Washington's problem is not the fiscal cliff, it's the legislative knot. Speaker Boehner cannot -- simply cannot get his House members in line and that's unlikely to change over the next two years. Dems can just decide to put up with it and hope that the public is attentive enough to blame the Republicans in the years and elections to come -- but there might be another option.
To see if anyone had thought of this idea and written about it here or elsewhere, I had only to do an easy and obvious search. Set Google to "one week" and search on the following terms: "Willie Brown," "Howard Berman," "Leo McCarthy," and "Speaker." If anyone had had this idea, those words should have shown up.
The idea is simple: don't nominate Nancy Pelosi to be Speaker. Nominate a Republican with whom one has made a deal. It doesn't have to be a harsh deal -- in fact, it's better if it isn't. (We don't want to own the failures of the 113th Session of the House of Representatives, after all.) Indeed, our deal can be limited to this: on matters of economic security where the public desires a moderate and bipartisan course, all 202 Democrats will join with the Speaker and 15 other Republicans to pass stripped-down legislation that does what needs to be done and no more. We'll agree to disagree on everything else. But on matters like the debt ceiling, like retention of the tax cut on the first $250,000 of income, on preserving Social Security, extending unemployment benefits, and so on -- we'll provide 202 Democratic votes if the Republican candidate for Speaker can provide 15 Republican votes plus his or her own.
It's good policy. And, especially if it's turned down, it's great politics. (That's why we don't want to ask for too much -- but just enough to get the things done that pretty much every sane person agrees upon.)
The Willie Brown Style of Becoming Speaker
The minority party peeling off enough support from the majority to determine the leader of a legislative house has worked before. (It just happened, infamously, in the New York State Senate.) But my favorite examples of how it happened were in 1980 and 1995 in California, the first being when a tremendous fight broke out over who would be Speaker of the California Assembly, analogous to the U.S. House.
Leo T. McCarthy had been Assembly Speaker for over six years, since June 1974, the month that Jerry Brown became the Democratic nominee for Governor. With the help of then-Assemblyman Howard Berman, Majority Leader McCarthy had put down a revolt by Willie Brown, who had run against then-incumbent Bob Moretti for Speaker in 1972, to capture the Speakership in 1974. McCarthy appointed Berman as the new Majority Leader. In 1980, spurred by Jerry Brown, Berman challenged McCarthy for the Speakership. The Democratic Party became deeply divided. Willie Brown looked at the situation and realized that if he could garner the support of the Republicans, he could slip into the Speaker's Office; by that time, no love was remaining between the McCarthy and Berman forces. So that's what he did -- becoming Speaker outright for 14-1/2 years and de facto Speaker for another six months, through the end of 1995.
That last year took another deal with Republicans to complete. Democrats narrowly lost the State Assembly for the first time in 24 years in 1994, year of the "Gingrich Revolution." Brown sought out two disaffected and ill-treated Republicans, Doris Allen and Brian Setencich, and struck a deal: if they'd vote for him, he'd continue to serve as Speaker for the first half of the year, then Allen and Setencich would each serve as speaker for three months in turn. (Brown still remained the power behind the office.) Republicans didn't actually get their actual Speaker until 1996 -- when Brown left the Assembly to become Mayor of San Francisco -- and that lasted for only a year.
What you see above is a story of personal ambition and deft political operation -- and I mean neither of those unkindly. (Willie Brown was, by most Democratic accounts, a masterful Assembly Speaker in most respects.) But there's another reason to reach across the aisle to help determine the Speaker, one that doesn't involve ambition but only civic-mindedness: because the majority party is completely screwed up and such cooperation is the only way to get the public's business done.
That's pretty much where we are now.
Can we achieve a more functional House?
A Democrat will not be the next Speaker of the House. Get that thought out of your mind. If it's not Boehner, it might be Cantor or Paul Ryan or some other currently-plotting insurgent. (One likely reason that Boehner's Plan B failed was to make such a change possible.) Neither would be any more willing to cooperate with Democrats on even those things that are desperately needed to do the business of governing. They can't do so while retaining the respect and control of their caucus.
