More than a decade ago, I ran a D.C. office for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The House is an institution near and dear to my heart and I’ve been paying close attention to the recent headlines concerning Speaker John Boehner and his House Republican colleagues, in particular the role of First District Congressman Raul Labrador.
Article I of the U.S. Constitution places the power to make laws with the United States Congress, consisting jointly of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
The U.S. Senate, with 100 members, is known for its formal traditions and sense of dignity. With 435 voting members (plus five delegates and one resident commissioner for the various U.S. territories and the District of Columbia), the U.S. House is a much more lively, fractious body.
The leader of the House is the Speaker. The Office of House Speaker is mentioned in a single line in the Constitution with no setting forth of the particular role or responsibilities. The model we’ve adopted is based on the Speaker of the British House of Commons who serves as the presiding officer, determines who is recognized to speak on the floor and maintaining order during floor debate. By law, the House Speaker is also third in line to the Presidency, after only the Vice President. It is an important, visible position.
Two weeks ago, the House descended into chaos after Speaker John Boehner announced he was stepping down after a contentious meeting with five members of the House Freedom Caucus, including Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador. This group of conservatives demanded that the government be shut down in order to defund Planned Parenthood because of revelations in recent undercover videos. To bolster its efforts, the House Freedom Caucus has discussed bringing a motion on the House floor to declare the Speaker’s chair vacant, a motion that could pass if their votes were added to those of House Democrats.
Boehner justified his departure by saying that he “believes putting members through prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution.” I was personally touched by his willingness to put the interests of the House above his own.
The issue now is who will lead the House?
The Speaker is chosen by a vote of all House members of both parties. By tradition, the majority party chooses a candidate through an internal vote of its members as does the minority party. The real fight is the internal fight among majority party members (because they have a majority on the floor). As a result, the majority party’s candidate becomes Speaker – but maybe not this year.
After Boehner’s announcement, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Californian and Majority Leader, announced his candidacy. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) the chair of the House Oversight Committee, jumped in, and the House Freedom Caucus endorsed one of its own, Rep. Daniel “Dan” Webster (R-Florida). Webster is the former Speaker of the Florida House and was the Majority Leader in the Florida Senate and has been in the U.S. House for 4 years.
Last Thursday, the turmoil spiked again when McCarthy announced, right before a scheduled vote of the GOP members, that he would not run, stating he was “not the one” to pull together House Republicans. As I write this, there is rampant speculation as to the determinative reason but a key factor, according to Rep. Darryl Issa (R-California) is that McCarthy wasn’t sure that he could get a majority on the House floor if the House Freedom Caucus ran its own candidate, Webster.
As I am drafting this, there is a report that Boehner has asked House Ways & Means chair and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to run. He may have the stature to bridge the rift. But, Ryan has publicly declined even today, but is likely under considerable pressure to reconsider.
House Freedom Caucus members justify their actions based on the fact that Republicans are the current majority in the House and assert that should be sufficient to advance their policy preferences. That, however, is highly simplistic and ignores several key roadblocks.
First, the House is only one-half of Congress. In the other half, the U.S. Senate, it generally takes 60 votes to overcome any significant opposition. Today there are only 54 GOP Senators.
Second, House Republicans represent districts all over the U.S. and have a range of policy views. To prevail on a floor vote, without any Democratic support, no more than about 10 percent of the GOP members can bail on any given issue. That level of unanimity is rare on many, if not most, contentious issues.
Third, the president’s single vote, i.e. his veto, can block most measures passed by Congress. An override of a veto requires a full two-third vote in both the House and Senate which is a virtually impenetrable hurdle.
My overall estimate is that Labrador and his allies in the House Freedom Caucus are unlikely to see any significant advancement of their policy agenda through these efforts. The more critical question is whether a new House speaker will quell Republican infighting? If not, the chances of a Democrat winning the White House in 2016 will be enhanced, locking in the current policy deadlock.