When a Speaker Can’t Govern, No One Wants the Job
By Rachel Schmidt
October 20, 2015
The Speaker of the House is a high-power position that sets the tone for the House of Representatives and is second in line for the presidency; a dream for any ambitious politician. Yet, no one seems to want the job. Speaker John Boehner is resigning, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) has made it clear he doesn’t want it, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the running. The reason for the widespread hesitancy could be related to the strong divisions in the Republican Party that have made Speaker Boehner’s job arduous. There is no easy way, as Speaker of the House, to be able to please the Freedom Caucus, which operates as a “squeaky wheel,” and does not allow for the compromise necessary to create laws. For those of us interested in social justice, a lack of governance and a lack of a Speaker halt any hope of systemic change.
The leadership of Speaker of the House is necessary for the proper functioning of the House of Representatives. He or she is elected from the majority party in the House, and historically, has always been a congressperson. The duties include overseeing procedure in the chamber, appointing members to committees, and setting the legislative agenda for the majority party. The Speaker is not merely an administrative or ceremonial role; there is a great deal of power exercised in this position, especially when deciding what bills are brought to the House floor for a vote.
One example during Speaker Boehner’s tenure is when he applied his power to the issue of comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 and 2014. A comprehensive bill, S. 744, went through much of the legislative process and was passed in the Senate. The hard work of immigration activists paid off as half of the legislative battle was accomplished, but they gritted their teeth in anticipation and hope of what the House would do to follow. Rep. Joe Garcia introduced an almost identical bill, H.R. 15, which received bipartisan support with 200 cosponsors (a bill only needs 218 votes to pass.) Yet, that is where the process uneventfully ended, because Speaker Boehner refused to bring it to a vote. Months of work and compromise can be all in vain, because the Speaker holds the political power to bring a bill to a vote. This situation was particularly frustrating because had the bill gone to the floor, it would have passed.
The power of this office indicates the necessity of not only having the role filled by a politician seeking to create just laws, but also a person who has the ability to govern. The current disinterest in the position of Speaker has been influenced by a House that is ungovernable. The fact is that the Freedom Caucus is difficult to politic with. They have a stringent platform that embraces no compromise, and they make a plethora of noise when they do not get their way. David Brooks, a syndicated, conservative columnist, critiqued this way of legislating as ineffective and a threat to the very institution of democracy.
We the people cannot effect systemic change without a properly functioning House of Representatives, and therefore, the institution and its capacity for governance must be upheld and respected. Article One of the Constitution outlines the House as the chamber where the will of the people is made a reality. Pope Francis said, “A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern. But what is the best we can offer those who govern? Prayer!” With the current Speaker situation, we better start meddling, and we better start praying!