The big fight in the GOP is bigger than the speakership

John Boehner, the 61st Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, stunned official Washington today by announcing that we would have a 62nd Speaker sooner than expected. While Mr. Boehner’s decision is quite surprising, anyone can empathize with a man who has spent much of his speakership under fire from his own Republican Conference—a Conference that is diverse, fractured, and combative. Yes, John Boehner will go down in history as a weak Speaker, but given the makeup of the House GOP, it is hard to imagine anyone being as effective as Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill, or Nancy Pelosi.

That said, if you’re one of the few who truly adore John Boehner, don’t shed too many tears for him. Former rank-and-file members of Congress quickly cash in after retirement. A 13-term, former House Speaker should do just fine.

What will happen next is quite interesting. First, the House needs to elect a new Speaker. This will be the first time in over a quarter century that the House will choose a new chief mid-Congress. Many believe House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is the favorite to succeed to the speakership. However, the wrangling for Congress’ top job may not be the biggest story—or even the biggest fight.

The House majority leadership is sizable: beneath the Speaker serves the Majority Leader; Majority Whip; Republican Conference Chair, Vice-Chair, and Secretary; and Policy Committee Chair. This excludes the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Deputy Whips, committee chairs, and a host of others in formal and informal roles that help lead the GOP’s 247 members.

An ideal, orderly next step would be for everyone to move up one rung in the leadership ladder, and select a new member to the most junior member of leadership. The ideal and the real, however, rarely line up. Leadership fights are bruising and territorial. Those challenges are exacerbated by a party that is fractured and divisive. Conservative members of the House GOP who helped oust Boehner will battle mainstream Republicans and (especially) Boehner loyalists. The result: tremendous challenges in restructuring the leadership in a smooth fashion.

If Leader McCarthy becomes Speaker, the team that serves below him will come together only through a combination of the Speaker’s own preferences, fierce jockeying for position, and an effort to make the leadership reflective of different elements of the party (namely, ideology and geography, and to a lesser extent age and gender).

Boehner’s departure from Congress won’t stop the infighting. In fact, it may well create new avenues of disagreement, and spur tribalism as old alliances break down and new ones are found. Perhaps Leader McCarthy will inherit a job he surely wants, but with it comes immediate political challenges that are as hefty as the major policy challenges that must be dealt with immediately.

We will have a good idea of the new Speaker’s effectiveness very early on. If he (or she) can mute the fight over leadership positions and focus the Conference and the whole House on must-pass legislation, it would foretell some success. That is a tall order, however. Instead, we may learn from the next Speaker that the weakness of the office over the past few years has not been a symptom of the shepherd, but the consequence of his flock.

Congressional Republicans will face tremendous political and policy turmoil in the coming weeks, no matter how smoothly the Speaker’s election is. The 62nd Speaker of the House will have one of the most unenviable jobs in the nation. Ironically, the luckiest, most relaxed person in DC might be the Gentleman from Ohio who just gave his five-weeks’ notice.