your party on the floor but it isn’t enough to actually force the party to change how it operates.