The old guard in Washington said goodbye to more than just another speaker with John Boehner’s surprise resignation on Friday. In fact, his announcement delivered another blow to an art form that’s been waning as the tea party and highly partisan conservatives have gained power.
Boehner’s resignation fuels moderate Republicans’ wondering not only what’s happened to their party, but also whether there’s enough room for their views under the tent.
This news is not good for business, whether you’re talking about the business of running the nation or the nation’s businesses. At stake is having a functioning government with a Congress that knows, after however much fighting and negotiating come first, how to reach agreement.
Why should American business care? Well, just wait until December when the real chips are on the table: the federal debt ceiling. How will businesses react when they are facing higher interest rates due to congressional inaction? How will already jittery stock markets react to yet another congressional shutdown? What happens to those federal contracts for new roads, or new buildings, or new weapons for the military, that are in the revenue pipeline? Make no mistake, when government shuts down, commerce will be negatively impacted.
Many other issues important to business may be held hostage if Congress, especially on the House side, cannot find common ground. Among them: trade deals, patent troll fixes, FAA reauthorization, and corporate tax reform. All hard to do, and all in need a deal — and dealmakers who can deliver.
I need only one quote to illustrate my point. Immediately after the caucus meeting at which Boehner announced his resignation, tea party-leaning U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp emerged to declare: “There’s no question conservatives had a victory here.”
A victory? Really? Tea party forces succeeded in pushing a 24-year veteran legislator, one of the GOP’s most senior leaders, out to pasture because of an intra-party squabble over funding for Planned Parenthood. How in the world could that action be viewed as a victory for Americans?
It took Huelskamp less than a minute to illustrate what is so wrong today in Washington and with this new breed of polarizing politicians rising up among the ranks on both sides of the aisle.
It’s not just that they’re against anyone who does not see things their way; it’s also that they won’t even engage in negotiation. They see negotiation and compromise as moral and political failure rather than fundamental to the way our Constitution, our government, works.
That take-no-prisoners viewpoint, at least in this former Washington insider’s view, is not what made America or our political system great.
Even Boehner, in his resignation announcement, recognized the potential damage ahead. “It had become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution,” he said.
Was the speaker’s tenure perfect? No, hardly. Was he more effective than a majority of his predecessors? The answer again is no.
But what Boehner did do well and what he represented better than many in Washington was commitment to delivering progress and results when it mattered most, many times on economic issues of keen interest to business.
As he tried to bring together the warring factions of his caucus, Boehner knew when it was time for politics and when it was time for policy. He understood how to legislate and compromise in the name of progress. He was one of the few who still respected and understood the “art of the deal.” He knew how to deal in a practical way with the other party.
Even with his departure, the next speaker of the Republican-led House still faces the prospect of trying to keep together the eclectic collection of interests: fiscal conservatives, evangelicals, foreign policy hawks and big business. The House majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, is the early favorite for the open seat and he’s seen as an ally of business.
But the pressures remain, especially amid a presidential campaign driven by candidates who’ve riled up voters by preaching that all of Washington is rotten. (There’s perhaps a reason why three outsiders — Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — are dominating the GOP race.)
America, and yes, American businesses, have thrived under a democratic government; one that represents the people’s will and that can get the people’s business done. With the loss of Speaker Boehner, that job just got much harder.
Let me leave you with one question that I bet our speaker of the House pondered a few times over the past month: Does a majority of Americans really want our government to grind to a halt, wasting millions of dollars in the process, over funding for Planned Parenthood?
After Friday's news, my answer is no. Thank you, Speaker Boehner, for your service to our nation and for your commitment to getting things done in Congress.
The author, James Fuller, is an executive vice president and leads the U.S. public affairs practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.