September 30, 2015

The resignation of Speaker John Boehner highlights the limits of party leadership in the House of Representatives.

Parties as we understand them were not envisioned by the framers. James Madison famously derided them as evil factions. The Constitution was designed, in part, to control their influence.

But parties, as Madison well knew, were inevitable. Not only were differences of opinion normal in a free nation, but also parties provided solutions to problems created by silences in the Constitution.

Madison’s system interest representation in the House was given organizational structure by the creation of political parties.

The Constitution provides little guidance for the structure of the House and its leadership only that “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.”

Parties allow the House to effectively choose its leadership, staff its committees, and structure its agenda. They are a means to organizing the institution.

But they also get in the way of the type of majoritarian coalitions needed to govern. Parties, and their leaders, do not always reflect the view of the majority of the House.

This isn’t entirely new. Speaker Joe Martin lost 91 out of 248 Republican votes when he brought the Truman Doctrine to the floor in 1947.

A coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats thwarted Speaker Tip O’Neill during the 1981 budget negotiations, giving Ronald Reagan an important early legislative victory.

What is new is the sheer repetition of threats to the current leadership of the House. John Boehner rode the tea party wave to power in 2010 but he is by instinct a man of the House, prone to deal making. The party he helped bring to power doesn’t do deals.

So we end up in an endless cycle of gridlock spurred by a faction that the Speaker can’t dislodge.

This is not the will of the House. Just the will of a faction. But a party leader isn’t much of a leader if opposition votes are routinely needed to advance legislation.

So the House has a will that is often stymied by the organizational clarity political parties provide.

It is a conundrum and Speaker Boehner didn’t have a good answer. And as long as the faction of the Republican Party remains ensconced, Speaker McCarthy won’t have an answer either.

political parties, Kevin McCarthy, House of Representatives, John Boehner

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