Your editor wasn’t shocked about John Boehner’s announcement last Friday that he was stepping down next month as House Speaker and as Member of the House of Representatives. After all, the Ohio Republican managed a feat none of his predecessors achieved last week when Pope Francis gave a speech before a joint session of Congress. After that accomplishment, why would he want to spend the next year or so wrangling with true-believer movement conservatives within the House Republican Caucus over their desires to partial shut down the federal government’s discretionary operations for the second time in two years?
You can imagine that Boehner came to a bit of a reckoning after the pontiff’s call for political leaders to engage in more-thoughtful policymaking — especially when those very same conservatives threatened a day later to push for Boehner’s ouster from what is a top post in name only because of his opposition to yet another political stunt. After having eviscerated so much of what was once a great legacy on Capitol Hill — including helping to co-author the No Child Left Behind Act — just to be at the pinnacle of of his career, Boehner may have finally realized that enough was enough. Especially when he could make far more money (and enjoy his life) in private life as a lobbyist and public speaker.
There are plenty of life lessons from Boehner’s decision as well as about his sacrifice of all the good he has done for children during his career in exchange for perceived power. There also a lot to be learned about what happens when politicians engage in unserious policymaking and play to the senseless, sometimes immoral, passions of activists for the sake of votes. Nothing good can be said about sacrificing principles for position. But those are for another day. What is the biggest concern for reformers, especially those inside the Beltway, is what will happen to the effort to reauthorize (and effectively destroy the strong accountability measures contained within) No Child? The likely answer is that those plans are now dead and gone — and the longstanding stalemate over federal education policy will continue.
As your editor noted on these pages last November, the various divides among all the players on Capitol Hill, especially among Congressional Republicans who now control both federal legislative houses, made the chances of a No Child reauthorization slim to infinitesimal. Add in the fact that the Obama Administration, now free from having to defend vulnerable Democratic seats and empowered to use executive authority through congressional legislation and past court precedents, has a free hand to reject any proposal from House and Senate Republicans that would wipe out his own legacy on the education policy front, and the odds go down even further.
Events since then — including January’s attempt by conservative House Republicans to oust Boehner from the speakership, the withdrawal of House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s plan for reauthorizing No Child from full consideration, and the emergence of a Republican presidential campaign that has all but dismissed even Kline’s approach to education policy — have borne out this reality. Kline finally managed to win passage of it this past July. But provisions the Wisconsin Republican included in it in order for it to win support from true-believers (including a provision allowing families to opt-out of standardized tests that essentially violate the very federalism movement conservatives proclaim to defend) ensure that it has almost no chance of winning Senate approval.
Despite these issues, conservative reformers and lobbyists for key players in American public education still believed that No Child reauthorization still had a chance, if only because Kline and Boehner could somehow come together with their respective counterparts in the Senate, Lamar Alexander and Mitch McConnell, to put together a version of No Child that could mollify hardcore movement conservatives in both houses while also winning some support from Democrats and the few moderate Republicans still holding seats. Even as movement conservatives in Congress rejected efforts by Boehner and McConnell to pass legislation on matters such as immigration reform, activist groups such as FreedomWorks kept beating the drum for Boehner’s and McConnell’s ouster, and both outright opposed any plan that seemed like apostasy, erstwhile conservative reformers such as Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute were still hoping beyond hope that their ideological counterparts would embrace the Alexander and Kline proposals.
What these reformers and others have not figured out is that Kline and Boehner, along with Alexander and McConnell, are reaping the business end of the frenzy of movement conservatives against the Obama Administration’s agenda and nearly all federal policymaking that they whipped up over the past six years. This especially includes No Child, the legacy of George W. Bush’s presidency that Kline and Alexander (with the help of those very same conservative reformers) have wrongly argued has greatly expanded the federal role in education. Considering that Boehner and moderate Republicans teamed up with Congressional Democrats over the past two years to end the shutdown as well as pass a federal spending plan last year, the true-believers are skeptical of anything coming from House Republican leadership. That the last federal shutdown did little political damage to Congressional Republicans, along with the considerable dollars and bodies they have on the ground, makes them even less interested than ever in compromise.
What they want to do is eviscerate the Obama Administration policy efforts, deny the president any victory, and enact their vision of a smaller federal footprint. The problem is that Congressional Republicans neither have enough votes in either house to override any of Obama’s vetoes, nor have enough bodies in the Senate to stop Democrats from using any of the arcane rules to stop passage of any legislation the administration opposes. That Republicans are divided among themselves on nearly every issue also makes it difficult for movement conservatives to get the entire loaf. So artful compromise, that very lifeblood of American politics for good and ill, becomes necessity.
But that means betraying the very goals proclaimed by true-believer conservatives in the Republican ranks. As they made clear in the past two months, when they began threatening another shutdown over federal funding of Planned Parenthood after videos revealed that the abortion advocate was harvesting and provisioning the body parts of dead babies (especially from those subjected to late-term abortions) for other medical uses, they aren’t interested in negotiating anything outside keeping funds for Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and federal defense flowing.
Whoever succeeds Boehner, be it House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy or someone preferable to hardcore movement conservatives, will find himself dealing with the same state of play. The fact that the next speaker will have little in the way of power — thanks to the move five years ago to end earmarks (and the ability to grant or deny them that was one of the few tools available for ensuring discipline within caucuses) — makes it even harder to corral support for compromise legislation. With Boehner having paid dearly for reaching out to Democrats to pass legislation he favored, the next speaker will be even less-willing to do anything other than what true-believers demand. To think under such circumstances, especially in light of legislation on matters such as trade and immigration having bit the dust, that a No Child reauthorization plan will see the light of day is to engage in fanciful daydreaming.
Considering the damage that the Alexander and Kline plans would wreck upon the futures of children as well as on systemic reform efforts on the ground, sensible reformers should be pleased. By stepping down, Boehner may have actually helped preserve for a while longer the accountability and other measures for which he should be most proud.