All of the sudden, my newsfeed is full of stories about the disintegration of the Republican party, about how that party has become ungovernable. The immediate emergency is the inability of the majority party in the House to choose a new Speaker, which has, as its proximate cause, the decision by current Speaker John Boehner to quit. And I’m not sure who was happier about him quitting–the ultra-right conservatives in the House and elsewhere, or Boehner himself. Let’s face it; when people hate each other this much, it’s time for a divorce. Irreconcilable differences indeed.
Only once before in its history has the House been in this much turmoil over choosing a new Speaker. That was the Speakership contest that took place from December 5, 1859 to February 1, 1860. Essentially, Republicans wanted John Sherman, of Ohio, and Democrats wanted absolutely anyone except John Sherman, of Ohio. The splendidly named Garusha Grow, R-Pa, was also in the fight, as was a Virginia Democrat, John Bocock. The crucial issue, it turned out, was when, and under what circumstances, various men had read a particular book. A poorly written, poorly researched rant called The Impending Crisis in the South, by one Hinton R. Helper, it had the one dubious virtue of being a book with something in it to offend absolutely everyone. In fact, as Bruce Catton has noted, it’s unclear who Helper despised more: slave-owners, or black people. For two months everyone in the House stood and screamed at each other about it. (Sherman, it seems, had endorsed it, without reading it first).
Eventually, one William Pennington, R-NJ was elected, in part on the theory that he was elderly and in poor health, and probably wouldn’t last all that long. As it turned out, he lived until 1862, at which point the whole nation was on fire, and boys were killing each other in very large numbers indeed. And John Sherman, of Ohio, is known today, if at all, as the brother of one William Tecumseh Sherman, of the burning of Atlanta and March to the Sea fame.
I raise all that history to point out that any time you’re involved in an American political dispute, and the closest parallel anyone can point to is one that led directly to the Civil War, that’s probably not a good thing.
For a political party,or really any organization, to function, someone has to be in charge, and that person has to be able to impose discipline. Who is the current head of the Democratic party, right now, 2015? Easy: it’s Barack Obama, right? Who is the current head of the Republican party? Well, honestly, it should be the Speaker, since Republicans control the House. So is John Boehner in charge? Of anything? No.
Think of the greatest Speakers in American History. Henry Clay, Thomas Brackett Reed, Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill. They ruled by persuasion, certainly, by the conferring of favors, and through subtle threats, but they did rule. They wielded power. Reed is probably the name you haven’t heard of, but he was one tough cookie. In his day (1895-1899), the minority could block votes by refusing to answer a quorum call. If there weren’t enough people ‘present’, nothing could be done. So Reed called for a quorum vote, and then when members didn’t answer, he’d call them present anyway. And had the doors locked, so they couldn’t just run off. It turned into an entertaining spectacle, let me tell you. The House continues today to operate under the ‘Reed rules.’
To save the Republican party, John Boehner needs to wield power. The problem is that he has a substantial minority of Tea Party conservatives in his party that have made it clear that they do not want to govern, who believe that they were elected to the House specifically to obstruct the work of the federal government. And he has no effective way to impose party discipline. And he’s quit. And the people who want the job, and there are a lot of them, don’t want to govern either.
I have a plan, a workable plan, that will save the Republican party, save Boehner’s historical legacy, and move the country forward. It does require that Boehner stay in office until January 2017, when the newly elected Congress convenes. He may not be willing to do that. But he’s the only person who can save the Republican party right now.
Here’s the plan. John Boehner needs to expel the Freedom Caucus from the Republican party.
The Freedom Caucus, or HFC, is approximately 40 Tea Party Republicans who vote as a bloc, and who seem determined to disrupt anything approximating regular order in the House. The reason that I say ‘approximately’ is because they’re pretty secretive; nobody knows quite who belongs and who doesn’t.
Here’s what Boehner needs to do. First, announce that he’s not quitting after all. Second, meet with Nancy Pelosi and cut a deal with her. If she’ll promise to provide sufficient votes for him to stay Speaker, then he will agree to allow votes on a certain number of crucial pieces of legislation. My guess is, at a minimum, she’ll ask for a clean budget agreement, a debt ceiling increase, and a highway bill, to rebuild infrastructure. Offer her this too: he’ll call for a vote to rescind the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy, with all revenues targeted towards deficit reduction.
Third, he calls a meeting of the Republican caucus. In that meeting, he says this: I have called a vote to raise the debt ceiling for tomorrow. If you vote for the bill, good, because it’s going to pass.
If you vote against it, though, then we have a problem. Vote against it, and you are expelled from the Republican caucus. You will lose your committee memberships and chairmanships. You will not be allowed to caucus with Republicans, speak on the floor, introduce legislation, introduce amendments. I will send notice to your constituents that you are no longer considered members of the Republican party. And you’ll be assisted in moving from your current offices on Capital Hill, which will be reassigned; currently, your new office spaces are being used for janitorial supplies.
There will be an uproar. I suspect that we’ll see an immediate vote of no confidence in Boehner’s leadership, a vote to remove him as Speaker. But with the solid bloc of Democratic votes behind him, he’ll weather that. I suspect that this action will hasten the creation of a third party, the Tea Party. That’s great too; it’s been inevitable for a long time, and a healthy third party will only enhance our national political conversation.
The result, however, will be a new Republican party, smaller perhaps, but more focused on governing, a disciplined party, a party that stands for something positive. It brings back the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, and yes, even the party of Ronald Reagan. I think it’s the only way to move forward. And we’ll be able to include John Boehner’s name among the great Speakers of history.