The sudden resignation of John Boehner as speaker of the House was a shocking downfall for a man who seemed to have a sure grip on his position. After all, under Boehner’s leadership, House Republicans expanded their majority to their largest since World War II, which included electing a Republican to the House from Maine for the first time in two decades. In the end, though Boehner could survive much and did a great deal to advance the Republican Party, he could not escape the burden of unrealistic expectations.
Conservatives across the country were elated after Republicans took control of the Senate and increased their House majority last year. In the minds of many, these victories would finally give them a chance to enact a conservative agenda. Unfortunately, they failed to recognize a basic reality of governing in this country: Much of the true power in Washington is focused not in Congress, but in the White House.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. As envisioned by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, Congress was a co-equal branch of government that had a great deal of power. After all, it was up to Congress to propose and pass budgets, make the ultimate decision on the use of military force, raise revenue, and more. All of that, of course, was before presidents discovered that they could go to war on their own or operate without a budget for years and most Americans wouldn’t bat an eye.
In years past, when the executive branch acted to circumvent the legislative branch, Congress might have banded together — regardless of party — to stop such abuses. Similarly, when the party opposite of the president’s held a majority in Congress, they might have been able to convince enough in the president’s own party to go along with them and sway the president to that side as well.
In the hyper-partisan atmosphere currently enveloping Washington, D.C., however, neither of these scenarios is very likely. Only a few Democrats are willing to ever go along with Republicans on issues occasionally, and it’s never going to be near the numbers needed to override a presidential veto. Indeed, in the U.S. Senate, it’s tough for Republicans to even get the six Democratic votes they need to overcome a filibuster. The GOP, then, was left in the position where the most it could do was block bills. This is reflected in the numbers: the 113th and 112th Congresses were two of the least productive in recent times in terms of the number of bills passed.
When evaluating their party in Congress, however, Republicans ought to keep in mind what happened during the 111th Congress, which covered the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. During that Congress, Democrats were able to pass legislation like Obamacare, the stimulus package and Dodd-Frank. Imagine, given those “accomplishments,” what Democrats might have done if Nancy Pelosi had remained speaker instead of Boehner.
If Democrats had been able to maintain their majority, they probably would have passed major gun-control legislation, repealed the Hyde Amendment (which bans the use of Medicaid funds for abortion) and passed their version of immigration reform. There would have been no sequestration cuts, but instead tax and spending increases.
It is entirely reasonable for Republicans to be frustrated with their inability to enact a conservative agenda. However, rather than focusing their ire on GOP leadership, it is time for the party to turn its eye toward 2016. If they truly want to get things done in Washington, Republicans need to recapture the White House and be sure that the new president has a conservative Congress behind him or her. The energy being spent on infighting and blame needs to be refocused on engineering a conservative victory next year — a victory that this country desperately needs.