Learning to Govern…Again?

Speaker John Boehner was first elected to Congress in 1991. In 1995, he was a member of the new GOP House majority (the first one since 1955) that shut down the government – an event that was widely seen as harming the GOP’s brand and was a major contributing factor to the downfall of Newt Gingrich’s speakership.

Richard Fenno, a political scientist at the University of Rochester and highly regarded congressional scholar, wrote an excellent book on the GOP’s teething lessons that was titled “Learning to Govern.” In it, Fenno argued that because Republicans had been in the minority wilderness for so long, they didn’t really understand what governing requires. Mistakes were made as the GOP transitioned from its historical “bomb-throwing” role to one where they might be held to account for what the government did or didn’t accomplish. Specifically, House Republicans failed to understand the need for a governing majority to compromise.

Former Speaker Gingrich conceded that the shutdown turned out badly for Republicans in 1995. Lesson learned, the 104th Congress ended up being quite productive under divided government – enacting major welfare, health insurance portability, telecommunications, and crime bills, among others.

Fast forward to 2013. House Republicans have been in the majority for 16 of the last 19 years. In the current 113th Congress they have accomplished very little to date, and then topped this lack of productivity by shutting down the government again in October. That recently elected tea party-backed lawmakers might fail to appreciate the lessons of 1995 is not surprising. They weren’t around. Rep. Paul Ryan recent comments about the need for compromise under divided government offers evidence of the learning Fenno described, particularly when compared to the strident, uncompromising views Ryan expressed in earlier years:

“What Patty Murray and I decided was if we require the other person to violate a core principle, then we’re going to get nowhere and we’ll just keep yelling at each other. So instead, what we decided to do was look for areas of common ground and put an agreement around that and that’s what this reflects. So, you know, the fact of the matter is you don’t get everything you want in divided government”

Good for him. But too bad these lessons had to be learned the hard way.

More puzzling is the recent behavior of more senior Republicans such as Speaker Boehner. They were around in 1995. Have they forgotten, or did they choose to ignore those lessons? And if so, why? Boehner’s “Are you kidding me?” outburst suggests one of two possibilities: Either he and other members were misled by conservative activists who promoted the standoff but later revealed “Well we never thought it would work,” or they were coerced into what they probably knew was a losing strategy. This is not the first time that conservative elements in the GOP have pushed positions that have harmed the party’s brand. However, in the most salient of those cases, such as the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, Speaker Boehner avoided the worst of the damage to the party by not invoking the Hastert Rule. Why the shutdown continued as long as it did can’t be blamed on conservative activists or on not knowing any better. It was a failure of leadership, pure and simple.