Since the end of the decades-long Democratic dominance on Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives has had four Republican speakers (or near-speakers). All four — all — were forced out by internal coups or otherwise disgraced by scandal.
John Boehner, the affable, business-friendly Ohio congressman who announced his resignation last Friday, is just the latest Republican speaker to meet a difficult end — facing a revolt of tea-party and hard-line conservatives within his caucus threatening a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding.
By stepping down at the end of next month, Boehner will be able to keep the government running with the support of Democrats, if necessary. As the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza writes, Boehner sacrificed his career for the long-term good of the Republican Party.
A week ago, Boehner grumbled about the difficulties of leading his caucus, comparing himself to a garbageman who has gotten used to ‘the smell of bad garbage.’ Over the weekend, he unloaded to Politico on his party’s most conservative and uncompromising legislators:
“The Bible says, beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading, you know, noise about how much can get done,” Boehner said. “We got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town, who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things they know — they know! — are never going to happen,” he added.
Boehner will join a small club of Republican speakers, all of whose legacies are somewhat tarnished. That’s not even counting the legal troubles faced by former majority leader Tom DeLay or former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, who resigned from the leadership in 2002 after making controversial remarks praising the late Strom Thurmond, a longtime South Carolina senator who mounted a segregationist ‘Dixiecrat’ presidential campaign in 1948.
Newt Gingrich, the Georgia congressman who engineered the ‘Republican revolution’ that brought the party control of both houses of Congress after the 1994 midterm elections, lasted for exactly two cycles. When the party sustained midterm losses in 1998 to president Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party, partially as a result of Republican congressional inquiry into Clinton’s perjury relating to an alleged sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Gingrich resigned rather than face full insurrection from rebels within his own caucus (that, at the time, including a younger Boehner).
Gingrich hasn’t held elective office since, although he’s still a luminary on the Republican right, chiefly in gratitude for his 1994 role in making Congressional politics more competitive for conservatives. He won the South Carolina primary and emerged as a surprise threat to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the 2012 nomination contest.
Gingrich’s successor, Louisiana congressman Robert Livingston, actually resigned before he even was even sworn as speaker. Livingston admitted on the House floor that he had an extramarital affair, just as Republicans were preparing to impeach Clinton in the Lewinsky affair (and as Larry Flynt’s Hustler was preparing to break the news of Livingston’s own infidelity).
Illinois congressman Dennis Hastert stepped in, and he capably led the Republican-controlled House until the 2006 midterms, when an unpopular Bush administration lost both houses of Congress to the Democrats. Hastert was an effective, if low-profile, speaker, and he pushed through the Bush administration’s chief accomplishments, including the PATRIOT Act, two rounds of tax cuts and Medicare Plan D. But the affable former speaker was indicted in May 2015 on charges stemming from the spectacular revelation that he was paying $3.5 million in ‘hush money’ to a former student who alleged that the one-time wrestling coach sexually molested him.
Four speakers, four ignoble ends.
Over the same time, the Democrats have had just two House leaders since 1994 — former Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt, who never got the opportunity to serve as speaker and Nancy Pelosi, minority leader and former speaker from 2007 to 2011.
That must be one of the reasons that Paul Ryan, the budget committee chair from Wisconsin (and the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee) is not interested in being the fifth.
Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican from Bakersfield who’s been in the House only since 2007 and a Boehner-style moderate, is likely to become the next speaker, even though he’s nearly as much at odds with the GOP’s opposition-at-all-costs wing, the so-called ‘suicide caucus.’ But the experiences of his recent predecessors suggest that he should savor his triumph if elected. Boehner’s experience shows that the job’s not a lot of fun in the tea party-and-Trump era of Republican politics — but he’s really just the last in a line of troubled speakers.