Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Bipartisan Speaker of the House?

Guest Blogger

Russell Muirhead
The Republican majority in Congress cannot rule—or be ruled. 

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) failed to pass a fiscal cliff solution (“Plan B”) that was written by Republicans, for Republicans, without a touch of contaminating input from Democrats in the House, the Senate, or President Barack Obama.

As a result, Obama has no one from the Republican majority in Congress to negotiate with.  No one—not Speaker Boehner, not House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA)—can reliably commit the Republicans in Congress to anything. 

Just two weeks ago, Speaker Boehner and President Obama were on the cusp of a compromise agreement.  Speaker Boehner offered flexibility on raising top rates and President Obama in turn put Social Security reform on the table. 

The gap was narrowing.  Successful compromise was in their grasp.

Then Speaker Boehner realized he could not bring his Party along to an agreement—any agreement.  To shield the Republicans from blame, he bolted the negotiations and focused on getting an agreement only among Republicans: Plan B. 

But last week, even that failed.  The Republicans in Congress cannot agree with themselves, much less compromise with Democrats.  As a result, they cannot govern.   Speaker Boehner admitted as much when he said, “Now it is up to the President to work with Senator Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff.” 

Of course, President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) cannot make laws by themselves.  If Speaker Boehner cannot commit the Republicans to anything, it is not just Congress that cannot govern.  The government cannot govern.

Politics is an unsightly game, and anyone who watches it should be prepared to see common-sense notions of friendship, loyalty, and patriotism distorted and abused.  It is not a game for naïf’s, and one might well wonder if a good person can also be a political person.  But this is not politics as usual, with its customary portion of betrayal and deception. This is a slow-motion constitutional crisis. 

When the House majority will not work with the Senate or the executive branch, it acts as if there is no separation of powers.  The constitutional structure of government compels compromise: when political leaders refuse to compromise, they threaten the nation’s prosperity, security, and ultimately the constitution itself.

But there is a way out: empowering the latent majority in Congress. 

There are likely 125 to 140 Republican members of congress who want a pragmatic and sensible way to avoid the fiscal cliff.  They would sign on to the sort of deal that President Obama and Speaker Boehner were on the cusp of creating, even if it means raising tax rates.  Right now, they are being silenced by the minority of their party that will not contemplate anything President Obama supports.

And there are likely 125 to 140 Democrats who would sign any reasonable plan.  If Republicans will entertain raising tax rates, they will stomach entitlement reform.  But they have been silenced because their party is in the minority in the House.

This group—the latent majority—is the group that passed the budget in the spring of 2011, and avoided a government shutdown. 

It’s a group that could pass tax reform.  It’s a group that could pass comprehensive immigration reform.  But first things first: it’s a group that could pass a spending and taxes deal that averts the fiscal cliff.  And it could do it now.

Beyond that, this bipartisan group of about 125 Republicans and 125 Democrats could show Congress the way out of constitutional crisis by coming together in January to elect the Speaker. 

That’s right, moderate Democrats, instead of voting in lock step for Rep. Pelosi as Speaker—a vote they know they’ll lose—could cast their vote for a pragmatic Republican speaker.  They have an incentive to do so, since otherwise they will get a Republican speaker who cannot lead.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) could even lead the way, and instruct her caucus to vote for a moderate Republican as speaker.  (It could even be Boehner).

Moderate Republicans could join them, and they have an incentive to do so since otherwise their party, hostage to extremists, will be blamed for the government’s inability to govern. 

A House Speaker commanding a bipartisan majority could forge comprehensive solutions to the country’s most urgent problems—immigration, tax reform, the deficit.  But the bipartisan majority would not need to organize the House’s day-to-day business.

Members of congress are partisans, after all.  They would stand with their party on most ordinary matters.  The majority leader would have enormous day-to-day power.

The Speaker of the House is not formally a partisan office.  As Boehner liked to say during the 2011 debt limit crisis, he is speaker of the “whole House.”  It’s time to make that happen by electing a speaker who owes his or her position to a coalition of both Democrats and Republicans and who can activate that bipartisan majority when the common good so urgently demands it.

Russell Muirhead is Robert Clements Associate Professor of Democracy and Politics, Dartmouth College. You can reach him by e-mail at Russell.Muirhead at

Older Posts
Newer Posts