House Insurrections Are Here to Stay

There’s nothing new about a speaker managing dissent. And these fights are likely to intensify.

Alexander Drago / Reuters

As Congress plods through a steamy July, its insurgents become more combative. They view their speaker as ideologically impure, faithless to the base, too willing to dilute party doctrine with dollops of bland pragmatism. The intra-party civil war on Capitol Hill is erupting publicly, on cable-news shows and in indignant tweets.

I’m not talking about the contretemps between Nancy Pelosi and the handful of House progressives led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I’m referring to exactly four years ago, July 2015, when the archconservative Freedom Caucus staged an uprising against Republican Speaker John Boehner. But I could also be referring to the summers of 2017 and 2018, when the Freedom Caucus grew restless against Republican Speaker Paul Ryan.

There’s nothing new about a speaker managing insurrection. It’s a safe bet, moreover, that these battles will only intensify and grow more frequent, no matter who grips the gavel or which party controls the House.

On July 28, 2015, Republican Representative Mark Meadows approached the speaker’s rostrum and handed a resolution to a clerk. It was a “Motion to Vacate the Chair,” which, stripped of its parliamentary veneer, means “Let’s dump the speaker of the House.” Under the rules, the motion would receive a vote immediately upon the request of any member. (The last time a similar motion was filed and voted on was under Speaker Joe Cannon in March 1910. He survived by a vote of 155–192).

Boehner downplayed the move the next day: “You’ve got a member here and a member there who are off the reservation. No big deal.”

Behind the scenes, he and his allies were wielding carrots, but mostly sticks, to quell the dissent. The prior January, after 25 Republicans voted against him for speaker, Politico reported that “Boehner moved swiftly to boot two of the insurgents from the influential Rules Committee.”

As the rebellion grew beyond Boehner and morphed into opposition to the sacrosanct rules of the House, Boehner upped the ante: Meadows was removed from the subcommittee he chaired. Another rebel, Representative Jeff Duncan, was reportedly barred from congressional trips abroad. Representative Rod Blum, from a competitive district in Iowa, was said to have received no support from the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s political arm.

None of it worked. Not only did the “member here” and “member there” stay “off the reservation,” as Boehner had put it, but they seemed massed for a full-scale attack. After Pope Francis visited Congress in September, Boehner surrendered, announcing his retirement. The gavel went to Ryan.

About two and a half years later, Ryan announced his own retirement.

Pelosi feels her predecessors’ pain. But unlike her predecessors, Pelosi must also contend with a president who insults and attacks her insurgents. Over the weekend, President Donald Trump tweeted that “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” should go back to where they came from. So Pelosi must constantly move between trying to contain her unruly members and defending them, making her job that much more complicated.

Even in a future without such a president, however, speakers can count on unrest, because members know they have little to lose in opposing their leaders.

The disciplinarian days of Sam Rayburn and Tip O’Neill are over. When Congress banned earmarks in 2011, it denied its leaders the ability to punish wayward members by stripping funding for local projects in appropriations measures. Boehner tried to punish his detractors by removing them from committees or grounding them from travel, but he succeeded only in making them martyrs.

Polarization, aided by gerrymandering, also makes the speaker’s job harder. As I noted recently, according to The Cook Political Report, of the 435 districts in the House, only 21 are true “toss-ups,” whereas 344 are considered safe seats. (The rest lean in one direction or the other.) This situation rewards lawmakers who cater to activists who glue themselves to their favorite agreeable cable-news shows, actually watch C-SPAN 3, or follow on the internet the latest controversy over a “motion to recommit.” What used to be inconsequential is now incendiary, igniting the party bases on even the most arcane matters. They pressure their elected representatives to take up arms—and they do, because, as I said, they have little to lose.

Finally, there’s social media, which distorts political realities. Members of Congress sometimes risk seeing the world through their own districts, losing sight of the diversity of views and pressures that confront colleagues from other regions. But now it’s worse—some members define the world by the sympathetic Twitter followers who retweet them. It’s an echo chamber and hall of mirrors at the same time.

Boehner, Ryan, and Pelosi shared a fundamental problem: a few insurgents with one priority, their ideology, versus one speaker with many priorities. The speaker of the House must represent the entire Congress and at the same time reflect the consensus of his or her party. Plus, retain the majority; win elections; align with the president or presidential candidates; motivate and mollify donors, activists, and canvassers; and govern.

As Pelosi told her caucus last Wednesday, “Some of you are here to make a beautiful pâté, but we’re making sausage most of the time.”