A Leader Without Followers

Former Speaker of the House John Boehner is unassuming in On the House: A Washington Memoir. He promises that the book will not be “another boring drag through Washington’s ‘halls of power.’” “If you’re looking for Shakespeare, or my 15-point plan to save the world, this isn’t the book for you,” he writes. This will be a book about real politics, filled with interesting personal stories, rather than instruction in public policy or political theory.

On the House, for the most part, delivers on this opening promise. It is a folksy, breezy read that I completed in two or three sittings of a couple hours. And it is engaging, at least until the final three chapters, which consist of trite discussions of Boehner’s relationships with lobbyists and the media and mildly interesting but ultimately forgettable stories of foreign travels. Before then, there are a few perplexing detours (such as an encomium to his high school football coach and Gerald Ford) interspersed with genuinely entertaining stories about what really goes on in Washington.

There is more to On the House than Boehner promises, though. As much as he wants to suggest that the memoir is merely about “a regular guy who went from working in a bar to holding a pretty big job,” one does not have to dig far beneath the surface to find deeper and more important lessons about the contemporary Congress. In fact, On the House reveals much about the problems plaguing our most republican branch of government, as well as the limitations of academic or media accounts of how Congress works.

Party Acrimony

Predictably, most reactions to the book have focused on Boehner’s incessant denunciation of the “political terrorists,” “amateurs,” “nuts,” “lunatic[s],” “bomb thrower[s],” “kooks,” “wild-eyed crazies,” “freak show[s],” “far-right knuckleheads,” “jackasses,” and “so-called conservatives” in his own party—“the crazy caucus,” as he calls it. (Yes, all of these epithets are used in the book to describe Republicans.)

Boehner is preoccupied, even obsessed with them. He portrays them as the dupes of the “right-wing propaganda nuts,” “cable news know-nothings,” or talk radio screamers such as Mark Levin (who dragged Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh “to Looneyville along with him”). Boehner’s treatment of Democrats and liberals, while harsh, is comparatively tame.

Conspicuous among this crowd, of course, is Donald Trump, whom Boehner accuses of “incit[ing] that bloody insurrection” on January 6 “for nothing more than selfish reasons.” But the real villain is Sen. Ted Cruz, whom Boehner infamously called “Lucifer in the Flesh” in a speech at Stanford University. Boehner bitterly describes Cruz’s influence over Republicans in the House during the government shutdown showdown in the fall of 2013. Boehner wanted to make a fiscal policy deal with Democrats who controlled the Senate and the White House, but Cruz managed to persuade many hardline Republicans to use the impending shutdown as leverage. This miscalculation cost Republicans greatly, and Boehner points the finger at Cruz: “We were on the Titanic playing chicken with an iceberg—and a loudmouthed jerk from Texas was at the helm, grinning like a damn fool, as the water started filling up the boat.”  

It’s easy to see why most in the media have focused on this aspect of the memoir. For one, it’s good political theater—two high-profile politicians from the same party slinging personal insults back and forth. For most of the media, of course, it’s good politics too—it enables them to paint the Republican Party as dysfunctional, and to portray many of its most prominent figures as irresponsible.

Deal or No Deal?

But focusing on the soap opera politics between Boehner and Cruz misses the deeper point, a point which On the House manages to illuminate, albeit imperfectly. Boehner and Cruz represent two different kinds of politics. The distinction between these two kinds of politics is fundamental to understanding the recent trajectory of the Republican Party. Boehner understands this distinction, even if he fails to offer a good argument for his brand.

On the one hand, there’s the political approach, which Boehner attributes to Ronald Reagan and himself. This approach asserts “that getting 80 percent of what you wanted counted as a victory.” It prizes deal-making, bargaining, and compromise. To illustrate, Boehner explains how he and Sen. Ted Kennedy worked to enact No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration’s signature education policy reform.

I think Boehner wants readers to conclude that the end justifies the means—you can’t get No Child Left Behind without compromising. But the only substantive defense he offers for the legislation is that it was “one of the president’s major priorities” and it helped kids “get scholarships to local Catholic schools.” The law’s opponents preferred to pass a bill that left control over education to the states, which “happened to be an idea I’d largely agreed with over the years,” Boehner admits. The problem with such a proposal, as Boehner explains it, is that it “could blow up one of the president’s major priorities.”

If this is Boehner’s best defense for No Child Left Behind, it’s hard to see why we should applaud his and Sen. Kennedy’s efforts to bring the bill to passage. Boehner makes it clear that he loves to cut deals, but he can’t offer compelling reasons why those deals are worth cutting. It’s one thing to be results-oriented and accept compromise as a means to good results. It’s another to make “getting something done” a goal in itself.

The other approach, according to On the House, is the performative politics of the aforementioned “crazies” and “legislative terrorists.” This ideological approach to politics demands “100 percent every time,” and in fact prefers “wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades” to “legislative victories.” Legislative victories require hard choices and tradeoffs. Dysfunction in Washington, on the other hand, enables ideologues “to complain loudly about how Washington’s spending problem never got solved” without accepting some of the responsibility for that failure: This situation “kept their favorite straw man alive to take more hits. And every time they punched him, they got another invitation to go on Fox News or talk radio,” which led to more fundraising, and ultimately reelection.

Though I’m relatively certain it is not deliberate, Boehner’s account echoes Yuval Levin’s recent writings on the emergence of the “performative,” contemporary Congress. Though it claims not to be about “how to fix Washington,” On the House effectively illustrates this dilemma of contemporary politics. Old-school politics, consisting of bargaining and compromise, have been eclipsed by ideological and performative behavior, contributing to the dysfunction of Congress and Washington as a whole. 

