clock menu more-arrow no yes

John Boehner's tenure as speaker of the House, explained in 9 conservative revolts

He had the gavel, and they didn't.
He had the gavel, and they didn't.

John Boehner's tenure as speaker of the House doesn't include any obvious legislative accomplishments. That's because the Ohio congressman, who's resigning from Congress at the end of October, spent his five years as speaker battling the conservatives in his party. Boehner's actual legacy is something that might be more notable in his absence. As often as not, his job was simply to keep the federal government running over the protests of conservatives looking to shut it down or miss key deadlines over one issue or another.

Conservatives were infuriated by Boehner's tendency to give in at the last minute, and rally moderate Republicans to vote with Democrats to keep government running. In the end, it looks like Boehner got tired of the constant fighting and was sick of needing to move mountains just to preserve the status quo.

Here's the real record of Boehner's speakership: all the times he clashed with the conservatives in his party and — usually — won.

1) Summer 2011: Rep. Eric Cantor talks Boehner out of a debt ceiling compromise

In this instance, Boehner did not initially refuse to compromise and then give in. Instead, he worked out a compromise with President Obama that would raise the debt ceiling in exchange for negotiated tax hikes and spending cuts, then was talked out of that compromise by then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. As a result, Congress ended up raising the debt ceiling by setting up the sequester (a set of mandatory spending cuts).

Boehner appears to have learned from this, though. From then on, instead of letting conservatives in the House persuade him, he started imposing party discipline from the top down. Intra-leadership conservative challenges to Boehner's authority weren't as strong after 2011. In 2015, in fact, Boehner's team made a point of showing that party leadership was being enforced from the top down.

2) January 2013: Boehner saves Congress from the "fiscal cliff"

At the end of December 2012, a whole stack of temporary policies (including the Bush tax cuts) were set to expire at the same time — which economists predicted would combine to shock the US into a recession.

But as the expiration date loomed, Republicans refused to consider any plan that would continue any of these policies while increasing marginal tax rates by even a cent. Congress barely went over the fiscal cliff, but managed to stop itself on the way down. Then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Vice President Joe Biden worked out a deal (including tax increases) that the Senate passed on New Year's morning 2013. Boehner, despite previous promises not to bring up any bill that violated the "Hastert Rule" by not having the support of a majority of Republicans, brought the Senate deal up for a vote later that day, where it passed with the support of Democrats and a minority of Republicans.

3) January 2013: Boehner violates the "Hastert Rule" to pass Hurricane Sandy relief

Right after the fiscal cliff showdown, Boehner was forced to break the Hastert Rule again — this time for a bill that would provide disaster recovery funds to northeastern states hit by November 2012's Hurricane Sandy. At the end of the 110th Congress on January 1 (right after the fiscal cliff deal), Boehner refused to bring up a Senate-passed relief bill because conservatives balked at more spending. But he was hammered by northeastern Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and within the week he'd agreed to bring up a bill in the new Congress. The series of caves on the Hastert Rule in the first months of 2013 (that November, he would break it again to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act) solidified Boehner's reputation in DC: He might stick with the conservatives in his party for a while, but when it came down to the wire, he would break with them to get things done.

4) January 2013: Boehner survives a poorly planned coup attempt

To pass the Hurricane Sandy bill, Boehner had to get reelected speaker in the new Congress. And before the speaker election, it became clear that a group of conservative Republicans were looking to oust him. They didn't need many votes: Assuming that Democrats voted against Boehner en masse, only 24 Republicans needed to defect to force a second round of balloting. (The logic was that Boehner would be so embarrassed by not winning outright that he'd resign.)

Luckily for Boehner, the rebels didn't have their act together. They didn't do a good job of rounding up Boehner critics, and they made elementary tactical mistakes. One conservative member was photographed by press lugging around an iPad on the House floor with a list of members expected to vote against Boehner; if reporters could read the list, you can be sure Boehner's team could too.

In the end, only 10 conservatives voted against Boehner. They managed to make a point that some members of his caucus were angry with him — but they ended up proving that without Boehner, House Republicans couldn't seem to get anything done.

5) October 2013: Boehner goes along with — then ends — a government shutdown

This is the worst-case scenario: The deadline for congressional action came and went, and the federal government shut down for 16 days, before Speaker Boehner relented and allowed a bill to come to the floor that continued to fund the government without making changes to the Affordable Care Act and delaying its implementation for a year. But relent he did. The bill ultimately got about a third of House Republicans to join House Democrats in supporting it, practically sailing through the House.

6) January 2014: Boehner defies House conservatives on another debt ceiling increase

This one was relatively straightforward and drama-free. Republicans initially demanded that certain military pensions be restored as a condition of them raising the debt ceiling; Boehner and House leadership agreed to a "clean" raise instead.

7) February 2015: Boehner keeps the Department of Homeland Security open

In December 2014, Congress agreed to fund most of the federal government through September — but only extended funding for the Department of Homeland Security for a couple of months, because Republicans wanted to use funding the department as leverage to get the Obama administration to roll back its executive actions on immigration. Democrats insisted on a "clean" bill that funded the department without conditions.

With just a few days left before the department was to run out of money, the Senate agreed to pass a "clean" bill and vote separately on the immigration bill. House conservatives objected. On the night funding was scheduled to run out — after Boehner had failed to pass a three-week extension of DHS funds because of a conservative revolt — Boehner got Democrats to support a one-week extension, and agreed in return to bring up a "clean" DHS funding bill the next week. He did. It passed.

8) July 2015: Tea Party Republicans announce another coup attempt

Right before Congress left for the August recess, conservative Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina filed a motion to "vacate" the speakership and elect a new speaker. Meadows told reporters that he thought more than 29 Republicans would support his motion, and Boehner's allies began to suspect that the vote would happen sometime in the fall — presumably after the next shutdown fight (see below).

They never got the chance. Boehner took the hint, and vacated himself.

9) September 2015: Boehner saves the government from shutting down over Planned Parenthood — by resigning

The result of the DHS near-shutdown was to line up all government spending for another extension in September 2015. In the weeks before the deadline approached, secretly recorded videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood selling organs of aborted fetuses provoked an uproar on the right, and led conservative Republicans to promise they would not pass a funding bill that gave any federal money to Planned Parenthood — and promise, again, that they were willing to shut down the government to get their way.

The press expected that sooner or later, Boehner would do what he always did: find moderates to go along with Democrats to pass a clean funding bill. In fact, the Senate passed exactly such a bill, extending government funding through mid-December, to queue up for Boehner to act. And Boehner was adamant that he didn't want a shutdown — the night before he resigned, when a passerby asked him not to shut down the government, Boehner reportedly grabbed the man by the shoulders and said, "That's not going to happen. Look at me. From me to you, that's not going to happen."

It's assumed that now that Boehner has announced his resignation, he's going to pass the clean funding bill before the end of September. That would extend the shutdown threat to mid-December — after Boehner's left Congress.

The question now: Will the next speaker will continue in Boehner's tradition of keeping the government running despite constant conservative revolt — something that Boehner's tenure shows is exhausting? Or will he be on the side of the rebels — and if so, can anyone keep the government alive?