What does it mean if John Boehner is suddenly a termed-out Speaker of the House, no longer beholden to the constituency of congressional Republicans he leads — and maybe no longer worried about the voters that elected him either? Probably not a whole lot.
Boehner isn't termed-out, of course, but a report out Wednesday from the Huffington Post suggests that he's the next-best thing: planning to give up his position. The story is a little unclear on whether or not their sources say Boehner is leaving Congress or simply giving up the speakership, but the effect is the same. As of January 2015, when new members of the House are sworn-in, Boehner may no longer need to worry about currying the favor of the Republican majority to keep his elevated position. When he last sought election as Speaker in January of this year, it was not a simple process. An insurrection from the far-right wing of his party came uncomfortably close to ousting him from a position he derided as needing like "a hole in the head." (Fact check: John Boehner necessarily has several holes in his head, several of which he needs.)
The Huffington Post's Ryan Grim and Jon Ward, citing numerous sources, explain why Boehner might not want to repeat that process. For one thing, he might lose. And for another thing, even outside of biannual speaker elections, his constituency is a "wild tiger" that he is forced to ride.
New York's Jonathan Chait sees this possibility as a reason to celebrate. Boehner has shown some flexibility on the Hastert Rule, but not much. That "rule," named for the last Republican speaker prior to Boehner, mandates that no bill come up for a vote in the House unless a majority of Republican members approve of it. In other words, the speaker, who controls the calendar, won't allow a vote on a bill that could pass with a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans backing it.
Chait thinks that a Boehner liberated from the tiger will abandon the rule completely.
[I]f Boehner feels liberated to flee the House, then suddenly all sorts of governing possibilities open up. He can lift the debt ceiling and keep the government running. He could sign immigration reform, even cut a deal on the budget. There's probably a majority in the House for all these things — it's just a majority consisting mainly of Democrats along with a handful of Republicans. Boehner could use that majority and then ride off into the sunset to become a lobbyist, enjoy a huge raise, and play a lot more golf.
This is probably optimistic, in the breathless manner of someone who's just heard a bit of news that he thinks opens up new vistas of possibility.
Let's consider three scenarios.
Boehner is staying in office and wants to keep his position. The net result here isn't much different. The Speaker will need to keep the extreme right of his party happy, allowing votes on doomed measures like bids to repeal Obamacare. This is the world in which we live, a world that gives us the least productive Congress in memory.
Boehner isn't running for reelection in 2014. The window on this announcement — one which the Huffington Post notes Boehner has rejected repeatedly in the past — is closing. But it's the ultimate to-Hell-with-it option, the version most likely to result in Chait's dream scenario. To see why, let's consider the third scenario …
Boehner will run in 2014, but not for Speaker in 2015. This is probably the most likely course of events, assuming HuffPo is correct. And it means that not much will change.
Calls for Boehner to step down existed before the most recent vote on his position; they continue to this day. Boehner is seen as the embodiment of establishment Republicanism. Justifiably, since he is. When far-right voters and Tea Party activists rail against Washington and the party, they are railing against Boehner. Republicans hoping to appeal to that base — all of them — walk the same line that Boehner does in hewing to deeply conservative policy priorities. If Boehner, thinking only of when his country club opens two Springs from now, starts abandoning the party's priorities, the pressure on even more moderate Republicans to go against Boehner will only increase. The core set of Republicans who always vote with Boehner (20 percent of them, according to the Washington Post) may continue to do so. But that other 80 percent will get a lot of phone calls and emails and letters demanding that Boehner's will be ignored.
If Boehner wants to win his seat, he'll see that blowback directly. If he doesn't, if he just wants to retire, it would take an awful lot of strength to walk away from his position tossing matches on every pool of political gasoline he passes. Especially if he wants to eventually turn around and try and lobby his former colleagues as a career.
Despite his rhetoric on the stump, John Boehner is a career politician. (The picture at the top of this article is him on Capitol Hill 21 years ago.) And career politicians don't suddenly start going sideways. Until his last day in his position, whenever that may be, Boehner will almost certainly be a loyal soldier. Even if he's crying on the inside.