According to Politico, House Republicans are obsessed because a number of them are openly threatening a coup attempt against Speaker John Boehner unless they get what they want. Last week, John Patty proposed a procedural escape for Boehner. But I think Boehner has a variety of good options for stemming the revolt. I begin by summarizing the rebels' strategy, then explain why it is doomed.
The rebels' plan
- Offer a resolution to vacate the speaker's chair (fire the speaker).
- Claim that the resolution is "privileged" and thus must come to a vote.*
- Pass the resolution with a majority of all 188 Democrats and 29-plus Republicans
- Nominate a new Republican speaker within the Republican Conference.
- Elect the new Republican candidate with a united Republican vote on the House floor.
- Watch with glee as the new speaker forces the Senate and president to agree to the Liberty Caucus agenda, beginning with defunding Planned Parenthood.
Of these six steps, only the first is foolproof. Any House member can introduce a resolution to vacate the chair. Of course, any House member can introduce a resolution to do anything, even praise cheaters. The next five steps are problematic.
1) Check your "privilege" — you may not get the vote you expect
In theory, a privileged resolution is really important and automatically gets a vote — but only if the presiding officer calls on a member who then calls up the privileged resolution. "Presiding officer" is parliamentary lingo for "speaker or designated friend of the speaker sitting in the speaker's chair." So if, say, Mark Meadows (R-NC), who introduced a resolution to vacate the chair in July, actually stood on the House floor, he would only get a vote on his resolution if the speaker decided to call on him.
By tradition dating back to the late 19th century, the speaker regularly queries members on what they plan to do if called upon. So the conversation could go like this:
Speaker Boehner: "For what purpose does the gentleman from North Carolina rise?"
Meadows: "To call up H.Res. 385, Declaring the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives vacant."
Speaker: "The gentleman is not recognized." [sips merlot, calls on someone else]
A similar case is appropriations bills, which are privileged over other legislation so bills reported out of the Appropriations Committee can be called up at any time. Twice I have watched appropriations members (once the committee chair, once a subcommittee chair) attempt to do so and been denied recognition by the presiding officer.
2) Why would the Democrats help the rebels?
The linchpin of the rebels' strategy is that a small GOP minority will be able to unseat Boehner by joining with the Democrats. They assume Democrats will vote "aye" to unseat Boehner even though it would probably lead to (from the Democrats' perspective) a worse speaker and policy outcomes; they expect the Democrats to naively help them work against their interests.
Or, as a second-best outcome for the rebels, some Democrats vote "nay" to prevent the resolution from passing, thereby exposing Boehner as a RINO (Republican in name only) for all the world to see.
But what if the Democrats do not vote "aye" or "nay"? There is a third option: skipping the vote, or voting "present." This would probably be their best option: Democrats can claim to be taking the high road by staying out of a Republican civil war while avoiding the government shutdowns and debt limit crisis that a new speaker would be emboldened to pursue. It also means the rebels would need 124 votes (a majority of the Republican Conference), not 29.
3) "Think of me as your new dad, Hamlet": the aftermath of the coup
Notwithstanding the above, what happens if the rebels succeed in vacating the chair?
Congressional scholars have shown that House and Senate parties are very forgiving of votes against the party position on policy issues, but there is a strong expectation of loyalty on supporting the party's candidates for speaker and president. The current system of selecting a single party candidate for speaker and then supporting that candidate on the House floor developed slowly but now ensures the majority party controls the speakership and its immense procedural advantages.
Once the rebels have violated more than a century of party expectations, why do they think the machinery will go back to work as if nothing has happened? At that point, a speaker supported by as much as 88 percent of the conference will have been ousted by a bipartisan (using the term loosely) coalition including as few as 29 Republicans. Why would the Republican Conference nominate a Tea Party purist instead of, say, renominating Boehner while expelling the rebels from the party conference and stripping them of their committee seats and any national party fundraising support?
4) Why would the party stop with one coup?
Let's say that by some miracle, the rebels achieve steps 1 through 5. And let's suppose there are at least 29 Republicans who think that holding government funding hostage to attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is some combination of a) bad policy, b) bad legislative strategy, and c) bad political strategy. The rebels will have provided every other faction of 29 Republicans the blueprint for redirecting party strategy: Replace the speaker with someone new, until that speaker is replaced by someone new...
5) Tea Party members love the Constitution but act like they haven't read it
Even if the rebels successfully replace the speaker with someone who adopts a more aggressive strategy, they do not have a short-term mechanism for vacating the Oval Office. Nor, for that matter, getting around filibusters in the Senate.**
Our lawmaking system assumes that actors will disagree, and that they will negotiate their differences for the nation's interest, or nothing would happen. If the rebels would prefer to live in a political system where the "lower" chamber dominates the "upper" chamber and the executive, they should consider emigrating to the United Kingdom.
The plot to oust Boehner is a laughable legislative strategy. The rebels cannot guarantee a vote, cannot be sure of Democrats' help, and would rupture the system of selecting speakers, all in the quest for policies they cannot attain because, you know, Constitution.
And I think the rebels know their plan is weak. That's why, unlike most "coup" attempts, they went public ahead of time — in hopes that their outside allies will help them rally more troops for a lost cause, perhaps, or especially because they hope that the threat of a coup will force Boehner to adopt their September legislative strategy. Although it would be embarrassing in the short run, Boehner may be better off calling their bluff, holding a vote, and showing the weak support for Meadows et al.
*Note: the privileged status of the resolution is mentioned in the House Practice manual (p. 644), which in turn cites Cannon's Precedents VI:35.
**Not that the Senate filibuster is explicitly guaranteed or forbidden by the Constitution. See this classic for more discussion.