What Is John Boehner’s Legacy?

Pity John Boehner. His Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, like his speakership, depends on an unruly fringe of lawmakers who disdain not just the idea of compromise but also the act of governing. Yet he is the leader, as he likes to say, of “one-half of one-third of the government,” and he can’t afford to treat Congress as merely an ideological amusement park.

Like the guy at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, however, Boehner asked for this job. As Congress faces not one but two looming fiscal deadlines, Boehner would do well to ask himself: How does he want to be remembered?

The federal government needs money for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and it will probably reach its debt limit a few weeks later. Congress has the constitutional obligation to appropriate the money that enables the government to function. If it fails, the consequences -- both financial and economic, in the U.S. and abroad -- would be dire.

But the radicals in the Republican caucus refuse to approve either a budget or an increase in the debt limit without repealing or defunding the Affordable Care Act. They have enough votes to hold Boehner hostage, which they have been doing more or less since he won the job, with the result that he has been reduced to asking for Democrats’ help to pass legislation to keep the government from shutting down.

This process shouldn’t be hard. In years past, it wasn’t. But some members of Boehner’s party seem confused about the role of campaigns and elections in a democracy. Republicans and Democrats were on the ballot just 10 months ago. Republicans lost the White House by more than 5 million votes. They failed to oust the Democratic majority in the Senate, securing power only in the House.

Voters dealt Boehner a weak hand. Even so, he has played it badly, trying to appease the most adamant of his caucus, tying a measure to fund the government to one that would defund and postpone implementation of the dreaded health-care law. His plan went awry when the rank and file realized that the Senate would have been able to detach the funding mechanism from the Obamacare killer, sending an unfettered funding bill on to the president for signing. Boehner and his deputy, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, were forced to delay the vote.

Meanwhile, on the debt ceiling, Boehner appears to be waiting for a deus ex machina -- a proposal from Russian President Vladimir Putin? -- to extricate his caucus from a fast-approaching debacle. Once again, the more radical members of the party insist on flirting with financial ruin for the sake of another wild stab at taking down Obamacare.

Boehner’s choice is of the Hobson’s variety -- which is to say, no real choice at all. Either he must get his more recalcitrant colleagues to face political reality, or he must abandon them and throw in with House Democrats to pass bills funding the government and lifting the debt ceiling. The first option is probably impossible, the second surely career-ending.

The speaker deserves better. But there is no point in sugarcoating it: The House’s recurring efforts to tar and feather Obamacare -- it has voted to repeal, delay or defund all or part of the law at least 40 times -- represent the bulk of Boehner’s achievements. It’s a legacy marked by juvenility, steeped in pathos, verging on abject failure.

Boehner, who got himself elected to the Republican leadership not once but twice and once worked with such Democrats as the late Senator Edward Kennedy, is a skilled politician and an able legislator. Saving the nation from another manufactured crisis is not the highest use of his talents. But as the speaker himself surely understands, it’s the only use that matters.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.