Boehner and the barn burners and his plans for his final month

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
House Speaker John Boehner, free from fear of being dumped but still holding the gavel for one more month, has made clear that he will not participate in the shutdown scenario.

Perhaps the “barn burners” of the Republican House caucus are proud of themselves for getting rid of John Boehner, although in doing so they have guaranteed the failure of their most immediate goal, which was to either cut off funds for Planned Parenthood or shut down the government.

Personally, I believe (and hope) their no-compromise mentality and tactics are more likely to strengthen the forces of compromise.

Boehner is notoriously boring in interviews, but he did say a couple of interesting things Sunday on “Face the Nation” (transcript here) that may suggest where this contest is heading.

For one, he freely acknowledged that he would rely on Democratic votes to get the last few things accomplished that he had in mind for his last month as House speaker. He specified that he resigned, in part, to spare his own loyalists the political risk they would take by standing by him.

The “barn burner” metaphor, in case it is unfamiliar to you, refers literally to a farmer who will burn down his own barn in order to get rid of a rat infestation. It arose during the 1830s, ’40s and ’50s to refer to elements who wanted to destroy all banks and corporations whom they saw as the source of evil, and to those who favored similar tactics to get rid of slavery.

Today’s barn burners favor a radical reduction in the size and reach of government, wedded to various right-wing social policies on issues such as abortion or gay marriage. They lack the political power to accomplish their goals through ordinary political means and seek instead to multiply their power by seeking to shut down the government or refuse to raise the debt ceiling, which would damage the government’s credit rating.

Boehner, free from fear of being dumped but still holding the gavel for one more month, has made clear that he will not participate in the shutdown scenario and that a new compromise will keep the government open at least until December. Of course, December is not that far away, and the barn burners may be satisfied to strike the match again then and keep striking it until they accomplish their radical agenda. That’s how the barn-burning mentality operates.

Boehner and his likely replacement Kevin McCarthy agree with the barn burners that government should be smaller, taxes lower, abortion rare and gay marriage illegal. But they disagree on burning down the barn to advance these goals.

The barn burners had decided that Boehner had to go (and that by getting rid of him, they would advance their agenda). They were organizing a vote to embarrass him. Their plan was to call for a “motion to vacate the chair,” and to demonstrate that  Boehner’s leadership did not have the support of a majority of the House. Technically, that was probably true in the sense that a majority the House are either Democrats (188 members) or barn burners (maybe 30 or 40, maybe more). But Boehner still had the support of a majority of Republicans and, if necessary, the Democrats would have voted for Boehner rather than leave the House unable to function.

Of course, a Republican speaker who is beholden to Democrats for his survival should not be a step toward the barn burners’ goals, at least in the short term. But once you are committed to a barn-burning mentality, that ceases to be much of a consideration.

House Speaker John Boehner on “Face the Nation”: There will not be a government shutdown

Barn burners force Boehner to rely on Democrats

In his Friday morning press conference, Boehner said that he was not worried about surviving the vote on his leadership, although he didn’t specify whether he thought he would get the necessary 218 votes just from Republicans. On Sunday morning on “Face the Nation,” he made clear that he might have had to rely on Democratic votes and that he will also need Democratic allies to keep the government open. He was asked by moderator John Dickerson whether, to do any of the things he wanted to do in the last months, he will require votes from Democrats.

DICKERSON: The continuing resolution, will that require Democratic votes to pass?

BOEHNER: I’m sure it will. But I expect my Democrat colleagues want to keep the government open as much as I do.

Likewise, he specified that he would have survived the leadership challenge with Democratic support:

BOEHNER: Listen, winning that vote was never an issue. I was going to get the overwhelming numbers of — I would have gotten 400 votes probably. But why do I want to make my members, Republican members, walk the plank? Because they’re going to get criticized at home by some who think that we ought to be more aggressive.

Here he is acknowledging that many of his own supporters come from districts where they are under barn-burner pressure to engage in extreme tactics, and that he wanted to spare them votes that would be used against them by barn-burner primary challengers. (Recall that Boehner’s own heir apparent, Eric Cantor, was defeated in a Republican primary in his Virginia district by a Tea Party-supported challenger.)

