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The Sausage Factory

An Unnecessary Distraction: Taking a Look at the Motion to Vacate

It’s August, and Congress has departed for their traditional long summer recess. So, of course, the country needs some political controversy to keep it entertained until after Labor Day – as if the shenanigans of Donald Trump were not enough. House Republican Mark Meadows of North Carolina provided that when he introduced a resolution to strip John Boehner of the Speakership.

Boehner should punish Meadows’ impudence by forcing him to be the Speaker for a day.

The two biggest perks of being speaker is that you get to have lunch with the Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach, in Irish) on St. Patrick’s Day and a fancy old-fashioned portrait of yourself hanging in the Capitol. That’s about it. In return, the Speaker must ensure that the government is funded and pass some kind of legislation to improve the country, while still maintaining a House majority, while being sniped at by the minority party—and, apparently a number of people in the majority too. Today, it is practically impossible to appease a party’s hardcore base and retain a majority. Instead of criticizing Boehner so much, the right should thank him. Moreover, the base should also criticize Meadows for introducing a motion that ultimately undermines their interests.

Several of Meadows’ accusations can be summarized by saying that the Speaker has dominated the legislative process and excluded others from it. The very first charge that Meadows lays against the Speaker is that he “has endeavored to consolidate power and centralize decisionmaking”. He also criticizes the use of closed rules (i.e., prohibitions on amendments to a bill).

These charges are, to a large degree, unfair because previous Speakers, not Boehner, augmented the office’s powers. The office’s authority increased over the last several decades, bit by bit in the 1960s and 1970s, then in earnest in the 1980s and 1990s. Obviously, that’s not Speaker Boehner’s doing—nor his expressed desire. He himself has explicitly and often criticized the centralization of legislative decision making in the hands of leadership. Unfortunately, it will take a lot of reform, both inside and outside the House—so much beyond Boehner’s control—to make that possible.

One of the main obstacles to decentralizing authority and opening the process is not Boehner, but the permanent campaign. Speakers have closed the legislative process in part as a reaction to the use of “poison pill” or “gotcha” amendments that the minority offers to try to embarrass the majority, forcing them to take stands on controversial issues that inevitably wind up in campaign attack ads. Closing the process is a defensive posture that Speakers—not just Boehner—use to protect the majority. The right wing should imagine all the fun gotcha amendments that Nancy Pelosi or any other Democratic leader could concoct.

In addition to gotcha amendments, the right of the right should also consider legitimate attempts at policy-making that would go through. Aside from protecting the majority, closing the legislative process prevents legislation that the right considers “bad” (however that may be defined). We usually disagree with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, but Meadows and his allies should ponder the following point he made on July 29:

But the logic of this legitimate protest is that Boehner should allow many more votes on the floor in which a minority of Republicans could join with a majority of Democrats to pass legislation, thereby reflecting the actual will of the entire House. If Boehner had done this with immigration reform, it would now be a reality.

There are probably dozens of similar policies that conservatives oppose that are stopped precisely because the leadership controls the legislative process to some degree or another by trying to bring up only bills a majority of his Conference supports, a practice known as the Hastert Rule.

Ironically, though the far right  complains when leadership does not observe the Hastert Rule, even when it does, sometimes they are nowhere to be found.  For instance, at the end of February of this year, Congress had to fund the Department of Homeland Security. Conservatives wanted to use the funding as leverage in their fight against the Administration’s unilateral liberalization of immigration policy. However, they were running out of time, so the House leadership offered a continuing resolution that would grant a reprieve of three weeks. Nearly 80 percent of the House Conference—191 Members, a supermajority of the majority—favored it, but 52 Republicans sunk it by joining the Democrats, greatly embarrassing the party. Predictably, the House eventually passed a funding bill, but the conservatives achieved no concessions. As one Republican lawmaker said, “Other than being mad just for being mad, show me why the route you are proposing can work.”