On the House offers considerable evidence for an unorthodox view about American political parties today: they are not very strong, and their weakness is closely related to the polarization and paralysis in Washington D.C.

To be sure, the old model of Congress, where committees played a stronger role and bargaining was more common, was also dysfunctional. Things got done, but mostly on behalf of highly organized and concentrated interests—a fact that fueled populist resistance to it. At this point, however, we can safely conclude that the ideological, performative model that has replaced it has not been an improvement.

The fallout from On the House’s portrayal of Cruz offers perhaps the most poignant illustration of how dominant the performative model has become. Cruz relished the negative attention he received from a former member of “the Establishment,” and tweeted “I wear with pride his drunken, bloviated scorn.” Then, of course, he sent a fundraising email offering donors the opportunity to vote whether to machine gun the book, take a chainsaw to it, or light cigars with it—with a link to the livestream of the event. Why legislate when you can dunk on people on Twitter and fundraise instead?

The Real Congress

Boehner is also right to emphasize the limitations that party leaders face when they try to impose themselves onto their rank-and-file members. On the House offers considerable evidence for an unorthodox view about American political parties today (one I’ve offered several times here at Law and Liberty): they are not very strong, and their weakness is closely related to the polarization and paralysis in Washington D.C.

For now, the Democrats are far more capable of closing ranks and overcoming their intraparty divisions than are the Republicans. Boehner attributes most of this to Nancy Pelosi’s genius. Pelosi, according to Boehner, “may be the most powerful Speaker of the House in my lifetime, maybe the most powerful ever.” However, he warns, “the far-left lunatics have become the center of gravity” in the Democratic Party, and there is no one “who can keep them in line as well as she can. . . . They are all screwed when she is off the scene.”

On the House points to a serious disjunction between how Congress actually works and how contemporary scholars and the media describe it. The prevailing scholarly account of Congress emphasizes the centralization of power in party leaders and their authority to run roughshod over rank-and-file members. (Rank-and-file members, of course, love to play up this theme, as it feeds into their performative behavior.)

Boehner’s memoirs are a direct challenge not only to the general notion that party leaders run Congress, but to many particular points often cited in support of that account. For brevity, I will highlight only one of these points, though it is perhaps the most prominent: control over committee assignments.

In both media accounts and political science scholarship, there is essentially unanimous agreement that the Speaker controls committee assignments. In practice, the process involves a steering committee whose members make the initial assignments, which then go to the party caucus for a vote. The Speaker plays an important role on the steering committee, but does not unilaterally make the initial assignments.

Committee assignments don’t seem important to ordinary citizens, but members care about them deeply. If a member is on an agricultural committee, or a natural resources committee, or a banking committee, or an appropriations committee, and so on, they can deliver goods to the interests that are prevalent back in their home districts. Thus, these assignments are a top priority to them.

If the Speaker truly controlled this patronage, then members would have incentives to follow the Speaker’s wishes. Thus, portraying the Speaker as the dispenser of committee assignments feeds the narrative of the all-powerful Speaker.

The problem with this portrayal, as Boehner illustrates, is that it is inaccurate. When four very conservative members were ousted from important committees in 2012, both media and academic accounts attributed the decision to Boehner. However, both at the time, and in On the House, Boehner clarified that the Steering Committee made the choice: the Speaker was the agent of the committee, not the decider. Boehner reluctantly agreed to support the decision made by the caucus, rather than dictating terms to it.

The same theme emerges on other occasions throughout the book. Boehner did not lead his party; he often served as its agent. This was most famously captured in his resigned justification for the 2013 government shutdown on the Tonight Show: “When I looked up, I saw my colleagues going this way—and you learn that a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk.”

The Fragile Speaker

Boehner does his best to provide a corrective, and to reveal how things actually work in Congress, but it is clear that his speakership failed because he did not fully understand the challenges of leadership. At one point, in his own convoluted way, he describes the core dilemma of Congress in the American constitutional system:

The first thing anyone trying to figure out our government has to understand is that America is a pretty settled country. . . . [W]e just aren’t built for sweeping, breathtaking change. . . . And even though that can be frustrating to people who do want major change one way or the other, I think by and large the system has served our country very well. It’s provided us with more stability than, for instance, a parliamentary system like the United Kingdom’s.

Boehner understands that the U.S. Congress, and the system as a whole, separates and divides power in order to check it, and that means two things: 1) a less responsive system that is resistant to sweeping change, and 2) the need for mechanisms such as parties and leaders to build and maintain diverse coalitions to facilitate majority rule. His insight makes On the House’s discussion of earmarks all the more puzzling.

As with No Child Left Behind, Boehner presents his abolition of earmarks as a positive accomplishment, seemingly unaware of the fact that it runs counter to his own argument. If you are trying to lead an institution where majorities are fragile, where getting things done is difficult, why would you eliminate one of the few remaining methods for facilitating goodwill, loyalty, and bargaining? Control over earmarks, presumably, would have helped Boehner avoid the embarrassing shutdown showdown, by allowing him to offer benefits to members willing to bargain with Democrats. Yet Boehner seems oblivious to the relationship between one of his key legacies and his inability to lead his fractured caucus. 

Most people know Congress is a mess, but few know much about how it functions. Those who do understand the problems that plague Congress, Boehner included, offer little reason or guidance to address those problems. On the House is a useful corrective to prevalent myths about Congress, in the midst of an entertaining series of reflections about the rise and fall of a Speaker of the House. But it won’t help us figure out where to go from here.