With a Senate and President ready and willing to govern, but a House unable to cooperate, that means that the only way that anything decent will happen is with Democratic votes. Democrats would retain their minority status -- fail to accept that, in these hyper-partisan times, and no deal will be forthcoming. But we can make a deal to fight on friendlier terms -- and ones that rule out some of the obstructionism.
That's worth doing. It would require 16 of the 233 Republicans to side with 201 unanimous Democrats to achieve a tie vote. (Jesse Jackson Jr.'s absence as the 202nd Democrat may be keenly felt later this week.) But could it really be accomplished? Well, I've done some research that I'd like to share with you.
First, a word: there are no names in the section that follows that I would be happy to see as Speaker. There are no names with a chance in hell of being elected, even with 201 Democratic votes joining 17 Republicans, who I would not be downright unhappy to see as Speaker. There are names that don't belong in any rational list of potential Speakers at all, but they appear (usually as potential votes) simply because they pass one of the criteria for potentially being influenced towards a "good government" sort of solution. (Michele Bachman's name appears below as a possible vote because she passes the criteria of being in a close district where moderation might serve her. I do not think for a moment that she'd actually vote the right way here.) But let's start with a broad brush analysis of what might be achievable.
One warning: some of what I suggest would probably be smart politics for the Republicans. To get a functioning government for the next two years, that may just be a risk that we have to take.
Choosing a New (and more reasonable) (but still mostly terrible) Republican Speaker of the House
Where should we look for potential Republican Speaker candidates with whom we might do business -- and, more importantly, get the people's business up for votes? Furthermore, where should we look for those other potential 15-16 votes for our preferred candidate? I've come up with six categories -- containing a combined 59 names -- that pass some objective criteria that makes them worth talking about as either Speaker or "gettable vote."
Those categories are:
(1) The least extreme Republicans re-elected to the House (operationally defined as meaning that on the National Journals measure of conservatism among Members of Congress, they rank no less than 200th most conservative.)
(2) Other Republicans who rank relatively low (50 or below) on the economic subscale of this measure, and who also come from districts where their margin of victory was no greater than 9.5 points.
(3) A small miscellaneous category of others whom may best be categorized with the above groups.
Some of the members of these first three groups will be possibilities to consider for Speaker. These next three groups are simply places where we might look for votes.
(4) Newly elected Congressmembers whose margins didn't exceed 9.5%.
(5) People whose economic subscale on the ideology score are no greater than 50.
(6) Re-elected Congressmembers who don't have good ideology but who are in competitive districts (margins not exceeding 9.5%.)
Least Extreme Republican Members of the 112th Congress
For each name in this first category, which presents in order the 27 least extreme Republicans in the just-ending Congress (by National Journal score -- and if you prefer another type of ideological score I encourage you to do your own analysis) you'll see the name and district number, the year where they were first elected to the House, then their percentage of the vote (or, if it is below 54.5%, their margin, indicated with a "+".) In cases where I thought it notable, I also included their "Econ subscore" in brackets.
Walter Jones NC-3 (1994) 63%For these next two categories, I also include their specific rank by ideology and their Econ subscore.
Chris Smith NJ-4 (1980) 69%
Richard Hanna NY-22 (2010) 61%
Mike Fitzpatrick PA-8 (2010) 57%
Chris Gibson NY-19 (2010) +7%
Jeff Fortenberry NE-1 (2004) 68%
Pat Meehan PA-7 (2010) 60%
Michael Grimm NY-11 (2010) 53%
Frank LoBiondo NJ-2 (1994) 58%
Dave Reichert WA-8 (2004) 60%
Jaime Herrera Beutler WA-3 (2010) 60%
David McKinley WV-1 (2010) 63%
Frank Wolf VA-10 (1980) 59%
Peter King NY-2 (1992) 59%
John Campbell CA-45 (2005) 59%
Joe Heck NV-3 (2010) +7%
Mario Diaz-Balart FL-25 (2002) 76%
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen FL-27 (1989) 60%
Jim Duncan TN-2 (1988) 75%
Charlie Dent PA-15 (2004) 57%
Tom Petri WI-6 (1979) 62% [60 Econ]
Fred Upton MI-6 (1986) 54%
Rodney Frelinghuysen NJ-11 (1994) 59%
Dana Rohrabacher CA-48 (2005) 62% [60 Econ]
Mike Turner OH-10 (2002) 60%
Shelley Moore Capito WV-2 (2000) 70% [60 Econ]
Glenn Thompson PA-5 (2008) 63% [tied for 200th most conservative]
Non-Extreme Economic Score + Under 10% Margin
Justin Amash MI-3 +9% (2010) [#237, 48 Econ](Note: I include Young because he's almost in the "least extreme" group and he's old and might be a compromise candidate. I include Miller because he's moved to a Democratic district that he only one because four Democrats split the "top-two primary" vote so badly that two Republicans made it into the general election. He's a clear underdog for next time if he stays as conservative as he was in a much more conservative district -- my old one, in fact.)
