John Boehner is experiencing a difficult tenure as U.S. house speaker. Boehner was re-elected to the post by his Republican colleagues with just 220 votes in 2013, just six more votes than the 214 necessary to be re-elected. Twelve members of Boehner's party did not vote for him. The conservative Tea Party caucus within the GOP has been at odds with Boehner over his support for the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, over the extension of the federal debt limit, and over his support for establishing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Boehner now faces two Tea Party supporters as he seeks re-election to his Ohio Congressional Seat.
However, Boehner is not the first Republican house leader to run into trouble. A thumbnail sketch of some past Republican house speakers and minority leaders shows that most have had defections from within their ranks and had to struggle to maintain power.
Republican House Speaker Joe Cannon (R-IL 1903-1911) had a tumultuous tenure with significant opposition from inside the Republican Party. Though Cannon was a Republican, he proved to be a legislative impediment to Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. At that time, the party was divided between the progressive and conservative bloodlines, which had little in common ideologically. Roosevelt was a progressive who favored expanded federal government action to regulate corporations, to protect consumers and to conserve natural resources. Contrariwise, Cannon was a conservative (at the time called a "standpatter") who opposed all three of those goals. Cannon excoriated Roosevelt, asserting: "He has no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license." He also said of Roosevelt: "That fellow at the other end of the Avenue wants everything from the birth of Christ to the death of the devil." Cannon was particularly opposed to Roosevelt's efforts to conserve lands, declaring: "Not one cent for scenery."
Cannon was probably the most powerful Speaker in American history because he served concomitantly as speaker and as the chairman of the House Committee on Rules. Proposed legislation would be voted on only with the approval of the omnipotent Cannon. Speaker Cannon worked to keep Progressives off of important committees and made sure his ideological conservative compatriots occupied seats on important committees.
In 1910, disenchanted progressive Republicans joined with Democrats in dislodging Cannon from the Rules Committee. This ended his power to assign members to committees. Cannon lost the speakership later that year after the Democrats won a majority in the Chamber, leaving Cannon as just a rank-and-file member of the body.
The next Republican to take the speaker's reigns was Frances Gillette of Massachusetts, a conservative in the mold of his fellow Massachusetts resident, President Calvin Coolidge. In 1924, the Progressives challenged the ascendency of the conservative faction. There was an unsuccessful bid by U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson (R-CA) to wrest the Republican nomination from President Coolidge. This was on the heels of a two-day deadlock in which Gillette, using House Majority Leader Nickolas Longworth as his emissary, negotiated a deal with the leader of the Progressive insurrectionists, John M. Nelson (R-WI), affording Progressives the opportunity to offer amendments to the House Rules.
In 1959, House Minority Leader Joe Martin (R-MA), was defeated by insurgent Republican conservative Charles Halleck of Indiana who branded himself "the 100 percent Republican." Halleck made an issue of the close and friendly relationship between Martin and House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX). Despite their different party affiliations, Martin and Rayburn worked closely together on many pieces of legislation, which would pass with the support of Democrats and Progressive Republicans, much to the chagrin of many conservative Republicans in Martin's caucus. In fact, when Martin appeared to be in electoral peril in his home district, Democratic luminaries asked Rayburn to campaign against Martin. Rayburn refused to do this, averring: "Speak against Joe, heck If I lived up there I'd vote for him." Martin suspected that the administration of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was working behind the scenes to orchestrate Halleck's victory because they thought Martin was too independent.
Halleck himself lost his leadership post in 1965 to an insurrectionist coup, which was more generational than ideological. A group of "Young Turks," which included future U.S. Secretaries of Defense Melvin Laird (R-WI) and Donald Rumsfeld (R-IL), promoted a challenge to Halleck by a Michigander named Gerald R. Ford. There was a sense in the Republican caucus that the Republican leadership under both Martin and Halleck had grown overly insular. Ford promised that every member of the caucus "will be a first-team player, a 60-minute ball player."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) entered Congress as a rebel, challenging the established Congressional hierarchy. Gingrich used "Special Orders" (Where House members address the Chamber afterhours) to rail against the Democratic Congress. In 1987, Gingrich was the lead author with fellow conservatives of a book The House of Ill Repute, lambasting the Democratic House. Gingrich came to Speakership in 1994 promising dramatic change.
However, the party came to distrust Gingrich for compromising with Democratic President Bill Clinton. This led to an aborted coup against Gingrich in 1997. Then in 1998, after Clinton became the first President whose party gained seats in the sixth year of a Presidency since 1822, U.S. Representative Robert Livingston (R-LA) announced a challenge to Gingrich for re-election as Speaker. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Gingrich announced he would not seek to maintain the Speakership. Gingrich also resigned his seat in the U.S. Congress.
Like Cannon, Gillette, Martin, Halleck and Gingrich, Boehner has had a tumultuous tenure as House Republican Leader, with significant dissention from within his own party. However, Boehner's predicament is different from those of earlier Speakers like Cannon and Gillette in that the threat to his continuing reign does not come from a redoubtable progressive bloodline of the GOP (which bellows for more vigorous action by the Federal Government), but from a formidable band of conservatives who are hard to propitiate.
Furthermore, Boehner does not have the traditional tools that past house speakers have had at their disposal for quieting internecine Republican discord. The Republicans have banned earmarks, so he cannot promise an appropriation for a member of a Congressional District in return for a favorable vote. Most Tea Party members (fiscally conservative) would not likely be enticed by earmarks anyway.
Boehner is one of a litany of Republican house leaders who has had a difficult time trying to unify a fractious party. Looking over the past hundred years or so, one can argue that the job of leading and trying to unify house Republicans might be the hardest job in Washington.
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