Boehner’s Overthrow and the “Then What?” Problem

Boehner’s time as Speaker may be limited. Yesterday Tim Alberta reported on substantial conversations to replace Boehner. This morning Brian Buetler verified that these talks are not particularly covert. According to several accounts, House Republicans are not hiding their dissatisfaction with the leadership. However, as both articles mention the plan suffers from a “then what?” problem. Conservatives’ discontent with Boehner is obvious but they have no consensus replacement.

The successor problem is important. However, it’s unlikely to play a role in determining whether Boehner stays or goes. Naming a successor is ideal but more often than not it isn’t a prerequisite for effectively displacing a sitting speaker.

Here is why. Historically, sitting speakers have avoided electoral confrontations on the House floor. When rumors emerge of a potential coup they have been far more likely to remove themselves before any potentially embarrassing results occur. Thomas Brackett Reed (R-ME), David Henderson (R-IL), and Newt Gingrich (R-GA) are all notable examples. Each stepped down from the speakership amid serious rumors of an overthrow. (To a lesser extent Carl Albert was also facing pressure to step aside, though he announced his retirement from the House in June, well before the rumors reached a critical mass) The only speaker to buck this trend was “Uncle” Joe Cannon (R-IL). In the 61st Congress Cannon ran and again won the speakership despite plans, hatched members of his own party, to deny him the position. However, his tenure was short lived. A year later the Republican Insurgents stripped Cannon of his authority, effectively overthrowing him as Speaker.

Politics is obviously not governed by historical law. Despite popular idioms, we are not always bound to repeat the past. However, these rumors follow some very familiar historical trends. Rumors of Reed’s overthrow began in 1895, four years before his retirement in 1899 to “go make some money.” Speaker Henderson (1899-1903) endured calls for his job throughout his four-year tenure. And Gingrich began facing coup rumors early in his second term in 1997.

Boehner currently finds himself in a similar position. Of course this is speculative. The rumors could die down and Boehner’s coup could never materialize.  However, given Boehner’s refusal to schedule bills that even remotely endanger their 2014 electoral chances and conservative’s discontent with that meager legislative schedule, it appears unlikely the rumors will dissipate.

As Beutler points out the conservative’s plan suffers from uncertainty. Historically, however, this has almost never prevented forced retirement. Is Boehner’s speakership safe absent a challenger? Not by a long shot.

Josh Huder is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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