the national interest

Why Are House Republicans Acting Out?

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (R) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) hold a brief news conference on December 19, 2011 in Washington, DC.
Is this all there is? Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The House Republicans refusing to extend the payroll tax holiday are carrying out a spasm of anger and resentment so politically irrational that fellow Republicans are openly trying to slap some sense into them. The question is what they’re so angry about.

The proximate cause is that Republicans think that the bottom half of the income distribution already pays too little in taxes. A payroll tax holiday simply gives more to the “takers” and increases the burden on the “makers.” That’s why Republicans are throwing sand in the gears – they want to either block the extension of the payroll tax holiday, or at least wring some concessions out of the White House for it.

But a deeper, aggravating factor is that the House Republican majority has started to burn out on the ecstasy of its midterm triumph and is reaching the “is this is all there is?” stage of the revolution. Today’s The Wall Street Journal editorial assailing the House GOP for its tactical ineptitude attributes the blunder to the right’s feelings of impotence:

One reason for the revolt of House backbenchers is the accumulated frustration over a year of political disappointment. Their high point was the Paul Ryan budget in the spring that set the terms of debate and forced Mr. Obama to adopt at least the rhetoric of budget reform and spending cuts.

But then Messrs. Boehner and McConnell were gulled into going behind closed doors with the President, who dragged out negotiations and later emerged to sandbag them with his blame-the-GOP and soak-the-rich re-election strategy. Any difference between the parties on taxes and spending has been blurred in the interim.

After a year of the tea party House, Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats have had to make no major policy concessions beyond extending the Bush tax rates for two years. Mr. Obama is in a stronger re-election position today than he was a year ago, and the chances of Mr. McConnell becoming Majority Leader in 2013 are declining.

I think this outlook is unduly glum, but it does provide an interesting window into the Party’s mentality. And, like a aging husband who buys a sports car he can’t afford, the House’s latest episode is a flashing light that it’s thinking of Making A Change. CQ/Roll Call reports that there is already the hint in the Washington air of a coup against John Boehner:

The No. 1 question that will debated over the eggnog at Hill-centric holiday parties is whether Boehner will be able to save his Speakership for more than a few more months in light of his horrible miscalculation on the payroll tax bill — and then his desperate flip-flop to get in front of the troops that were marching in the opposite direction from where he said they needed to go.

The old adage about not shooting the king unless you’re sure to kill him still applies: Cantor will not make his inevitable move until he’s sure he can depose Boehner without much of a fight — and preferably, only once he’s persuaded his rival to step off the podium on his own terms and timetable. But the Virginian’s trigger finger is clearly getting itchy; the GOP cloakroom is rife with chatter about how Cantor knew that Boehner was walking into a rank-and-file buzz saw when he signed off on the two-month deal — but declined to offer any advance warning before the Speaker took on a fusillade of criticism in a conference call with his caucus Saturday afternoon.

The subsequent storyline — that the Speaker needed to be redirected by his own rank-and-file, which is the exact opposite of the way a House leader wants to work — has raised significant questions about his ability to lead his conference for the long-term. Under the “rule of three,” Boehner has now established a trend, because it the third time this year he’s gotten dangerously out in front of his colleagues (the others were the intial showdown in March and the “grand bargain” over the deficit this summer).

But why would Cantor want to launch a coup now? It seems pretty clear that Boehner has no power at all. Since at least this summer, he’s been Junior Soprano – allowed to keep his title, but unable to make any important decision on his own. At some point, Cantor may decide to take his job, but what’s the advantage of doing it now? Much better to let the House GOP bottom out first, forcing Boehner choose between the right’s maximalist demands and avoiding the political damage they entail, and then coming in after all the damage has been done.

Why Are House Republicans Acting Out?