House Republican leader John Boehner’s debacle last night (July 28, 2011) has a basic common element with the failure of a previous Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich, in 1995. Each failed to understand the difference between the parliamentary and presidential systems of government.
In a parliamentary system, either there is only one house in the legislature, or one house has all the real power, so if a party has a majority of that house, it rules. The leader of the majority party is the leader of the government, and gets an appropriate title, such as “prime minister.” Newt Gingrich actually said in early 1995 that he was effectively the prime minister of the United States.
That is not the system we have.
In a presidential system, such as ours, different institutions possess independent power, and must come to agreement to get things done. In the US, the House, Senate, and President must all agree.
In 1995, the Gingrich shut down the government because he thought he could force President Clinton to accept his budget. He was wrong. Clinton vetoed the budget, the government shut down, the public blamed Gingrich, and he was soon out of office.
In 2011, Speaker Boehner is in a weaker position than Gingrich – both the Senate and the White House are controlled by the other party. In a presidential system, the best strategy in such a circumstance is to work for a compromise where you can achieve some, but not all of your goals. Instead, Boehner has tried to use control of the House, and a certain amount of momentum from the 2010 election, to dictate what happens. As of now, he appears to have failed.
Boehner’s specific mistake was to ask the House to pass a debt-ceiling bill that was going nowhere. The President had already announced that he would veto the bill, a majority of the Senate had said they would vote against it, and the Senate Majority Leader had promised to take up the bill and kill it the same night the House passed it.
In those circumstances, the Speaker needed the votes of the Tea Party Republicans to pass his bill; but they had little reason to vote for it. Doing so would violate their own beliefs, anger the voters who had elected them, and place them in danger of primary challenges. In return, they would get nothing – a bill that would be dead as soon as it passed. Leaders who know which system they are operating in ask for tough votes only when they really need them, and help their members avoid tough votes when they don’t need them. Boehner was attempting to do the opposite, and he failed.
It now appears that Boehner may lose the speakership. It’s a bit early to say that; but he has certainly lost this battle. Let’s hope the next Speaker remembers what kind of political system this is.