No good options for Boehner

Updated 12:05 PM EDT, Wed October 2, 2013

Story highlights

The federal government has shut down for the first time since 1996

Marian Currinder, Josh Huder: What will House Speaker John Boehner do?

They say as Boehner faces tough choices, his Speakership hangs in the balance

Currinder, Huder: Will he rely on a minority of the majority of his party to pass bill?

Editor’s Note: Marian Currinder and Josh Huder are senior fellows at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

(CNN) —  

The federal government has shut down for the first time since 1996 and all eyes are focused on House Speaker John Boehner. Will he continue to insist upon tying a repeal or delay of Obamacare to a funding bill? Or will he bring the Senate-passed funding bill to the House floor and hope that he can convince 17 Republicans to join hands with the chamber’s 200 Democrats and vote to re-open the federal government?

It all depends on whether he chooses to follow or ignore the Hastert Rule. The choice isn’t an easy one, as his speakership quite likely hangs in the balance.

The Hastert Rule is named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, who did not bring bills to the floor unless those bills were supported by a majority of House Republicans. It is not a formal rule, but rather a promise to uphold the will of a majority of the majority. House Republicans expected Boehner to uphold the rule and he pledged to do so.

Marian Currinder
Marian Currinder

But the shutdown and the upcoming showdown over raising the debt limit underscore Boehner’s leadership dilemma – almost any bill that a majority of House Republicans support is dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Josh Huder
Josh Huder

Fewer laws were passed in the last Congress than in any Congress since 1861, and based on the number of floor votes taken so far this year, the current Congress is on track to be even less productive. It is also the most partisan Congress since the Civil War era.

As the shutdown gets under way, many are looking for signs of what kind of leader Boehner will be. Instead, they should consider what kind of leader he can be, given the political hand he’s been dealt.

Gone are the days of House speakers plying members with promises of pork and campaign money. Earmarks have been banned, most incumbents do their own fundraising, and for many of the chamber’s newer members, ideology trumps party loyalty.

The electoral landscape doesn’t help. In 1995-96, when the federal government last shut down, 34% of House Republicans represented districts that Bill Clinton won in 1992. Today, just 7% of House Republicans come from districts that President Obama won last year. There is almost no electoral incentive for these members to compromise. The bottom line is that Boehner’s arsenal is limited. He is hamstrung by the very institution and members he is supposed to lead.

So what are Boehner’s options at this point? He could, as he has done previously, pass a funding bill on the backs of House Democrats. The 2011 and 2012 omnibus spending bills, the 2011 Budget Control Act, and the 2012 Payroll Tax Bill all passed the House because of Democratic support. And earlier this year, Boehner brought the Violence Against Women Act and the Hurricane Sandy Relief bill to the floor, despite opposition from a majority of House Republicans. These bills had bipartisan support in the Senate, making it difficult for Boehner to dig his heels in and stand behind his conservative majority.

Flash forward to now. What is the House speaker’s calculus, given that the Senate passed its funding bill on a party-line vote?

Absent the pressure to appease Republican senators, Boehner will have a tough time justifying any move to defy the will of his party’s majority. Convincing House Republicans to pass the Senate’s funding bill and re-open the federal government will require him to lead in a way that may not be possible, should he wish to remain speaker.

No House speaker wants to go down in history for a legislative record opposed by the majority of his or her own party. And no speaker wants to go down in history for presiding over one of the most unproductive Congresses in history. But these are Boehner’s choices.

While Hastert relied on a majority of the majority, Boehner has had to rely on a minority of the majority, together with a majority of the minority, to pass important legislation. The “Boehner Rule” is hardly the stuff to which great leaders aspire. It may, however, prove more productive than following the lead of his majority.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marian Currinder and Josh Huder.