Jon Runyan NJ-3 (2010) 9% [#181, 53 Econ]
Tom Reed NY-23 (2010) +4% [#179, 57 Econ]
Vern Buchanan FL-16 (2006) +7% [#165, 50 Econ] =
Tom Latham IA-3 (1994) +9% [#164, 55 Econ]
Bill Young FL-13 (1970) 58% [#193, 47 Econ]
Gary Miller CA-31 (1998) 55.2% [#29, 90 Econ - Dem District]
Those 34 names are the only ones that pass the initial criteria I'd use to determine who might be a Republican Speaker candidate. (Note that this initial criteria doesn't weed out all of the completely unreasonable possibilities, such as Rohrabacher and Amash.) Any decision would be made by people (in both parties) who actually know these people and their popularity and leadership skill. I don't; I'm just using the numbers. The numbers said to include Dana Rohrabacher, so I obeyed.
Now I'm going to introduce another criterion. I don't think that anyone elected in 2010 or 2012 should be considered a possibility. (Sorry -- I just don't.) So that considerably cuts down the list of possible candidates for Speaker.
Jones, Smith, Fortenberry, LoBiondo, Reichert, Wolf, King, Campbell, Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen, Duncan, Dent, Petri, Upton, Frelinghuysen, Rohrabacher, Turner, Moore Capito, Thompson, Buchanan, Latham, Young, Miller. That's 23 names.
We can start sorting the list in a number of ways. (Again, I don't know which of these are complete sub-Boehner, sub-Cantor, sub-Ryan idiots; I hope that you'll tell me.) My initial take is that Jones and Smith are both too moderate to attract even 16 Republican votes. Rohrabacher is a blithering wacko rather than a "leader of men," as his lack of a Committee Chair suggests. So that's down to 20. I'm inclined to say that Upton and King are non-starters, but that may be because I know more about them than most others; we seriously could be looking at a Speaker as hideous as Peter King if he could deliver the votes we need to get basic sanity restored. (Yes, we'd have to restrain him when it came to Muslims. Yes, he'd be awful and embarrassing. So is Boehner; so would be Cantor or Ryan.) But I don't think we have to look at King.
I'm tempted to toss Vern Buchanan off of the heap as well, but he has both money and overweening ambition that could make him a likely target. (Yes, horrible, etc. It goes without saying.) I'm tempted to cross off John Campbell because he's a lazy idiot -- but for all I know most of the rest are too. I'd like your thoughts on them and the others.
What strikes me, though, is that there are at least two names of the list that might be masterstrokes -- people who are positioned so that they could survive a cries of apostasy and who might well want the benefits of showing that their willing to cooperate even with those awful Democrats if it means doing the right thing for the country.
Those names are Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Shelley Moore Capito. Yep -- both women.
Ros-Lehtinen is not going to get taken out in a primary and she's not going to lose a general election. If she's the least bit competent and bearable, having her as Speaker would be a masterstroke for Republicans -- imagine, having their party headed by a Latina! -- and as a Democrat I'd almost be afraid to propose it were it not for one thing: the wackos in her party will destroy her in short order. Still, what we'd like is someone who can claim to be speaking for moderates, reaching across the aisle to do what's best for the country, and who'd also be satisfied by being a pretty damn significant first, both as a Latino and as a female Republican.
I can imagine her being interested if Democrats tried to broker a deal with her -- and if Democrats nominated her I can imagine 16 Republicans choosing her as a better alternative to Boehner than, say, Cantor. And if she lost -- well, that works to the advantage of Democrats too. If she won, though, perhaps in many areas she'd be able and willing to push through widely approved proposals with lots of Democratic votes and a few Republican ones. We wouldn't get much of anything progressive out of her willingly, but as I recall she does know how to cut deals.
