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.”
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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.
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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.