Boehner’s Protected Institution

When John Boehner startled Capitol Hill with his sudden resignation, he claimed his “first job” as speaker of the House was to “protect this institution that we all love.” He didn’t make clear which institution he had in mind. Former speaker, current lobbyist, and now disgraced wrestling coach Dennis Hastert would know.

Most took Boehner’s words to reference the House of Representatives itself, or the Congressional branch of our tripartite government structure. That was certainly how Boehner would have preferred his words be interpreted, but that interpretation doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Boehner is quitting more than his leadership position on October 30. He’s leaving the House of Representatives entirely, leaving his seat vacant until Ohio Gov. John Kasich calls a special election to fill it. How is the “institution” served by a 30-year veteran Congressman quitting? If Boehner has been asked that question, he hasn’t bothered to answer it.

There certainly are personal reasons why a self-deposed leader might not want to hang around for a little more than a year until his term expires, but they have nothing to do with the institution he (might have) claimed he was seeking to protect.

Most commentators readily interpolated his remarks to refer, if obliquely, to the Republican party. His comments that immediately followed addressed a “prolonged leadership turmoil” that would “do irreparable damage.” But exactly nobody thinks that Boehner’s departure will end that turmoil or lessen that damage.

If Boehner was considered too moderate by some in his party, that’s a label they’d like to be able to use when their presidential candidate finishes his or her 2016 campaign. Boehner knew that shutting the government down to protest Planned Parenthood was a recipe for electoral disaster. He knew his party would be blamed, and he wanted no part in it.

But his leaving Capitol Hill will do nothing to stave such extremist tactics. The Grand Old Party may fall on its principled sword for no good reason, but Boehner decided he’d rather get that news from C-Span, and not around the fireplaces and wood paneled rooms behind the Speaker’s seat.

If anything, Boehner served as a bulwark against his party’s most extreme members’ efforts to self-destruct. Yes, Boehner had become a target — but the purpose of the lightning rod is to attract what would otherwise destroy the house — or, in this case, the House.

Eric Cantor’s electoral surprise was a cautionary tale for anyone who has earned the stink-eye of the uber-conservatives. Many House members fear a primary challenge from their unguarded right flank, but none of that Tea Party umbrage has yet risen to the level of a recall. Boehner’s seat was safe until 2016, and so was his leadership position.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pledged full Democratic support to Boehner if his leadership was challenged. If Boehner could keep just 30 of his Republican colleagues’ support, the Democrats would supply the other 188 votes he would need to prevail. That support only further infuriated Boehner’s detractors — which may have been Pelosi’s intent all along.

But this brings us around to the institution Boehner’s resignation was really seeking to protect. It’s not the House itself, the leadership of that House, or the party he represents. Each of those is centuries old and worthy of protection. The institution his departure protects is only decades old.

The Hastert Rule has come to be understood as Congress’s “other filibuster.” The Speaker of the House schedules floor votes. The Hastert Rule denies a floor vote until a bill has majority support within his or her party — even if the majority of the members of the House would vote to pass it. Dennis Hastert explicitly adopted the “majority of the majority” rule after becoming Speaker of the House in 1999. He has since disavowed the rule and its name.

Call it what you like, but it has made it easier for House Speakers to keep their gavel, even as it’s prevented anything approaching bold bipartisanship in governance. It’s that sad legacy that Boehner’s resignation protects.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.