John Boehner, Team Player to the End

He isn't suddenly going to do what the New York Times tells him to do.

No sudden moves.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

A lot of people want the lame-duck speaker of the House to do something he just can't do. And I'm not talking about the House Freedom Caucus radicals this time. 

No, I mean those who believe John Boehner failed to pass immigration legislation last year because of "cowardice," as the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin put it, or those who argue, as the New York Times said today, that he could somehow still get the bill passed before he leaves office at the end of October. A Washington Post article speculated on whether Boehner would find "the resolve" to pass several bills that Democrats and some Republicans support.

Look, this isn't about “resolve” or "cowardice." It isn't about Boehner at all. He’ll push bills that most members of the Republican conference want him to move; he won’t act on what they don't want action on. 

Speakers represent their party. If Boehner had tried to move on the immigration measure last year, over the objections of most members of his conference, they would have removed him from his position (as Toobin acknowledges), and almost certainly blocked the bill anyway. Yes, there was a House majority for what was then a Senate-passed immigration measure. 1 But the bill would have needed to go through the Rules Committee first to get to the full House -- and when push comes to shove, committee Republicans will be loyal to their party, not to the speaker, if the speaker tries to govern with Democrats against their wishes. 2  

Whatever the scenario, Boehner isn’t going to leave office by plotting to betray his party. 

In his final month, he could push bills through that most House Republicans vote against -- but only if those Republican “opponents” want the bills to pass. This has probably  happened in each instance during his speakership when a bill passed even though most House Republicans opposed it. Remember, except for the 20 to 40 House Freedom Caucus radicals who opposed him from the start, there’s little evidence that any House Republicans have actually been unhappy with the way he carried out his job. 3  

The real players in the House aren’t the radicals. Nor are they the handful of moderates, either. Most House Republicans, Boehner included, are very conservative. They understand that crazy tactics won’t win battles, but worry about losing primaries to challengers who manage to convince Republican voters that only outsiders are True Conservatives. Those mainstream conservatives run the House, and any Republican speaker will do what they want.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. At least Toobin is talking about the past, when Republicans really could have passed immigration reform if they had allowed a vote on it. The idea that Boehner could do that now, as the New York Times editorial suggests, is pure fantasyland -- there are no longer anywhere close to 60 votes in the senate to pass it.

  2. In fact, if Boehner had tried to move immigration or any other high-profile bill in 2013 against the wishes of his party, they likely would have held an immediate conference meeting and removed him from office (technically, if would require floor action if Boehner resisted, but realistically he would have resigned immediately at that point). 

  3. Yes, news reports said Republican members were tired of defending their speaker in their districts. There’s no question he had become unpopular among those who listen to Rush Limbaugh or take their direction from Ted Cruz. That doesn't mean the members themselves disliked how Boehner was doing his job.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at

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