Why Speaker Boehner can’t govern: Primaries, parties, privacy, and pork

It comes as no surprise to me that John Boehner is stepping down as Speaker of the House. He has had a tough time of it; an unruly caucus of his own party and a President of the other party. No doubt much attention will be given to the fact that he was about to be challenged as Speaker but it is a challenge that most people think he would have survived. And much attention will be paid to the uncompromising stance of the Tea Party members in his conference. But probably not enough attention will be given to the fact that John Boehner became Speaker at a point in time when four different reform ideas—all enacted with the best of intentions—interacted in ways that made his job impossible. These are structural and will impede the job of the next Speaker as well.

  1. Primaries. The United States is one of the very few democracies in the world that uses primaries to nominate the members of the legislative branch. That means, for all practical purposes, anyone can become the nominee of a political party simply by declaring, running and winning. It also means that defying the party leader, in this case the Speaker, has very few consequences. While Boehner has been able to strip some of his problem members of committee assignments that has not proven to be a very powerful tool. Unlike leaders in parliamentary parties, Boehner cannot decide to keep someone off the list for bad behavior. And primaries are notoriously low turnout events in which a small group of ideologically motivated voters can control primaries. Thus it is no wonder that members of Congress have come to fear being “primaried” more than they fear displeasing the leadership.
  2. Parties. A series of well-intended campaign finance laws and a Supreme Court decision have had the effect of making political parties bit players in a world where billionaires put enormous amounts of money into elections and especially primaries. Previous Speakers could dispense party money, and that gave them some control over the behavior of their members. Poor Speaker Boehner has had to share or cede control over campaign cash to the Koch brothers and other assorted billionaires who promote extreme candidates. My colleague Darrell West has described this new world of activist billionaires.
  3. Privacy. Again, well-intentioned reforms have been enacted to make the “sausage making” of democracy easily visible to all. Add to that the ubiquity of electronic devices that allow one to tweet even private negotiations in real time and it is clear that the private space needed to actually try and find common ground has been slowly shrinking. See Brookings scholar Sarah Binder on the importance of privacy for negotiations.
  4. Pork. Federal funds for things that members of Congress wanted in their districts have largely disappeared. And with some good reason. Too many bridges to nowhere outraged the public. And yet these expenditures were always small within the context of the overall federal budget, and they served an important purpose—they gave the leadership something to bargain with. The process of “logrolling” in Congress helped them do their business for many years. When it was gone so was congressional effectiveness.

The four Ps—primaries, parties, privacy and pork—combine to make it nearly impossible for a modern Speaker of a fractious party to govern. Their impact will affect Democrats as well as Republicans. All of this is why some of us have begun talking about the need for political realism. My colleague Jon Rauch wrote a much longer treatise on this for Brookings a few months ago. And it also may be a time to consider an idea Bill Galston and I had some years ago. Maybe, rather than having the Democratic or Republican caucus nominate the Speaker which then becomes tantamount to election—we should move to a system where 60 percent of the House is required to elect the Speaker. This would open the possibility that future Speakers could build bi-partisan coalitions that would give them a working majority from the beginning. It would also protect the majority from being held hostage by a minority of the majority, as the Tea Party has done to the Republican Party for some time now.

Boehner’s departure should be a wake-up call to anyone who would actually like to see the Congress function again. From all available evidence that is most of America.