By EMILY MCEVOY
The Speaker of the House of Representatives is undoubtedly one of the most powerful elected officials in our government and an integral member of his political party, tasked with ensuring that policies benefitting the majority party pass into legislation while preventing any opposing legislation from reaching the House floor for a vote. It is worth analyzing, then, what John Boehner’s (R-OH) recently announced resignation means for the future of the Republican Party and what it says about the dynamics of the 114th Congress of the United States.
13 years after he first joined Congress, Boehner is set to resign on October 30th, completing his tenure as Speaker that was characterized by high levels of tension with President Obama (whom he even filed a lawsuit against), the government shutdown of 2013 and persistent attacks on the Affordable Care Act. His focus on opposing the Democratic Party helped create some of the least productive Congressional sessions in history in terms of the number of bills signed into law.Recent data has tried to counter this assertion, noting that Boehner did, in fact, schedule historically high levels of floor votes in the House (about 1,200 in the 113th Congress). However, many of these votes were on bills destined to never pass, such as those meant to defund Obamacare or Planned Parenthood.
Boehner’s ultimate downfall, though, was not conflicts with the Democratic Party leadership, but the tension that exists within his own party. His resignation was ultimately a response to the recent criticism from the Freedom Caucus who threatened to vote him out of office if he did not push harder against funding for Planned Parenthood in the budget discussions. This caucus of about 30 Congressmen represents the growing extreme right of the Republican Party, including members of the Tea Party, which burst in the political spotlight several years ago. Supporters of this movement are pushing back against more “establishment” Republicans, who they believe are not doing enough to thwart the liberal actions of the Democratic Party that still controls the executive branch.
This same internal tension can also be seen in the Republican primary race – with a wide field of diverse candidates, there is not yet a clear front-runner for the Republican nomination. In fact, the three currently highest polling candidates in the primary – Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – have no previous experience working for the government or even in the political field. Voters have been sending clear signals that they are ready to move away from “establishment” candidates like Jeb Bush. Of course, there are Tea Party candidates like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz who also appeal to the more extreme Republican voters and who are, ultimately, more likely candidates than Donald Trump (despite his high polling numbers).
Many are predicting that Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will assume the Speakership since he is currently the House Majority Leader. In his email to his colleagues Monday declaring his intentions to run for the position, McCarthy claimed that he seeks to move the party “closer to the people we represent.” However, without a Republican President, any newly elected Speaker will find it impossible to enact any of the ultra-conservative policies that these Tea Party and Freedom Caucus supporters desire. In fact, a more conservative Speaker will probably result in an even less productive Congress, as President Obama continues to maintain veto power over any legislation before it is signed to law. McCarthy will likely be challenged by a member of the Freedom Caucus in his run for Speakership, but as I suspect we will see in the results of the Republican primary, the “establishment” Republicans have not lost complete control of their party yet – their opposition just tends to be more vocal. The new Speaker will continue to struggle with a divided government, so any true change in how effective Congress can be will likely have to wait for the results of the 2016 elections.