On Sept. 24, Pope Francis spoke to members of Congress for the first time in the history of the papacy. Then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Catholic, was overwhelmed with emotion, having tried for over 20 years to have a sitting pope address the nation’s legislators.
“To a kid who grew up as an altar boy, having the pope here was a big deal,” Boehner told “Face the Nation” a few days later. The address symbolized the culmination of the controversial Speaker’s ideals and lifelong dedication to Catholicism, a cathartic gathering which seemed to provide an unequivocally fitting conclusion to the devout Boehner’s congressional career.
To Boehner, the address and his subsequent meeting with the Pontiff were the perfect send offs for his final grand ceremony as Speaker.
On Sept. 25, 2015, John Boehner resigned as Speaker of the House, leaving behind one of the most fractious and ideologically volatile House of Representatives in the nation’s history.
After becoming Speaker in 2011, Boehner immediately faced the challenge of instilling moderation into a Republican stronghold that was pushing itself further and further right. Boehner’s relative moderation in his political views and attempts at pushing bipartisan legislation through Congress were often met with sharp criticism from the nation’s more conservative figures.
In the modern Republican Party, moderation is largely silenced in favor of those who can talk the loudest and most bitingly.
Ted Cruz, throughout his fiery and markedly extremist political career, proved to be one of Boehner’s harshest critics, slamming him during the 2012 presidential election as being dangerously moderate.
Most recently, Cruz derided Boehner’s resignation and its alleged political implications, claiming, “I will say, the early reports are discouraging. If it is correct that the speaker, before he resigns, has cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi to fund the Obama administration for the rest of its tenure, to fund Obamacare, to fund executive amnesty, to fund Planned Parenthood, to fund implementation of this Iran deal” (“John Boehner resigns and Ted Cruz gloats,” BBC, 09.25.2015). No evidence exists of this backroom deal.
In terms of policy, Tea Partiers and Boehner battled over congressional budget, the debt ceiling, Obamacare and tax code. Boehner warred with Republican hardliners over fiscal policy, attempting to forge bipartisan agreements in order to prevent government shutdowns, often with significant resistance. Politico described
Boehner’s rise and eventual problematic speakership in the context of these internal conflicts, stating, “Boehner came into power on the momentum of the 2010 tea party wave. But it was that movement that gave him constant problems” (“Speaker John Boehner retiring from Congress at the end of October”, Politico, 09.25.15).
The next Speaker of the House will undoubtedly inherit the problems Boehner struggled to solve throughout his tenure. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is “widely expected” to ascend to the speakership, selecting fellow Wisconsin citizen David Hoppe (former advisor to many Republican leaders and long-time White House lobbyist) as his chief of staff.
Assuming he is elected, Ryan will face the seemingly insurmountable task of raising the federal borrowing limit before a Nov. 3 deadline. (The alternative is defaulting, which would set a fiscally unhealthy and irresponsible tone for the rest of his speakership.)
To avoid government shutdown and unprecedented spending policies that would polarize Congress even further, Ryan must strike a delicate balancing act of passing the bills necessary to re-stabilize government spending (which are more than likely going to be opposed by most Republicans, even moderates) and appeasing the warring factions of the House’s GOP base.
While some Republicans remain optimistic about Ryan’s ability to unite the divided GOP, Ryan’s willingness to compromise with more extreme members of House Republicans’ voting block, or the Freedom Caucus, is inherently problematic.
Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina recently threw his support behind Ryan’s bid for speakership, telling Fox News, “He’s [Ryan] agreed to not move anything without the majority of the majority on that particular issue forward, which would actually make sure that every member has a voice on immigration” (“Hard-line GOP conservative says Ryan has clear path to become House speaker,” The Washington Times, 10.25.15).
This “voice” is one of prejudice and indifference towards the dignity of immigrants, one that should not be compromised with to have significant bearing in mainstream politics.
The Freedom Caucus has proven itself to be in direct conflict with progressive politics, refusing to compromise even when a complete shutdown of the government is imminent. Perhaps worst of all, the Freedom Caucus (and Rep. Meadows in particular) pressured Boehner to resign through the introduction of a motion for Boehner to “vacate the chair.”
Members of the Freedom Caucus had even considered Paul Ryan too moderate in his approach to politics before Meadows and Ryan reached an agreement that included elements of the Freedom Caucus agenda in Ryan’s policy. A political block that considers Ryan “too moderate” is inherently dangerous in its rhetoric. Such an embodiment of far-right politics would not even be remotely accepted on the other side of the aisle.
Ryan’s willingness to excessively compromise with the extremist Freedom Caucus is indicative of a potentially fracturing (even more than before) speakership that alienates moderate Republicans who would be willing to compromise with Democrats on bipartisan legislation. Ryan’s approach to speakership is one that intends to unite the Republican Party, not the House of Representatives. Bowing to the demands of the Freedom Caucus will only foster the proliferation of extreme conservatism in the nation’s legislature.
The next Speaker of the House should be one who has the necessary skills to placate and temper the extreme ends of the Party, while simultaneously working with Democrats to address pertinent issues that are threatening Congress’s ability to spend properly, in order to avoid a government shutdown.
The Speaker should be a person who will not cower or sympathize with the beliefs of a voting block that feeds off ignorance and an unwillingness to work with representatives that have different beliefs. Only then will Congress be able to solve the festering issues of Republican divisiveness, political extremism and bipartisan tensions.
—Nick Barone ’19 is undeclared. He is a columnist for The Miscellany News