Funding the government is almost literally the least we ask of our elected representatives, and it is about all they have accomplished in the years that John Boehner has reigned as speaker of the House of Representatives. As Jeffrey Toobin makes clear in this vicious assessment, the innate cowardice that saw Boehner back down from moving important bill after important bill in the face of resistance from the extreme conservative wing of his caucus ensures he will go down in history as one of the least effective speakers in the country’s history. If doing the bare minimum is his legacy, then doing it one last time could not be a more fitting capstone to the John Boehner era.
Even with such a low bar, there was at least a small consolation after his sudden retirement announcement last week in Boehner’s promise to pass another continuing resolution before the current one expires on Sept. 30. He will have to eschew the ridiculous Hastert rule and use Democratic votes to accomplish it, a practice that has earned the enmity of the GOP base over and over again. But his determination might have lulled the casual political observer into cheering him on in the belief that his retirement announcement had freed him from even nodding toward comity with his own caucus.
Alas, that grim satisfaction probably lasted for about as long as it might take to smoke one of Boehner’s Camel Extra Lights. The continuing resolution that passed the Senate on Monday night and will likely pass the House on Wednesday only funds the government through Dec. 11. That means the country can look forward to yet another shutdown fight during the height of the holidays. (Note to conservatives: Cutting off federal worker paychecks during the busiest shopping season of the year? Now that is a War on Christmas. Why do you hate American families and businesses?)
This week’s possible shutdown was predicated on defunding Planned Parenthood over the infamous antiabortion videos released this summer. Now this whole mess gets dumped in the lap of Boehner’s likely successor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, currently the majority leader. Which means you can mark down the first week of December for a raft of stories in the press about how McCarthy is bringing together a coalition of Democrats and slightly-less-conservative Republicans to pass another continuing resolution over the demands of the rabid Tea Party caucus.
McCarthy is a dependable conservative with a voting record and rhetoric only slightly to the left of Genghis Khan. (Just the other day he accused President Obama of “rolling out the red carpet” for Vladimir Putin to take over Eastern Europe and the Middle East.) He’s a pro-lifer with a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee, which could give him credibility with the “Defund Planned Parenthood now” caucus.
But McCarthy, like Boehner, is a pragmatist, not a full-throated ideologue. Having only assumed office in 2007, if he wins the election to become speaker he will be the least-experienced congressman to ascend to that role since 1891. Unlike Newt Gingrich, who spent years building credibility by tossing legislative bombs from the back benches, McCarthy seems to have been running for a leadership position almost from the moment he got to Washington, having become the chief deputy minority whip in only his second term. The news coverage of him this week has described him as a nice guy who makes friends with all the factions of the fractious Republican caucus.
If McCarthy wants an example of what can happen to a congressional leader who makes promises to the extreme conservatives and then doesn’t deliver, he should look not to his friend John Boehner but to one of his co-authors of the 2010 book “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders.” The cover of that book shows McCarthy smiling with Rep. Paul Ryan and then-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, a one-time Tea Party favorite who helped hold the Republican coalition together to fight every legislative initiative proposed by the Obama administration. Then he was booted from office by a hardcore conservative named David Brat, who promised to not only fight Obama, but also roll back his legislative successes.
That there is no plausible path to this goal so long as the Republicans do not have a filibuster- or veto-proof majority in the Senate, or while Obama and his veto pen remain in the White House, does not dissuade Brat and like-minded conservatives, who still think Republicans can force the president to sign legislation repealing all of his accomplishments if they only try super-duper really extra hard.
So McCarthy will have his mettle tested early with a funding fight in a mere two months. Polls show majorities of Americans do not want to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood. Can McCarthy convince the Tea Party it is in the GOP’s best interest to fully fund the government for a year, depriving Democrats of the chance to use the shutdown threat as an issue in the 2016 election? Or will he stumble from short-term CR to short-term CR, keeping alive and highly visible the dysfunction of the Republicans in Congress? McCarthy may not be too grateful to Boehner for stepping down and giving him a path to the top spot.
Republicans replacing Boehner with McCarthy is the equivalent of replacing the skim milk in your fridge with 1-percent. Depressingly, the alternatives for the congressional GOP, and for effective governance in general, are all significantly worse.