Louie Gohmert's big challenge: A test vote on the efficacy of the next Congress

Boehner will remain speaker in the next Congress. But will a larger conference protect him from the "knuckleheads"?

Published January 5, 2015 5:54PM (EST)

Louie Gohmert                              (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
Louie Gohmert (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

Members of the 114th Congress will be sworn in tomorrow to kick off another two-year cycle of arbitrary brinkmanship and clown-shoed legislative terror-mongering. House Speaker John Boehner will preside over the largest Republican House majority in decades, and this time he'll have a Republican Senate with which to work on crafting far-right bills that will get filibustered or vetoed and go nowhere. There's never been a better time to be alive, except for all the other times.

Boehner will emerge as speaker for his third term tomorrow. The only question is how drawn out the process will be. Boehner will need a majority of House votes to retain his speakership. If he doesn't get that in the first go-round, then he'll win it on the second ballot. The conventional wisdom, though, is that having to go to a second ballot would be an "embarrassment" for Boehner's leadership. Well, sure. It would be embarrassing for a little while, but Boehner's been embarrassed dozens of times before and still manages to retain his top leadership position.

It's better to think of tomorrow's speaker vote as a sort of test vote on how smoothly the next House will operate. The 2014 elections gave him more of a cushion within his caucus. In the last couple of Congresses, Boehner could only suffer about 15-20 conservative defections before having to either rewire a bill rightward to ensure "majority of the majority" passage or turn to minority leader Nancy Pelosi for Democratic votes. And sure enough, there were always about 15 to 20 conservative defectors lining up to oppose him on nearly every bill of importance. Now he can afford nearly 30 defections. Will the number of conservatives looking to thwart his every move blossom to 30, or will it stay in the 15 to 20 range?

The "embarrassment" angle does have one thing working for it: The lawmakers who've already lined up against Boehner, either by announcing their own campaigns for speaker or pledging not to vote for Boehner, are highly embarrassing people. Reps. Louie Gohmert and Ted Yoho have put their names forth as alternates to Boehner. You may recall both Gohmert and Yoho from various articles on sites like Salon Dot Com titled "GOP lawmaker says [inexplicably comical/ludicrous thing]." They are nonsense people.

The GOP congressmen who've already said publicly that they'll vote against Boehner don't have an aura of dignified statesmanship, either. There is Iowa Rep. Steve King, whose nativism needs no introduction. (In the annals of "GOP lawmaker says nutty thing" stories, King and Gohmert each lay claim to approximately 40 percent shares.) Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman has his moments, too. He delivered the quote of the 2013 government shutdown: "We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is." (More recently he complained that House leaders lied to him by saying they would dump the $1.1 trillion "cromnibus" spending package if he voted for the underlying procedural measure to advance it. Either Stutzman made that up himself, or he's just not a very bright guy.) Meanwhile Rep. Dave Brat, famous for surmounting then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary last year, has "changed his mind" and decided not to support Boehner for speaker. It's unusual that a member with only a couple of months' seniority would decide to go out of his way like this to get himself on the speaker's shit list, and it speaks to Boehner's reputation for hesitancy in bringing down the hammer on insubordination in the past.

As of this writing, the Washington Post's informal whip count shows 10 votes against Boehner already, with a lot of outstanding members to be counted. If this were the 112th or 113th Congress, Boehner's speakership would be in serious danger of being pushed to a second ballot. But now he'll have a cushion of about a dozen more votes. Will it be enough to stuff the knuckleheads back into the irrelevant plane where they naturally belong?

"Knuckleheads" is John Boehner's word to describe these rebellious House GOPers who are always ruining everything for him. In a September speech, he explained how this faction of conservatives effectively left him with a "paper majority" over which to preside, poorly:

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday said he has "a few knuckleheads" in his conference."

As a result, Boehner described his House majority as being a "paper majority."

“On any given day, 16 of my members decide they’re going to go this way, and all the sudden I have nothing,” he said. “You might notice I have a few knuckleheads in my conference.”

It's unorthodox to describe a not insignificant bloc of the House Republican conference as "knuckleheads" a month-and-a-half before an election as a pitch for why the House needs more Republicans, but that's what he was doing, and he got what he asked for. If the defectors tomorrow stay in or below that 15-20 range, and it's all the same clowns as before, then that augurs well for his ability to manage his conference more easily over the next two years. If the defectors are in the 25 to 30 range, and it comes down to a vote or two, though? The next two years will look a lot like the previous four.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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