The New York Times reported on Friday that John Boehner would be resigning from his position as House Speaker at the end of October, a report that was confirmed by Boehner's aides and several parties in attendance at a closed-door meeting Friday morning. His resignation announcement coincides with Pope Francis' first visit to the U.S.; during the Pope's address to Congress on Thursday, Boehner — who has long dreamed of a pontiff delivering an address to Congress — was moved to tears. But despite seeing this 20-year dream fulfilled, Boehner's speakership has been filled with challenges and controversy.
From engineering the PR disaster that was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress to party divisions over the fiscal cliff deal in 2013, Boehner has a history of receiving backlash from Democrats and Republicans alike. He has arguably been placed in a number of nearly impossible situations — the more conservative factions of his party have, on numerous occasions, made it difficult for him to compromise. In his first official statement since the news of his resignation broke Friday morning, Boehner indicated that despite his pride in what the majority has accomplished, "prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution."
But at the same time, Boehner has made many questionable decisions during his tenure as speaker, and while the resulting controversies — four of which are explored below — individually may or may not have resulted in his ultimate decision to resign, they did result in attempts from both parties to challenge Boehner.
2013 Fiscal Cliff Deal
In January 2013, a deal raising taxes on the wealthiest two percent of Americans while preventing a general tax hike made its way to President Obama, despite major opposition from 151 House Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. But Boehner voted "yes" on the bill, putting him at odds with his own ranks and demonstrating the increasingly divided nature of the GOP. Defying what the LA Times referred to as "conventional wisdom," Boehner was still reelected as Speaker — possibly because his job wasn't (and still isn't) a popular one.
Benjamin Netanyahu's Address To Congress
Earlier this year, Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress without informing the White House, shortly between Israeli elections. An invitation extended by the House Speaker to a foreign head of state — without consulting the sitting president — is not just a failure of communication. It has very little precedent, and for good reason; the Constitution indicates that the president will receive foreign ambassadors and public officials. Protests against the speech were widespread, and understandably so. As Obama prepared to negotiate his now passed Iran deal, Netanyahu came to address Congress about the threats posed by Iran; it was not what one would call constructive. Boehner also permitted Netanyahu to interfere in American politics at a delicate time — and to push his own agenda abroad ahead of a highly contentious election.
Homeland Security Spending Bill
Back in February, the possibility of a government shutdown loomed after House Republicans managed to pass a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security that simultaneously attempted to block Obama's executive actions on immigration. This bill failed to overcome a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, and then a "clean" bill that was amended to remove provisions opposed by Democrats passed both houses to keep the DHS open until March 6, in the short term. But when asked about what might have happened had an agency shutdown actually occurred, Boehner was nonchalant, saying that "Senate Democrats should be to blame."
Boehner was, as usual, in a rather impossible situation. Many GOP representatives warned him that to compromise would be to allow Democrats to block GOP agenda in the future. But he was also at odds with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said at the time that he would be willing to put forward a "clean" spending bill.
Obamacare Government Shutdown
In October 2013, the federal government was partially shut down for 16 days after a GOP-controlled Congress refused to pass a funding bill that included funding for the Affordable Care Act. Boehner said at the time that this refusal was a way for the GOP to "take a stand" against the "threat of Obamacare." Boehner also insisted that there weren't enough votes in the House to pass a clean bill, but Obama refuted that claim while making it clear that he would not be making concessions unrelated to the budget.
Underlying all of this was the increasing fragility of bipartisan politics. Democrats were wary of going after Boehner because someone far worse may well have replaced him — a concern they will finally have to contend with now — while, in typical fashion, the more conservative flank of the GOP warned Boehner that they might not support any deal he made with Democrats. This division has essentially formed the basis for Boehner's speakership, and now that he is resigning, it would be worth considering that the way our government works needs to change.