Boehner punishes the Tea Party: Why the speaker is finally seeking revenge

The speaker is removing rebellious House conservatives from plum committee assignments -- at long last

Published January 7, 2015 6:58PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Rep. John Boehner won his third term as House speaker yesterday, but still suffered the most defections from his own party (25) for an incumbent speaker in about 100 years. There is a reason that most incumbent speakers don't face revolts on inauguration day: because they are the incumbent speakers and they control everything! Committee assignments and money and everything else.

John Boehner has not been a typical speaker. He has offered unruly GOP members unusual latitude to ruin everything he's tried to do over the last four years. His problems are largely of his own making, a direct result of what Politico labels his "Montessori school managerial style" in the 112th and 113th Congresses.

Let's consider Florida Rep. Daniel Webster, a member of the 2010 "Tea Party Wave" class. Webster decided a few days ago, Ha, I should run against Boehner for speaker and work behind his back to get votes and not even give him a heads up, just for fun. What's the worst that could happen? Here's some third-termer whom Boehner had given campaign funds from his leadership PAC and awarded a prized spot on the House Rules Committee. And yet he still felt that going against Boehner, for the one thing that Boehner genuinely cares about -- his own personal power -- would be fine with the boss, because he lets the children do whatever they want and then gives them a friendly pat on the head.

This turns out to have been a colossal mistake on Daniel Webster's part! Because John Boehner appears to have decided to become a normal speaker instead of a human hacky sack.

After he secured his third term as speaker Tuesday afternoon, losing 25 votes on the House floor to some relatively unknown members of the Republican Conference, Boehner moved swiftly to boot two of the insurgents from the influential Rules Committee. That could be just the start of payback for the speaker’s betrayers, who might see subcommittee chairmanships and other perks fall away in the coming months.

Boehner’s allies have thirsted for this kind of action from the speaker, saying he’s let people walk all over him for too long and is too nice to people who are eager to stab him in the back. The removal of Florida Reps. Daniel Webster and Richard Nugent from Rules was meant as a clear demonstration that what Boehner and other party leaders accepted during the previous Congress is no longer acceptable, not with the House’s biggest GOP majority in decades.

And just like that, after a disorganized, spur-of-the-moment, doomed-to-fail effort to embarrass John Boehner, Rep. Daniel Webster is done. Congressman Richard Nugent is done. Boehner's "allies warn that further retaliation could be on the way," Politico writes. "It didn’t take more than a few hours for Webster — a legendary former Florida statehouse speaker and state Senate majority leader — and Nugent to find themselves on the outside of a power structure they were once very much a part of."

You don't oust an incumbent speaker by deciding a few seconds beforehand to try to oust an incumbent speaker and then wing it with no real plan, as if choosing to play hooky and spend the day at Six Flags. It requires more forethought and legwork. Say what you will about Newt Gingrich, but the guy had a plan. He decided near the beginning of his career that he wanted to wrest control from the complacent Republican leadership of the '70s and '80s and win a majority, with himself as speaker. It took him about a dozen years of careful plotting and alliance-building to make it happen. But he did make it happen. He did not make it happen by calling randos the night before the speaker's election and saying , Hey how about me for speaker wouldn't that be sick??

South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney put it well yesterday. Mulvaney, like Webster, is a member of the 2010 class and an even more hardcore Tea Partyer. He voted against Boehner in the similarly comical "revolt" at the beginning of the 113th Congress, but voted for Boehner yesterday. This led to a flood of angry calls and tweets and so forth about how he was just another establishment RINO sellout fraud, etc., prompting him to release a response statement. It's a meaty one, and worth a full read, but here's an excerpt:

Some people tried to argue that voting against Boehner would give conservatives leverage, or somehow force him to lead in a more conservative fashion, even if the coup attempt failed.  All I can say to that is that the exact opposite happened two years ago:  conservatives were marginalized, and Boehner was even freer to work with moderates and Democrats.  My guess is that the exact same thing will happen again now.  And I fail to see how that helps anything that conservatives know needs to be done in Washington.

One little quibble: He overestimates the extent to which "conservatives," meaning the ~20 members who are always giving Boehner trouble, were marginalized following the 2013 "coup attempt." Boehner's majority was thin enough in the last Congress that he still needed some of their votes, giving them leverage. But Boehner doesn't need their votes anymore, doesn't need to coddle them, and now has a freer hand to pursue good old fashioned retribution. These back-of-the-envelope calculations are ones that Webster, Nugent and their merry band didn't do beforehand. Whoops.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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