25 September 2015

Boehner Out, U.S. Political Balance Unchanged

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, who is also my father's Congressman, has announced that he will resign from his seat in Congress later this month.  According to Boehner, after meeting with the Pope yesterday, he prayed and concluded that it was the right thing to do.  Go Pope!

In a parliamentary system, in which John Boehner as legislative leader of the majority party in the house of the legislature responsible to the people, John Boehner would have been the Prime Minister and that political impact of his decision would have been immense.

But, in our system, in a year when the Republicans have a safe majority in both houses of Congress, and the President is a Democrat, the impact of this decision is marginal.

While the leadership is more powerful in the House than in the Senate, a strong House Rules Committee limits the discretion of the Speaker of the House in controlling proceedings on the floor, the partisan majority still ultimately decides how the House will act by majority vote, and the House is big enough (435 voting members) that one Congressman's vote rarely matters which one party or another has a safe majority in the House.  Also, the several hierarchical leadership positions in the House put in place obvious front runners in the race to succeed Boehner as speaker.

The bottom line is the very little is likely to change in Congress as a result of Boehner's resignation except perhaps a reduction in the flow of federal pork to greater Butler County, Ohio as he is replaced by a more junior Congressman in a special election (realistically, given the politics of the general vicinity of my home town, some Republican who currently holds some lesser state or local partisan political office in the area).  The special election to fill the seat, however, will provide an important bellwether for the upcoming 2016 Presidential election.

While scandal has followed John Boehner in his career, marked by two widely rumored extra-marital affairs and a history of alcoholism that he has only partially controlled, conventional wisdom is that scandal was not the proximate cause of Boehner's resignation.  Instead, it has been portrayed as a product of frustration over the split between "governing conservatives" in the Republican coalition in Congress, and "no government conservatives" who simply want to destroy the federal government and its programs by any means necessary including government shutdowns (one of which is imminent).

This resignation is a rare departure for the GOP whose previous five or so Speakers have left office tainted by sex scandals.

Usually, in Congress, scandals are the tool of the one's opponents, since it is one of the few means by which the powerful impact of incumbency on one's re-election prospects can be broken.  Many seats in Congress which are safe when held by incumbents are vulnerable to a partisan flip or partisan faction flip in an open seat election.

In contrast, in Colorado, the opposite is true.  If a politician resigns due to a personal scandal, members of his own party can replace him in a vacancy election, putting a less vulnerable candidate before the voters, while if that politician does not resign, the scandal may cost his party the seat.  So, in Colorado, your friends are more likely to urge you to resign from public office in the face of a personal scandal (usually as quietly as possible) than your enemies.  The result is a dramatically reduced incentive to investigate personal scandals in the lives of politicians and a more civil environment that can promote greater bipartisan cooperation.

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