The infighting and futility both moderate and conservative Republicans experience point to a deeper problem for the party: It has a legislative majority, but realistically speaking, no single ideological group in Congress enjoys sufficient support to enact its biggest goals. We ourselves would be pleased to see additional conservative bills passing the House and we agree with much of what the Tea Party supports, like fidelity to the U.S. Constitution and fiscal responsibility. Like Meadows—and Boehner—we also support an open process. However, we realize we do not speak for most Americans. The majority of Americans are not conservative, much less very conservative or Tea Party. Earlier this year, Gallup released a poll indicating that, yes, a plurality of Americans—38 percent—describes themselves as conservative. However, this is down from a high of 40 percent in 2010, and a sizeable sector of the public, 34 percent, only regards itself as “moderate”. Simultaneously, the number of self-described liberals has been steadily increasing since 1992, the first year in the Gallup report. Somewhat paradoxically, the percentage of liberals reached its peak of 24 in 2014, the very year the Republicans secured the Senate and its largest House majority since the elections of 1928. This suggests moderates voted Republican in the election. Yet, in the future, they cannot count on moderates, who have consistently declined as a share of the electorate since 1992. Nor can they alienate moderates by passing legislation that is so conservative that it has no chance of passing the Senate, much less being signed by the President. The party leaders, especially Boehner, seem to understand these demographic and political dynamics, but it’s not clear that the dissident right does.

It’s ironic that most Americans would disagree with Meadows, since the charges in his resolution purport to defend the American people. However, it is actually out of step with what most Americans want: practical results. A recent Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that It’s unclear how the motion to vacate serves this desire that most Americans share.

It’s also unclear how the motion advances Republicans’ goals. Even Meadows’ most conservative colleagues, have sharply criticized this action. For instance, Representative Richard Nugent, who voted against for a candidate other than Boehner in the election for Speaker in January, said, “We have so many important issues today that we should be facing. This is a distraction. This gets us off where we should be.” Politico reported that Representatives Mick Mulvaney and Jim Jordan, “fierce and frequent critics of leadership” also thought it was a bad idea. Meadows says that the motion is less about actually deposing Boehner and “really more about trying to have a conversation about making this place work”.  Perhaps some colleagues would like a conversation, but certainly not in this way.

Meadows’ colleagues are not interested in this motion, but there are a handful of people who are delighted. The day after Meadows filed his resolution, the Tea Party Leadership Fund and the Liberty Now PAC headed by recent Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli had already sent out messages to followers aimed at disrupting Republican held town hall meetings in August.  Think of all the money they can raise off this motion! And the press coverage from protests!

Aside from Tea Party groups, the only others who really benefit are the Democrats. Within the House, this is a golden opportunity for the minority party. It gives them the perfect opportunity to go on and on about how dysfunctional the Republicans are. Ironically, the only way the small faction of very conservative Republicans could succeed is by partnering with the very liberal Democratic Leader, Nancy Pelosi, since they would have to rely on virtually every single Democrat. According to The Washington Post, although Pelosi said she would not participate, Democratic Conference Chairman Xavier Becerra mused, “Circuses can be interesting things, but we’ll let that circus work its own will…Anything that helps us get things done, we’ll move on that.”

This stunt is also a boon for the Democrats outside the House. It will make the August recess a opportunity for some on the extreme right to make a failed attempt to take down one of their own, instead of the defeat any number of more egregious and easier targets, like the nuclear deal with Iran, Hillary Clinton, or Planned Parenthood. (Ok, Planned Parenthood might be the hardest to defeat. The Democrats are so wedded to Planned Parenthood, they’d probably demand a third term for Obama in exchange for that one.) Not to mention, it will crowd out the GOP Presidential candidates and their ideas and proposals following the first Republican debate on August 6. Worse for Republicans, however, is that this loud, but relatively small group of people, seem to be more eager to tear apart their own, rather than criticize the President, who is free and more than willing, to fire back directly at them.

Dissident Republicans failed to unseat Boehner at the beginning of the Congress, so this renewed rebellion is just one more in a series of party malcontents trying to embarrass the Speaker.  At the end of the day, John Boehner is safe as Speaker. Meadows is not a serious threat to him as much as he is to the rest of his Conference. Instead Meadow’s colleagues will have to deal with a public-relations annoyance that risks alienating independent Americans who simply want the government to work together on behalf of the American people.

Some people consider the August recess a vacation – for many Republicans, thanks to Mark Meadows, it will be more like month-long root canal.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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