Coming the day after Pope Francis’ historic visit to the House of Representatives, we can’t help but wonder if the Pope’s words might have influenced House Speaker John Boehner’s abrupt decision to step aside at the end of October.
The 65-year-old Ohio Republican had spent a career seeking the speakership, which he earned in 2011. He surprised insiders Friday by saying he will give up the gavel, and resign the seat he has held since 1991. His decision came as the far-right wing of his caucus prepares to bring the nation’s business to a halt.
Thursday, Pope Francis emphasized the need for politicians to create dialogue instead of division. Boehner, a devout Catholic, had invited the Pope to address his chamber; he was moved to tears as the Pope spoke. A day later, Boehner surveyed a House clearly divided with an even deeper division in his own party.
Republican hardliners insist they will block the federal budget over funding for Planned Parenthood. They say it’s about the sanctity of life, but it’s more likely just hostile political theater from a group that would rather fight than govern. In resigning, Boehner signaled he’ll have nothing to lose by cutting a stopgap deal to ignore them and keep the government running – rather than indulging them with compromise in hopes of preserving his speakership.
His resignation is a loss for Republicans and for the nation. It will take a 25-year veteran out of the process, and eliminate one of the dwindling number of reasonable voices remaining.
Boehner’s enemies on the right complained that his conservatism wasn’t staunch enough, though that hardly appears to be in question for the rest of the nation. Rather, his real crime seemed to be his old-fashioned belief that democracy is about dialogue, about compromise.
As U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican, told the New York Times, the new tea party members simply won’t do it. “They just can’t get to yes,” Dent said, “and so they undermine the ability of the speaker to lead. And not only do they undermine the ability of the speaker to lead, but they undermine the Republican conference and also help to weaken the institution of Congress itself. That’s the reality.”
The front-runner to be the next speaker probably is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, though insiders say he is hardly a shoo-in.
His real crime seemed to be his old-fashioned belief that democracy is about dialogue, about compromise.
An affable man with a knack for deal-making, McCarthy has many friends in the House. But Boehner was a likable deal-maker, too, and in the end, it didn’t matter. The big dog in the tea party wing isn’t even in the House – it’s Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the GOP presidential hopeful. With Cruz trying to stir the pot all the way to the White House, the new House leaders will have their work cut out for them.
For Democrats, this disarray might bring some dark glee. It shouldn’t. Governance-by-hostage is disruptive to the economy and alienates voters. It serves only the most venal. When Cruz and company shut down the government for 16 days in 2013, trying to halt Obamacare funding, national parks were closed, veterans’ benefits were disrupted, home loan decisions were delayed, immigration courts were closed and taxpayers lost an estimated $24 billion.
Without reasonable consensus, no group can govern, and in Congress, reason is increasingly rare.
Perhaps Pope Francis’ words provided an epiphany for Boehner, hearing a call for compassion and common purpose. Was it too much, then, to re-enter the entrenched, hyperpartisan meanness of the House? No true public servant, and no nation, would stand for such a hatred of governance.
It’s a testament to Boehner’s love of country that he waited until there was scarcely a prayer left before finally saying, “Enough.”