Still on “Face the Nation,” Boehner built up his argument that the barn burners are misleading their followers by promising results they cannot achieve, which led to him labeling them as “false prophets.”

BOEHNER: Listen, we have accomplished a lot over the four-and-a-half years that I was speaker, and whether it was the largest deficit reduction deal in the history of the country, saving $2.1 trillion, protecting 99 percent of the American people from an increase in our taxes, or the first major entitlement reforms in 20 years, all done over last four-and-a-half years with a Democrat president, and all voted against by my most conservative members because it wasn’t good enough.

Really? This is the part that I really don’t understand. Our founders gave us a system of government, a majority in the House, you need 60 votes in the Senate. If the House and Senate can agree, the president gets to decide. And our founders didn’t want some parliamentary system where, if you won the majority, you got to do whatever you wanted. They wanted this long, slow process.

And so change comes slowly, and obviously too slowly for some…

DICKERSON: Well, are they unrealistic about what can be done in government? That’s the dysfunction.

BOEHNER: Absolutely they’re unrealistic. The Bible says, beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done. I mean, this whole idea that we were going to shut down the government to get rid of Obamacare in 2013, this plan never had chance.

But over the course of the August recess in 2013, and the course of September, lot of my Republican colleagues who knew it was a fool’s errand really they were getting all this pressure from home to do this. And so we have got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know, they know are never going to happen.

Boehner also made clear on “Face the Nation” that he has ideas — in addition to fending off the immediate threat of a government shutdown — for things he can get done before he leaves, all of which, he implied, will require Democratic votes  and perhaps White House and Senate support (this is the reference to “cooperation from some around town”) all of which will anger the barn burners:

DICKERSON: And what about the rest of the business you want to get done before October 30? What is on the to-do list?

BOEHNER: Well, we have got — I have got another 30 days to be speaker. And I’m going to make the same decisions the same way I have over the last four-and-a-half years to make sure that we’re passing conservative legislation that is good for the country.

I expect that might have a little more cooperation from some around town to try to get as much finished as possible. I don’t want to leave my successor a dirty barn. I want to clean the barn up a little bit before the next person gets there.

I interpret this as more evidence that Boehner will spend his last month working out arrangements with like-minded Republicans and Democrats, and probably including President Obama, to clear away some of the tempting targets that the barn burners might otherwise use as kindling.

I can’t say, but it is possible to believe that this era of bipartisan cooperation will establish a template for getting things done in an era of divided government. It would be fascinating to know what kind of advice Boehner imparts to his protege and likely successor Kevin McCarthy if/when he hands over the gavel.

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/28/2015 - 11:13 am.

    An apt analogy

    “Barn-burning” seems right on target as an analogy, and I’d love to be a fly on the wall during whatever meetings or phone calls take place between Mr. Boehner and his successor. Those would likely be conversations that qualify as both “fascinating” and “instructive.” It’s pretty difficult – I’d argue that it’s impossible – to justify minority rule in a political system that purports, at least, to be democratic, so the whole “tea party,” radical right wing phenomenon, especially when ideological purity is viewed as an essential ingredient, is interesting in that regard.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/29/2015 - 08:03 am.

      Equal and Opposite

      My guess is that these folks just wish they had the clout that the Tea Party has.

      Is the CPC then a radical left wing group trying to become a phenomenon?

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/29/2015 - 09:59 am.

        Opposite, but Unequal

        What’s your point? The fact is, the CPC has nowhere near the clout of the tea partiers, so they are only analogous for strained “both sides do it” comments.

        Of course, if you can show me where speakers at a CPC event have called for violent revolution (“A “Second Amendment solution,” as it were), there might be a closer comparison.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/29/2015 - 01:17 pm.

          Violent Revolution

          Source please. I don’t think the main stream Tea Party folks would advocate for armed revolution. Though there are likely a few anarchists in the crowd.

          And yes I think some of Ellison’s events may get close in the “we aren’t going to take it anymore” mode of troop rallying.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/29/2015 - 03:02 pm.