Moore Capito is a no-less interesting prospect. Right now, she seems likely to run for and win a Senate seat -- but Speaker of the House may be tempting enough, if it's within her grasp, to dissuade her. So that's good politics in one sense -- more likely to keep the Senate; but bad politics in that we could be "creating a monster" who will run for President one day. (Then again, maybe being Speaker brings with it too much dirt.) She's conservative enough that she might be able to swing more votes from more deeply within Republican ranks; as a popular Governor's daughter, also, she's more of a practiced politician than a dyed-in-the-wool ideologue. And if the Republicans do want her to run for Senate, they can't really excoriate her as much as they'd like.
I also do think that Young and Miller -- especially given that being Speaker might be the only way Miller could manage to stay in office in a Democratic district just waiting to toss him out -- are better possibilities than others I know on the list, at least unless Dave Reichert is a lot more popular with Congressional Republicans than I think he is.
So let's move on from Speaker candidates -- where do we get the 16 or so other votes?
The first group to mine is new Members who won by less than 9.5% (which rounds up to 10%.) These include:
New + Under 10% Margin
Rodney Davis IL-13 +.4% (ex-Tim Johnson)These people -- the crazy Bentivolio excepted -- may decide that they need to be seen as pressing for moderation if they want to keep their districts. Would a vote for one of the women I mention hurt them that badly in the nation's time of need? Maybe with the leadership, but not likely with their constituents. Of course, I know less about this group than any other.
Jackie Walorski IN-2 +1.4% (ex-Joe Donnelly)
Andy Barr KY-6 +4% (ex-Ben Chandler)
Kerry Bentivolio MI-11 +6 (ex-Thad McCotter)
Chris Collins NY-27 +1% (ex-Kathy Hochul)
Richard Hudson NC-8 8% (ex-Larry Kissell)
Robert Pittenger NC-9 6% (ex-Sue Myrick)
Keith Rothfus PA-12 +3% (ex-Mark Critz)
Randy Weber TX-14 +9% (ex-Ron Paul)
Under 50 Econ
Leonard Lance NJ-7 (2008) 57% [#191, 47 Econ]These two names both almost fit into the above groups, but they wouldn't be acting so much political need than because they'd favor not wrecking the economy. They're both too new to be Speaker candidates, but on paper they could be potential votes.
Scott Rigel VA-2 (2010) +8% [#183, 47 Econ]
Under 10% Margin
Jeff Denham CA-15 +8% [#71, 79 Econ]Less likely votes -- as you can tell from the presence of Michele Bachmann and Steve King on the list -- but still largely possible ones are those incumbents who won re-election by no more than 9.5%. Benishek in Michigan should be concerned -- just as Bachmann should be but won't be -- and might someone like Webster help to elect a fellow Floridian as Speaker?
Mike Coffman CO-6 +4% [#53, 73 Econ]
Steve Southerland FL-2 +5% [#40, 66 Econ]
Dan Webster FL-10 +4% [#59, 90 Econ]
Steve King IA-4 +9% [#74, 53 Econ]
Dan Benishek MI-1 +1% [#106, 82 Econ]
John Kline MN-2 +8% [#60, 90 Econ]
Michele Bachmann MN-6 +1% [#101, 50 Econ]
Lee Terry NE-2 +4% [#99, 83 Econ]
Bill Johnson OH-6 +7% [#45, 83 Econ]
Jim Renacci OH-16 +4% [#87, 83 Econ]
Is this possible? I don't know -- but it's worth trying. Nominating Nancy Pelosi as Speaker -- or any Democrat as speaker, even if it's Jim Matheson -- is a pretty sure loser. (And I'd rather have Moore Capito than Matheson anyway, just because I want Republicans to own the failures if they can't produce the votes.) Chances are that the Republicans turn us down. In that case, what we've shown is that we're so committed to getting the nation's house in order that we were even willing to nominate a member of the opposing party as our candidate for Speaker, just because we care that much about making government work. Is that such a bad conciliatory face to show to the public in a time when the talk is of fiscal cliffs and such? I say: give it a try! It's OK if we lose such a vote nobly -- and we'll somehow muddle through if we manage to win.