For the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, ending the 112th Congress should have been a blessing. But the recent fiscal fiasco within his own party seems to indicate his problems will only continue into the new 113th Congress.
First, Republican leader John Boehner tried his own path to avoid the fiscal cliff fiasco and declare who was in charge of the House majority.
When Boehner moved against some of the most conservative members, such as North Carolina’s Walter Jones, by punishing them for their treasonous votes against the party line and stripping them of their prized committee assignments, the message went forth: the Speaker means business, and stay in line.
But the attack on the ideologically pure within the party’s ranks came back against the speaker. The pronouncement by many that “Plan B will pass” only to be quickly dumped indicated that the Boehner was losing his leadership over the House majority.
Then came the disastrous New Year’s Day saga of approving the Senate’s fiscal cliff bill.
Many different analyses have painted a portrait of a leader who is losing his grip. If the U.S. had a parliamentary legislative system, the Plan B defeat and the fact that a majority of his own party voted against the fiscal cliff package would have been the “votes of no confidence” in the leader and sent him packing.
And on to it the public relations disaster of members of his own party calling for his head after the failed vote for Superstorm Sandy relief, and it’s a wonder the speaker could survive with such marks against his leadership.
Of course, the days of the iron-fisted speakership are long gone. At the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th centuries, speakers did rule the House in almost a dictatorial fashion.
Two prime examples — “Boss” Thomas Reed and “Czar” Joe Cannon — were speakers who commanded the entire House. Reed, in an infamous grab for power, locked the House doors to keep Democrats from fleeing the chamber and counting them as present, even when they hid under their desks.
“Uncle Joe” Cannon, a native North Carolinian, held not only the top position but also served as chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. In addition to appointing his favorites as committee chairs, Cannon used the power to recognize individuals at his own discretion.
It wasn’t until a revolt by not only the minority party but also members of his own party in 1910 that the speakership lost its near absolute rule.
Recent speakers, most notably starting with Newt Gingrich in 1995, have attempted to bring back a centralized source of power in the speakership. But with the movement of the House GOP more and more to the right of the political spectrum and an unwillingness to compromise with the other branches of government, Boehner is finding himself having to lead a more rancorous party.
While the vote for speaker is often more perfunctory on the opening day of the session, this year seems to show that the 113th Congress will simply continue the dysfunction of the 112th Congress. Boehner will be speaker for the new Congress, but with the divisiveness of his own conference, he appears to be even weaker in terms of political strength.
Will Rogers once remarked, “I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat.” If the legendary humorist were alive today, he’d find the quip apropos for the Grand Old Party in the new year.