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Boehner the Pragmatist

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Yesterday's decision by the House leadership to kick two Florida congressmen off the Rules Committee is being called "revenge" and "retribution." After all, Daniel Webster and Richard Nugent were among 25 Republicans who defected from their party and voted for alternatives to John Boehner as House speaker yesterday. Webster put himself forward as one of those alternatives.  

But the decision to remove the two is more about assuring Republican Party control of the House than it is about punishing renegades, The Rules panel isn’t just any committee. It controls the floor, deciding which bills can be considered by the whole House and under what conditions.

Back when the political parties (and speakers) were weak and committees were strong, Rules functioned independently. When its chairman disagreed with party priorities, Rules would win. Bringing the committee under the influence of party leadership was the most critical step of the reform of the House in the 1960s. The current chairman, Pete Sessions of Texas, put it this way:

The committee works at the behest of the speaker, and the speaker -- I believe any speaker -- would want and need a person focused on that agenda.

But it isn't only the speaker’s committee; it’s the party’s as well. And the insurgents who voted against Boehner were mainly rebelling against the Republican conference that had selected him as their leader.

That’s why members who could not be trusted to vote for the party’s nominee to lead the House can’t be on Rules. For example, the majority party wants to suppress both liberal and conservative amendments all the time, including amendments that might pass if the whole House had a chance to vote on them. That’s how the House leadership retains control.  

It’s easy to imagine Republican rebels working with Democrats on occasion to approve votes on amendments the party as a whole doesn’t want to see. And that isn't the only mischief disloyal members of Rules could create. They could refuse to allow must-pass legislation to advance to the floor.

Now, the committee has a supermajority of majority-party members (a much higher majority-minority ratio than on the other committees) just to ensure that the majority party always gets its way. With an edge of 9 to 4, the defections of two Republicans couldn’t have flipped any results.

Still, Boehner was correct to act on the principle of the thing. Webster and Nugent had to be removed.  It was purely pragmatic, not primarily vengeful.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at