HOUSE SPEAKER John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) insisted on Friday that he was resigning in order to forestall a tough vote on his leadership and “protect the institution” of the House. Protecting the institution, he said, is a speaker’s primary job. We respect his devotion. But a speaker’s primary responsibility is to the nation, not the House. And what the nation needs is a Congress willing to make compromises in the national interest — compromises that Mr. Boehner may have favored but rarely had the stomach to promote.
From the start, Mr. Boehner seemed like a Republican leader for a different time, when serious policy could be hashed out in relative comity, over a drink and a smoke. The leadership challenge he was handed didn’t demand deal-making skills as much as it required creating the space for deal-making to happen in the first place. That, in turn, depended on sidelining an insurgent right wing that has made the House dangerously incapable of compromise on major policy questions, except in the most pressing of circumstances. Instead, Mr. Boehner ultimately decided to sideline himself.
It’s hard to know if someone else would have been — or will be — more effective managing a House with a bloc of Republicans who are more sensitive to the ideological preferences of their partisan districts than to the needs of the nation. What’s clear is that a loud faction in Mr. Boehner’s GOP caucus seems as hostile as ever to the process of governing in a democracy. The House will not deliver much until its leaders allow a simple majority — of Republicans and Democrats — to vote on budgeting, immigration and other crucial issues. Mr. Boehner was loath to call votes when he might need to rely on Democrats. The result was to hand the reins to the extremists.
We don’t minimize the political risks of taking on the extremes, which will fight to keep their stranglehold on the legislature. But the way the House currently operates is bad for the country.
There is a long list of policies that reasonable people of both parties know Congress has to tackle. First, the government must be funded. Mr. Boehner’s departure at best buys the country a few weeks, forestalling a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding. Once it approves a temporary spending resolution, Congress must lift the unsustainable funding caps that shortchange both military and social programs. Later this year, Congress must raise the debt ceiling. Given the projected growth of the old-age entitlement programs, Congress needs to secure them with targeted reforms that don’t hurt the needy and that help, along with tax reform, to deliver the revenue needed to pay for the government Americans expect. The nation needs comprehensive immigration reform that trades border security for a pathway to legalization for the undocumented. It needs to invest in its infrastructure and research. And so on.
There was a moment, during President Obama’s first term, when he and the speaker might have delivered compromise in the national interest. Neither ultimately had the courage to challenge his own party’s orthodoxy, the moment passed and Mr. Boehner hunkered down in a way that protected his job without getting much done. It’s too soon to know whether his departure will offer another opportunity; what’s certain is that the need is no less.
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