Teachable Instant: Power Clash in the GOP

The abrupt resignation of House Speaker John Boehner reflects deep divisions within the GOP. In this brief activity, students explore the roots of the GOP power struggle.   


Ask the class:

How many of you have heard of John Boehner (pronounced BAYnor)?

Is he:

a) the head of the Republican Party
b) a justice of the Supreme Court
c) a character from Game of Thrones
d) Speaker of the House of Representatives
e) all of the above

Answer:  Boehner is Speaker of the House until the end of October 2015.  On September 25, Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, resigned both his position as Speaker and his seat in the U.S. House, which he had held for 25 years.  

On the face of it, the resignation of a Congress member - even a Congress leader - might not seem that important. Members of Congress come and go. But this particular resignation is an indication of a power clash with implications for the entire country.

Have students read the material below, or use it as background material to fill students in on the politics behind John Boehner's resignation. 

GOP Power Struggle

"... John Boehner represents the Republican establishment in Washington, and they certainly have lost touch and trust of the grassroots conservatives across America."
- Rep. Tim Huelskamp, chairman of the House Tea Party Caucus

Speaker John Boehner, himself a stalwart conservative, was effectively unseated by the "Freedom Caucus," a group of about 50 extremely conservative representatives, who thought Boehner compromised his conservative principles too easily. Boehner resigned in the midst of a struggle over whether Republicans should force a government shutdown over the funding of Planned Parenthood.  

While the Speaker still holds immense control of the legislative process, the Speaker's power over individual representatives has been eroded. There are several reasons for this, including: 

  • The  practice of "earmarking" - attaching pet projects to important legislation - has been cut way back, so the Speaker can't hand out earmarks as rewards for loyalty as easily as before.
  • The Speaker has always had a central role in doling out party money to assist in individual races. But now that the Supreme Court has cut restrictions on political contributions, billionaires and super-PACs can provide funds when the party won't, reducing the influence of the Speaker.

Speaker Boehner was even less able to exert influence over this group of ultra-conservatives:

  •  The 50 or so Freedom Caucus representatives who have challenged Boehner come from districts that have been artfully gerrymandered* by Republican state legislatures to maximize conservative voters. 
  • The Freedom Caucus representatives are ideologically opposed to government (except the military), so they are not afraid if their hard-line politics ends in a government shut-down.
  • They are able to rely on the Tea Party, a network of grassroots anti-government activists, conservative media, and corporate funders.           
  • They have a track record of defeating establishment candidates in Republican primaries, which extends their influence to less conservative colleagues who fear for their jobs.

* Gerrymander: "to divide (a territorial unit) into election districts to give one political party an electoral majority in a large number of districts while concentrating the voting strength of the opposition in as few districts as possible." (Merriam-Webster)

So what effect has this powerful caucus had on Congress and congressional action? Because the Senate has rules giving the minority party (currently the Democrats) some power to block legislation, and because the current president is a Democrat, the House of Representatives cannot enact laws without making compromises. But the "Freedom Caucus" conservatives will not compromise on what they see as their bedrock principles.

The result so far has been a record low number of laws passed and a steady stream of government near-shutdowns. This has led to record low approval ratings for Congress: Only about 15% of Americans currently approve of the institution. However, if support for the ultra-conservative movement grows and succeeds in electing more members of Congress or a sympathetic president, legislative success could follow.

For Discussion

  • The Progressive Caucus of the House of Representatives has about 75 members. Why do you think they have not been able to exert the level of power that the conservatives have?
  • If you were Speaker of the House, what would you do to make Congress more effective?
  • Is it a good thing that some members of Congress - on the left or right - refuse to compromise on what they see as their principles?  What is good about it? What is not good about it?
  • The goal of the Freedom Caucus is smaller government (except for the military). Do you agree with this goal? Why or why not?