Despite criticism, the 113th Congress re-elects John Boehner House Speaker

The 112th Congress, one of the least respected in history, has been replaced by the 113th. Is this a change, or more of the same? Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, DC, January 3, 2013 — By a vote of 220 to 192, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) won reelection as Speaker of the House of Representatives today.

Because of his perceived ineffectiveness, conservatives have been calling for Boehner’s head. If there were any expectations of a challenge to Boehner from within the House, those were quickly quashed. His only opposition was the House Minority Leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). There were 15 votes for other candidates or “present.”

Conservatives were unhappy with Boehner’s Plan B proposal to avert the fiscal cliff, but they were outraged by passage of the compromise forged by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.

That outcome wasn’t entirely Boehner’s fault. He might have allowed the Senate bill to be amended in the House, but there was widespread sentiment among Republicans to put it up for an up-down vote.

Had not his caucus undercut Boehner by rejecting Plan B, the Senate would have been faced with a different starting position for their compromise bill. Moreover, the results of the November elections meant that any bill would raise some tax rates. Putting off negotiations on tax and entitlement reform represented multiple failures of leadership, not just Boehner’s.

Nancy Pelosi remains the leader of the House Democrats

It was widely believed that there would be at least a symbolic alternative to Boehner from the Republican side. That there was not suggests that Boehner’s position was greatly underestimated by reporters who hoped for some drama from the GOP.  

Dissatisfaction with Boehner is symptomatic of wider dissatisfaction with the House and with Congress. Congress has been seen as ineffectual and gridlocked, its popularity below President Obama’s, and House GOP popularity even lower than that. At 12 percent approval, the 112th Congress has become almost an object of derision.

The 112th Congress had seemed passive as Obama asserted more authority for himself. The Constitution grants more power to the Legislative branch than to the Executive, but with occasional reversals, the growth of the “imperial presidency” has been the trend for decades.

The growing scope and complexity of the federal government has combined with growing partisan rancor in Congress to encourage the movement of power and responsibility to the executive.

President Obama has found this congenial to his style of governance. Once a foe of “signing statements,” by which a president signals his personal interpretation of the law and the way he intends to enforce it, Obama has expanded their use. A supporter of the War Powers Act as a senator, he actively circumvented it to pursue military action in Libya. Unable to get the DREAM Act through Congress by the dint of his leadership, he created a temporary version by executive fiat. His supporters have floated the possibility of expanding his authority to raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval.

In all this Obama has been supported by Democrats who once abhorred this type of presidential power grab. When a Republican eventually returns to the White House, the precedents will be firmly established for the expansion of power that Obama has achieved.

*****

The opening of a new Congress is, for all this, a matter of importance and pride. For all its dysfunction, Congress remains a powerful institution, and the passing of power from Congress to Congress remains orderly and smooth. There’s always hope on all sides that the current Congress will be better than the last.

There are some interesting changes in this Congress. Whether they are more than cosmetic remains to be seen. The Senate now has 20 women serving, 15 Democrats and five Republicans, as many as have served in the entire history of that chamber. Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin is the first openly gay senator, and Senator Barbara Mikulski will be the first female chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

There are 12 new senators and 84 new members of the House. House leadership remains almost entirely white and male, with Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) named to chair the House Administration Committee after widespread negative publicity that all committees were to be chaired by men.

The oath taken by members of Congress is this:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”

As the executive branch expands its power at the expense of Congress, and as Congress both allows and encourages its own diminution, members of the House and the Senate should reflect on their oath. Power granted by the Constitution can change by custom and habit, the clear intent of the framers subverted for the sake of convenience. Election to Congress is a bestowal of enormous trust, and we should not allow our senators and representatives to take their duties lightly.

The passivity of Congress reflects the passivity of the American voter.

By failing to hold our representatives accountable, we allow them to define failure as acceptable. Liberals and conservatives alike were upset by the fiscal cliff compromise and the failure to deal with the underlying problems in a comprehensive way, but it was what we should have predicted. We deserve much better.

Or we would, if we cared. 

 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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