According to a recent article at Breitbart.com, some dissatisfied Republican members of the House of Representatives are circulating a plan to oust John Boehner as Speaker of the House at the opening of the new Congress next month. This plan strikes me as misguided (to put it mildly), for two reasons.
First, by their own admission, these plotters have no specific person in mind who would succeed Boehner as Speaker. They express confidence that the Republican caucus would not fracture in such a way the Nancy Pelosi could become Speaker, but beyond that they simply do not claim to know exactly what would happen. Their hope is that if Boehner could not prevail on the first ballot, then some credible figure or figures would come forward who might be able to beat him on some subsequent ballot.
This seems like a foolhardy undertaking. Unless you have some good idea who the new Speaker would be, you can’t claim that it is a smart and prudent move to unseat the present Speaker. The job is not an easy one, and I doubt that it is the case that just any member of the Republican caucus could do it satisfactorily. The people secretly circulating this plan are unhappy with Boehner, but they can’t give any reasonable assurance that his successor would be any better.
Moreover, even if you could guarantee that the new Speaker would be better than Boehner, this does not mean that the overall situation would be better. One of the costs of installing a new Speaker over the objections of a current Speaker who wants the job and will fight for it is, obviously, a lot of bad feelings among the members of the Caucus. To be successful, the House Republicans need to operate as a team, but a fight over the speakership is not exactly a constructive team-building exercise. Even if you could replace Boehner with someone you thought a better man for the job, the process of replacing him might end up creating a poisoned environment in which the new and supposedly better man could not actually function better in the position. These are the kinds of considerations that conservatives are supposed to be aware of.
Second, the plan as described by those promoting it involves electing the Speaker by a secret ballot. Current practice has the Speaker being elected by an open roll call vote, so the first step in removing Boehner is to pass a resolution at the opening of the new Congress requiring a secret ballot. This, the proponents say, is essential to the success of the enterprise, since hardly any Republican member of the House would have the courage to vote openly against the sitting speaker.
What is wrong with this proposal? Let’s leave aside the rather obvious consideration: if hardly anybody wants to go on record publicly as wanting Boehner gone, then it is not very likely that he is really as bad as his critics say. Beyond that, however, a secret ballot for the Speakership is not a good idea. Those promoting it suggest that Boehner and his allies could ill-afford to oppose it, since Boehner himself publicly opposed the “card-check” system for voting on whether to unionize a company. Instead, Boehner insisted that elections over unionization should be done by secret ballot, so as to prevent intimidation of workers. This is a weak argument, however, because a vote on whether to unionize is different from a vote for the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
In a unionization election, workers are deciding directly whether to unionize. In the contest for the Speakership, our own representatives are casting a vote for which their constituents have every right to hold them responsible. Choosing the speaker is one of the most important votes a member can make, and it makes no sense for it to be secret, since that secrecy would make it impossible for voters to judge their representatives’ behavior on this most important issue — just as it would make no sense for votes on important pieces of legislation to be done by secret ballot. I for one want to know whether my representative voted for Boehner or Pelosi or somebody else for Speaker.
If we return to the union analogy we can see where it goes wrong — or see that it is not truly analogous. The true union analogy to electing a Speaker would be choosing, say, a union president by indirect election. Suppose the rank-and-file union members elect a board of directors who in turn elect the union president. Hardly anyone, I suspect, would think it appropriate for the directors’ vote for president to be secret, since the directors are supposed to be representatives of the union members, who have a right to examine their representatives official actions.