Why couldn't John Boehner control the 'false prophets'?

The speaker of the House is an important and presumably powerful person. But John Boehner made it clear he was tired of some lawmakers 'spreading noise about how much can get done,' such as eliminating Obamacare.

Steve Helber/AP
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015.

Why couldn’t John Boehner control the rebels within his own party?

This question is now moot, of course – Speaker Boehner announced last week that he’ll leave his leadership post and Congress at the end of October. He’s made it clear he was tired of trying to rodeo the herd of cats that is the GOP House caucus. He was particularly weary of attempting to placate the hard-line conservatives who have pushed to shut down the government over various issues since Republicans won control of the House in 2010.

“The Bible says beware of false prophets. And there are people out there, you know, spreading noise about how much can get done. I mean this whole notion that we’re going to shut down the government to get rid of Obamacare in 2013 – this plan never had a chance,” Boehner said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

But here’s the issue at hand: Boehner was speaker of the House, and the rebels were not. The speaker of the House is an important and presumably powerful person. Why couldn’t Boehner keep these folks in line?

The rebels were unified, for one thing. While the conservative House Freedom Caucus consists of only 37 or so members, they knew what they wanted. The rest of the House GOP wasn’t always so sure how to respond to hard-liner concerns. And it’s a truism in politics that on many issues, it is the most interested faction that wins.

And the speakership is not what it used to be. It has been decades since a speaker such as Tip O’Neill operated as a preeminent force within the party.

The irony is that the two great parties that run the nation are more ideologically sorted than ever before – but that does not mean they are more disciplined.

“US political parties are not strong in the top-down sense. Neither presidents nor congressional leaders have a lot of control over backbenchers in their parties,” said Jonathan Ladd, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University, in a reaction posted on the "Mischiefs of Faction" blog.

Well-intentioned political reforms may have played a part in weakening the speakership in particular. Taken together, they’ve weakened the disciplinary tools available to a House leader at a time when the Republican Party is increasingly split between restive conservatives and an establishment faction used to governing on its own terms.

These reforms are the four P's, writes Elaine Kamarck, Brookings senior fellow in governance studies: primaries, parties, privacy, and pork.

The problem with primaries is that many if not most GOP members are more concerned with a possible primary challenge from the right in their own district than they are at the prospect of losing a committee because of to speaker discipline. Exhibit A is Eric Cantor, the ex-House majority leader who lost to a little-known tea party candidate, Dave Brat, in 2014.

The problem with parties is that they no longer control access to the biggest sources of campaign cash. Billionaires such as the Koch brothers have rewritten the rules on the financing of running for office, lessening rebels’ fears of being left penniless for general elections.

As for privacy, there isn’t any, in a political sense. Speakers used to be able to discipline members out of the public eye – by such methods as suddenly locating their offices next to steam pipes in the Cannon House Office Building basement. That’s not possible in the age of Twitter and Facebook sharing.

And pork has been largely eliminated as a congressional perk. This may be the biggest and most direct reduction in a speaker’s leverage. No longer do members scramble to insert line items funding bridges, highways, defense projects, and so forth in appropriations bills, because of rule changes and budget cuts. In any case, many of the tea party-oriented Republicans were elected on a promise to end such business-as-usual.

“The process of ‘logrolling’ in Congress helped them do their business for many years. When it was gone so was congressional effectiveness,” writes Ms. Kamarck.

None of these structural changes will reverse with a new person in the speaker’s chair. That’s a big reason why the party dissent and rebelliousness that marked Boehner’s tenure is likely to continue beyond 2015.

Speakers used to be autocrats: Speaker Joseph Cannon was called “Czar Cannon” during his 1903 to 1911 occupation of the office. Presiding over a voice vote, Cannon once reportedly said, “The ayes make the most noise, but the noes have it.”

No longer. Speaker of the House is the first political office discussed in the Constitution, prior to the president. That’s far from its position in today’s American political hierarchy.

“In the new tribal world of radical politics, the first constitutional office has lost its luster,” writes Norm Ornstein, a longtime resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in The Atlantic.

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