Justin Amash: John Boehner didn't fall for being insufficiently conservative; he didn't run the House correctly
Amash says promoting Kevin McCarthy to speaker is not a solution
Editor’s Note: Rep. Justin Amash is a Republican from Michigan. He is chairman of the House Liberty Caucus and a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Speaker John Boehner’s announced resignation from Congress marks the inevitable fall of a speakership marred by internal Republican friction, raw partisanship and loss of influence for our great institution. And the next speaker will suffer the same fate unless he or she approaches the job entirely differently.
It’s not that Speaker Boehner isn’t conservative enough; it’s that he fundamentally misunderstands the role of speaker of the House of Representatives. The speaker’s first priority must be to defend the institution on behalf of all Americans. While the speaker may have a role in policy debates, that role cannot trump his obligation to uphold House process.
By not keeping these priorities, Speaker Boehner has failed both as a policy leader and as an institutional leader.
Speaker Boehner and other Republican leaders have repeatedly favored a “govern by crisis” approach that abandons the regular order of the House. Despite having months to act before legislative deadlines, leaders routinely wait until the last moment to plot a course of action, publicly concede in advance major negotiating points, insist that Republicans have no alternatives, refuse to allow amendments and then criticize colleagues for not voting to avert the crisis leadership caused.
This approach produces constant frustration among representatives in both parties and promotes the partisan finger-pointing that angers Americans at home. Instead of making bipartisan compromises to address long-term issues, Congress constructs desperate, last-minute political deals to obtain the requisite votes simply to clear the immediate impasse.
In place of genuine reforms, Republican leaders inundate the public with meaningless show votes. These bills and amendments are often poorly drafted and not intended to become law, but rather to give representatives talking points to bash the other side in the media and in our districts.
In this system, leaders make little effort to persuade congressional colleagues – or the public – on the merits of particular legislation. Significant outcomes are predetermined by a few leaders and their close allies, often with the backing of special interests that help write the bills. House rules, adopted by the entire body on the first day of each Congress, are regularly waived to bypass procedural hurdles. Votes for passage of legislation are corralled through fear and intimidation.
Republicans who vote against the wishes of leadership are punished – leaders bury our bills in committee and urge PACs not to fund our campaigns. Leadership surrogates verbally attack Republican colleagues and, in some cases, actively support primary challenges against them, as they did against me in 2014.
Speaker Boehner and other leaders perpetuate the pay-to-play culture that permeates Capitol Hill, awarding chairmanships and committee spots on the basis of party fundraising, or as they euphemistically call it, “doing your work across the street” at the National Republican Congressional Committee.
With few legislative accomplishments to win public support, leaders depend on high-dollar fundraising to protect their majority and stay in power, and rank-and-file Republicans face increasing pressure to spend their days filling campaign coffers. At late-night conference meetings dealing with the latest legislative crisis, some members even lament that their time would be better spent raising campaign money.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
With 435 members, the House of Representatives is meant to represent the interests of all Americans. Each district comprises roughly 700,000 people of diverse backgrounds and political beliefs.
The rules and organization of the House account for its inherent diversity and provide a means through which all ideas can be heard and the will of the people – restrained by the Constitution and the sound judgment of each representative – can prevail. But this happens only if leadership respects process. The institution is degraded – partisan grandstanding proliferates and representatives lose trust – if rules are followed only when convenient for leaders in the House majority.
With Speaker Boehner’s resignation, we have a historic opportunity to change course for the better by electing a speaker committed to upholding the open process that allows the body to reflect the policy preferences of the people.
Under such leadership, there would be no secret deals or voice votes; legislation would move through the normal committee process; and all of us, regardless of party, would be given adequate time to read each bill and an opportunity to offer and vote on amendments.
This is how the House was meant to work – not as an oligarchy, but as a deliberative body that respects the diversity of its membership.
Under regular order, bipartisanship and compromise flourish. With control over the legislative agenda devolved to committees, subcommittees, and individual representatives, more liberal outcomes are possible, but so, too, are more conservative or libertarian outcomes. No one gets everything he or she wants, but under a fair, deliberative process, we all can respect the results. Most important, the outcomes more genuinely reflect the will of the people.
A mere reshuffling of current leadership won’t work. That a promotion of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to speaker is being seriously discussed by leadership allies demonstrates how little they have learned from recent events.
When former Majority Leader Eric Cantor suffered an unprecedented defeat in his primary election last year, the visceral response from many of my colleagues was to advance the next person in line. The majority whip became the majority leader, but little else has changed.
It has been less than a year since the last game of leadership musical chairs, and dissatisfaction keeps growing. We cannot have more of the same. It’s time to choose a speaker who will restore respect and order to the House so that we can once again govern as the Constitution intends.