            Maybe They Were All Just Kidding Around

            “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back.” Michele Bachmann, March 21, 2009.

            “I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.” Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle, January 2010.

            “We shall not have any coarse [sic] but armed revolution should we fail with the power of the vote in November.” From the Green County, VA, Republican Party newsletter of March 2012.

            “Don’t Retreat, Instead-RELOAD!” Sarah Palin.

            Just a few anarchists, whose words are explained as hyperbole once they realize how badly they play with the public. I’m keen to read any comparable language from Keith Ellison (because both sides do it).

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/29/2015 - 05:41 pm.

              I Give Up

              No one can compete with Bachman and Palin for being crazy.

              That is likely why they were ousted from the GOP power structure…

              Maybe I will need to look for some Sharpton / Jackson comments to compete…

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/28/2015 - 12:36 pm.

    Boehner’s Resignation

    I understand why Rep. Boehner would want to resign as Speaker of the House. What I don’t understand is why that means he needs to resign from the House as well. His constituents elected him as their representative. His colleagues voted for him to be Speaker (not a job listed in the Constitution). Resigning because he isn’t having fun being in charge looks like dereliction of his oath of office.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/28/2015 - 12:46 pm.

    Not Much of a Constitutional Scholar

    “Our founders gave us a system of government, a majority in the House, you need 60 votes in the Senate.”

    Where is that “60 votes in the Senate” thing in the constitution? But most of your GOP politicians are pretty weak on the constitution, so we should not be surprised by that.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 09/29/2015 - 10:29 am.

      Article I, Section 5, Clause 2

      “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings…”

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/29/2015 - 12:27 pm.

      Sixty Votes

      It is nowhere in the Constitution. While it is arguably within the purview of Congress’s power to make its own rules, the drafters of the Constitution clearly did not contemplate this situation. Tie votes were contemplated, and there are nine supermajority vote requirements in the Constitution. The only supermajority requirement for the passage of legislation other than a constitutional amendment is for a veto override.

      • Submitted by Doug Gray on 09/29/2015 - 04:19 pm.

        tell it to the judge, or to Czar Reed

        So sue the U.S. Senate over its allegedly unconstitutional 60 vote requirement for cloture. In fairness to the Speaker he spoke of a “system of government” which absolutely (as opposed to “arguably”) gives each House of Congress the purview to make its own rules. Up until the ninteen-teens Senate cloture used to take two-thirds, and until the immortal Thomas Brackett Reed became Speaker around that time the then-Democrat minority in the House would obstruct business by remaining in their seats but refusing to respond to quorum calls. It was one of Reed’s innovations to rule a member present for the purpose of forming a quorum if physically present in the House chamber. For this he was called “Czar Reed.” He knew parliamentary rules are important. When the rules he had laid down were used against him and his party, he also had the decency to resign.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/29/2015 - 05:17 pm.

          Not Unconstitutional

          The 60 vote cloture requirement was not contemplated by the drafters, but I doubt it’s unconstitutional.

          We have Aaron Burr to thank for abolition of the rule that a majority vote (“previous question”) could end debate.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/28/2015 - 01:25 pm.

    At what point is the political process deemed to be a failure and the revolution of the right becomes a reality?

    Already fundamentally undemocratic, moving toward insurrection.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/28/2015 - 02:25 pm.

    “Boehner and the Barn Burners”

    sounds like a punk rock group to me.

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/28/2015 - 07:59 pm.

    Boehner for President?

    It certainly would make the GOP choice clear.

  7. Submitted by Steven James Beto on 09/29/2015 - 05:47 am.

    Eight Years In the Life

    For the past eight years, Congress has operated like a reality television show starring ex-big time wrestlers and aging has-beens with cosmetic surgeries gone wrong. Straighten your backs! You’re supposed to represent our highest ideals. What you have done, what you continue to do, produces shame not pride.

  8. Submitted by Doug Gray on 09/29/2015 - 10:21 am.

    All too Faulknerian

    Which one is Abner Snopes?

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