Why Congress May Soon Be a Tiny Bit Less Awful

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, during his weekly news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Aug. 1 Photograph by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Late Wednesday, John Ward and Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post published a thoroughly reported, provocative—but not iron-clad—piece suggesting that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was planning to retire at the end of this Congress. Most of the Boehner aides and ex-aides whom Ward and Grim spoke to are convinced that Boehner is, in so many words, a burned-out husk of a man who’s sick of all this Tea Party nonsense, has lost hope of ever overcoming it, and would really rather spend his twilight years smoking a ciggie out on the links and improving his tan than enduring the stress and humiliation that stretch out before him if he stays in Congress.

If they’re right and Boehner really is planning to quit—his spokesman denies this—that would put a whole new cast on the series of contentious debates that await Congress this fall: everything from raising the debt ceiling to passing some variant of the immigration reform that the Senate passed in June. Until now, Boehner’s dream of establishing a legacy for himself, either by striking a “grand bargain” to reduce the deficit or, as I suggested in June, passing comprehensive immigration reform, has been thwarted by the more mundane desire simply to hold on to his job. The GOP’s right wing, especially in the House, wants no part of Boehner’s legacy issues and has already launched a coup—albeit a comically ham-handed one—to stop him. Boehner held onto his job, but the move hemmed him in even more tightly.

If Boehner really is preparing to throw in the towel, the possibility of his right flank rising up to oust or rebuke him needn’t frighten him any more. Indeed, as Jonathan Chait suggested today, the Speaker might win himself hero status and a lucrative lobbying career by doing exactly what he’s been too afraid to do in the past. One of the things that makes Washington such an all-around depressing place these days is the knowledge that the huge, contentious, petty fights and manufactured crises that predominate rarely accomplish anything meaningful—right now, the big clash looming at the end of the month is simply over whether to keep the light on and the government functioning. But if Boehner is eyeing an exit, it’s possible that a whole lot more could happen.

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