Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”
On Jan. 3, the 113th House will fulfill its express constitutional duty to choose its speaker. The result may well be the reelection of Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). But events of the past week have cast some doubt on that.
The vote will be taken by the new House, which has 233 Republicans, 200 Democrats and two vacancies. If 17 Republicans vote for someone other than Boehner, and he falls short of an absolute majority of all the votes cast, the House will be thrown into turmoil — no elected speaker, and the prospect of additional ballots and a whole lot of intrigue before the new speaker is chosen and sworn in.
Every sentient American knows why Boehner is having a restless holiday season: His make-or-break effort to get his colleagues to vote for his Plan B — to give him leverage in his negotiation over the “fiscal cliff” with President Obama — broke, as Republicans balked at supporting their leader. With no Plan B, no alternative Plan C and a conservative base angry and frustrated, it is perhaps not surprising that a group of conservatives has reportedly hatched a plan to oust the speaker.
Boehner is a decent man, and a natural legislator, who is caught in a trap. Republican culture since Boehner’s predecessor, Dennis Hastert, has demanded that legislation brought to the House floor have the pledge of support from a majority of the majority — in other words, that House Republicans act in unison, or close to it, before there is any effort to garner Democratic votes, and that no bill go forward unless and until it has support from a substantial majority of Republicans. It has been clear from the outset of the debate over the U.S. fiscal dilemma that, given the imperative of the no-tax pledge endorsed by 90 percent of House Republicans, no compromise would be achievable without the support of at least as many House Democrats as Republicans, and probably more.
Boehner’s dilemma is worsened by the fact that 50 or more House Republicans come from districts that are homogeneous echo chambers, made that way through redistricting and the “Big Sort” that has like-minded people living in close proximity to one another. None of them is threatened in a general election; all could be unseated in a contested primary.
With the Club for Growth and others putting million-dollar bounties on the heads of apostates who vote for any taxes, and with the conservative wind machine of talk radio having its effect, these lawmakers are immune from broader public pressure, the impact of a large election outcome or persuasion by their party leaders. For Boehner, fulfilling his constitutional responsibility as speaker of the House means getting the House to work its will, even if his party does not go along — but doing so imperils his speakership.
What if Boehner doesn’t survive? Go to Article I, Section 2: The Constitution does not say that the speaker of the House has to be a member of the House. In fact, the House can choose anybody a majority wants to fill the post. Every speaker has been a representative from the majority party. But these days, the old pattern clearly is not working.
Even in a multi-ballot marathon, there is no way 17 or more Republicans in the new House would opt for Nancy Pelosi, or any other Democrat. The danger is that a fatigued GOP will settle for a take-no-prisoners firebrand or find another candidate willing to pledge fealty to the radical minority within the majority, turning the current, really bad situation into something worse.
The best way out of this mess would be to find someone from outside the House to transcend the differences and alter the dysfunctional dynamic we are all enduring. Ideally, that individual would transcend politics and party — but after David Petraeus’s stumble, we don’t have many such candidates. It would have to be a partisan Republican.
One option would be Jon Huntsman. By any reasonable standard, he is a conservative Republican: As governor of Utah, he supported smaller government, lower taxes and balanced budgets, and he opted consistently for market-based solutions. As a presidential candidate, he supported positions that were in the wheelhouse of Ronald Reagan. But a Speaker Huntsman would look beyond party and provide a different kind of leadership. He would drive a hard bargain with the president but would aim for a broad majority from the center out, not from the right fringe in. He could not force legislation onto the floor, but he would have immense moral suasion.
Another option would be Mitch Daniels, the longtime governor of Indiana and a favorite on the right. Daniels has shown a remarkable ability to work with Democrats and Republicans, and he is a genuine fiscal conservative — meaning he does not worship at the shrine of tax cuts if they deepen deficits, and he would look for the kind of balanced approach to the fiscal problem put forward by Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici and the Gang of Six.
America’s political dysfunction is driven by a Republican Party that has become an insurgent outlier. Unfortunately, even last month’s decisive election has not purged or ameliorated that dysfunction. It may be time for a different kind of out-of-the-box action. Huntsman for speaker!