The Empire Strikes Back
(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2015 edition.)
The Republican Establishment reasserts its authority to govern – and compromise
This year the media trumpeted the rise of outsiders. Donald Trump, Ben Carson and others have dominated the 24-hour cable news coverage of politics. Headlines about Congress highlighted the demands of firebrands like Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY), and the Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives.
Senators either filibustered or threatened to filibuster measures to shut down the government. In the House, the Freedom Caucus threatened to topple then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) if he did not shut down the government to force President Obama to surrender his successes.
But despite the fascination with such dramatic confrontation, the more important story of the First Session of the 114th Congress has been the reassertion of the power to compromise by the Republican Establishment.
The Commitment to Govern
Former House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to step down at the end of October 2015 proved a political masterstroke that decisively drained political wind from the sails of the Freedom Caucus and emboldened the establishment majority of the House Republican Caucus to reassert its prerogatives. Despite all the hubbub about how the Freedom Caucus allegedly brought Boehner down, let’s remember he had long wanted to step down anyway.
But after the primary defeat of former Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) by a Tea Party challenger, Boehner reluctantly agreed to continue to serve until the new Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), had solidified his succession to the Speakership. And despite the rank speculation in the media, there was little doubt that, if the Freedom Caucus moved to vacate the chair, Boehner had the votes to remain Speaker. After all, he had prevailed over the same opposition within his own caucus at the start of the 114th Congress.
But by announcing he was stepping down at the end of October, Boehner seized the political initiative by removing himself as the issue, and he tied his decision to the House taking essential legislative actions to keep the government running. Magically, he accomplished this with hardly a whimper from his most ardent opponents. Furthermore, by presenting the House Republican Caucus with the urgent necessity to elect a new Speaker, he gave it a remarkable opportunity to unite and thereby coalesce decisively around Paul Ryan (R-WI).
The result was that Ryan triumphed by gaining the votes of 236 of 245 voting Republicans. Only nine voted for the Freedom Caucus candidate, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL). In accepting his election, Ryan told his colleagues that “The House is broken. We are not solving problems. We are adding to them. . . . We need to make some changes, starting with how the House does business.”
His speech was received with multiple standing ovations and loud cheers of approval from Republican members. Democratic members remained more subdued, but respectful, because they know they can do business with Speaker Ryan. And while this was to some extent political theater, the votes on legislation that accompanied these developments told the tale.
The Establishment Legislates
On the eve of Speaker Ryan’s ascendency, the House passed a new budget deal by a vote of 266-167 with only 79 Republicans voting in favor of the legislation. This, of course, reprised a tried-and-true strategy that Boehner had used since 2011 to enact must-pass legislation despite intense opposition from the Tea Party wing of his own caucus.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.