Coalition Government: You Heard It Here First

Back on September 8th, I foresaw the the downfall of John Boehner. Here’s how I summed up the situation as it stood then:

Speaker Boehner is in a no-win situation primarily because his party is in the process of coming apart at the seams. He can put on a production or refuse to waste everyone’s time, but he can’t get around the Planned Parenthood issue or the debt ceiling issue or the highway infrastructure issue or the Export-Import Bank issue. He’s going to be swept away by the same winds that are sweeping away the Establishment’s control of the presidential nominating process.

He’ll never survive, nor should he want to.

By September 23rd, I was sounding a louder alarm bell, telling you that Boehner was going to succumb, and possibly sooner than anyone thought was possible at the time.

Boehner announced his intention to resign two days later, and I wrote:

The rumor is that Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California will replace Boehner but I will begin to believe that when I see it. There’s basically nothing about McCarthy that would alter the impasse between the sane people and the lunatics. It would certainly represent an empty victory for the conservative nut-jobs who forced Boehner out, and either McCarthy would have to run things much differently or he’d be in Boehner’s shoes within weeks.

Now, if there is someone else out there who has been this far ahead of the curve on this, maybe you should listen to them, but I’m also the one who began talking quite early on about the logic of a coalition power-sharing arrangement in the House.

I revisited that idea a few times about a week ago. The reason that things have been proceeding in the way that I projected isn’t because I have any kind of unique insight into how Republicans think or are likely to behave. It’s because the country absolutely has to pay its bills and the House Republicans, as a governing caucus, are getting ready to default on our debts by failing to give the Treasury Department the borrowing authority that they need. They’re also getting ready to shut down the government, although that’s more of an internal feud and looming political disaster than an existential crisis for the nation and possibly the health of the global economy.

I’ve pointed out, over and over again, that the coalition of representatives in the House that votes to pay our bills and fund our government is the real majority in the House. And that majority has been made up mostly of Democrats since John Boehner became Speaker in 2011. We’ve been able to limp along with this odd situation where Democrats are responsible for voting for Republican appropriations bills because the “responsible caucus” in Washington has been able to keep the government going and willing to act in bizarre ways in order to keep it going.

And we could theoretically continue this odd governing-coalition-not-even-in-name except for one thing. The Republicans were getting ready to defenestrate their own Speaker for working with this governing coalition instead of bending to their every demand.

So, it wasn’t hard for me to see that Boehner’s time as leader was coming to an end and that no one who would be willing to keep working with the governing coalition could be elected as his replacement.

The next step wasn’t really hard to see, either, although it certainly approached being unimaginable. In a battle between a Republican caucus that demands national default and an Establishment that will never allow that to happen, the Republicans have to lose. And if that means that they have to give up their majority control over the House, that’s eventually going to happen.

Now, you can look at the few lonely voices in the Republican Party who are willing to acknowledge this and point out that they’re still badly outnumbered. But there’s an unassailable logic behind what they’re arguing that simply won’t go away.

Without a viable alternative to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), some centrist Republicans say they’d have little choice but to seek Democratic help in electing a new Speaker…

…“I don’t see a Plan B” if Ryan refuses the job, said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.).

If it becomes clear that no other Republican can assemble 218 GOP votes, King added, “In that case, we would have to consider having a coalition Speaker.”

“It’s a very simple question of math,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who first floated the idea of Republicans and Democrats joining together on a Speaker candidate last week.

“If there are not 218 Republican votes on the House floor, then by necessity the Democrats will have a say in who the next Speaker will be,” he said. “I still think it’s a possibility.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the time that’s something we don’t want — it’s not good,” King said of working with Democrats to elect a Speaker. “On the other hand, we can’t go on forever without a Speaker.”

I think in our present circumstances that Paul Ryan is serving, unfortunately, as a bright shiny object who obscures more than he reveals. The issue isn’t Paul Ryan per se, but whether he or any other Republican alternative can get the House Republican caucus to raise the debt ceiling. To be precise, can someone be elected Speaker without promising to default on our debts?

Paul Ryan has a lot of reasons that he doesn’t want the job of Speaker of the House. It’s a career-ender, for example, and he doesn’t want to spend time away from his family going around the country to raise money for candidates. They’re talking about relieving him from the fundraising obligations as an enticement, but the more pressing problem is that he’s just as unwilling as Boehner or McCarthy to promise the conservatives that he’ll refuse to pay our bills.

So, a radical idea begins to take form not because the idea particularly appeals to anyone, but simply out of desperation to avoid a congressionally created global economic contraction of unknown magnitude. If the Republicans do not have the votes to elect a Speaker who will pay the bills, then they’re going to have make formal what has been informal. The real governing majority in the House will have to disregard party labels and vote for someone that the Democrats approve. They’ll also have to share power on the committees, particularly the appropriations committees that are in charge of spending.

At a minimum, they need to make the threat to do this credible enough that the conservative members believe it will happen. If the conservatives are faced with the prospect of losing their majority condition in the House and getting blamed for destroying their party in a presidential election cycle, they might back down on their demands.

You heard it here first.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.