In most Western democracies, the post of speaker is not considered to be a partisan post. Instead, the role of speaker is to be a fair and neutral chair. When a speaker retires, there are typically several candidates from all parties — experienced legislators who typically have served as deputy speakers or chairs of committees from outside the leadership of the parties. Choosing the new speaker is one of the few votes that does not follow party lines. In the U.S., however, the Speaker is expected to be a very unfair and partisan chair — the effective leader of his party in the House of Representatives. As a result, the internal divisions in the Republican Party have risen to the surface, making it difficult to choose a new speaker.
As has been discussed over the years in this blog. The Republican Party has some significant and fundamental divisions. On the one side, you have a dwindling number of moderate, so-called “Country Club” Republicans. While wanting a smaller government and lower taxes than Democrats, these Republicans have always seen the importance of good roads, a solid public education system, and an adequate safety nest. They are less concerned about social issues, except for desiring minimal disruption from social disorder.
Then you have “Wall Street” Republicans. This group wants low taxes with tax incentives for businesses. Again, social issues are less important.
Then you have, the neo-conservatives. Domestic issues are less important. What matters most is an aggressive foreign policy supported by adequate military expenditures.
Then you have the budget hawks. This group is willing to accept slightly higher taxes and slightly lower spending on the military in order to reduce the deficit.
These four groups can, for the most part, negotiate with each other and work out their differences within the caucus, and then support that decision on the floor of the legislature. In fact, most of the people in these groups are a mix of several of these groups. They are essentially, the Republican establishment. Likewise, they have different preferences as their first pick in any presidential race, but they quickly unite behind a leading candidate.
The problem is the other groups — the outsiders — Christian “Conservatives,” Libertarians, “Tea Party” members. Christian Conservatives actually do not mind a big, powerful government as long as that big powerful government is preserving the moral values that Christian Conservatives hold dear. Libertarians, on the other hand, want as small a government as possible — minimal national defense, minimal government regulations, etc. It’s hard defining what unifies the Tea Party beyond a distrust of the establishment. They don’t think that the establishment is fighting hard enough to preserve their vision of what the U.S. should be (admittedly, a mostly white, very socially conservative of the U.S. with minimal immigration).
In most countries, these disagreements would potentially give rise to splinter parties. The political name brand is always a disincentive to one faction deciding to go it alone. In the U.S., there is the additional difficult of gaining a ballot slot.
On the other hand, in most countries, these disagreements would still be fought out inside the caucus. Failing to support the party position on the floor would lead to a new election, and those legislators who were disloyal to the leadership would find that the party would not nominate them for a new term. In the U.S., however, it is local primaries that choose the candidates, and the primary electorate in many places is more sympathetic to the Tea Party than the party leadership. Furthermore, even if the Republicans can’t elect a new speaker, that failure will not force new elections. It will just delay John Boehner’s retirement. (Whether there is a white knight candidate — e.g., Paul Ryan — who can unite enough Republicans to get to 218 votes is still unknown.)
The division in the House, where 40 Tea Party members can prevent the other 207 members from electing a speaker (unless some coalition is worked out with moderate Democrats for some changes in the operation of the House), however, is also present in the presidential race. The same voters who give the Tea Party leverage in primaries for the House may also determine the Republican Presidential nominee. Currently, the “outsider” candidates are getting approximately 50 percent of the vote in early polling. That may change as voters actually have to make decisions, but the distaste for proven candidates who are part of the traditional Republican Party is going to be a significant factor.
Putting aside what it means for the internal politics of the Republican Party, there is a lot that the House has on its plate — both in the next several months and the rest of this Congress. Appropriation bills need to be passed; the debt ceiling needs to be raised; and Congress needs to actually act on significant issues (although this Congress seems unlikely to do anything positive on those issues). Whether the divisions in the Republican Party makes it more likely that the current leadership will continue to rely on Democratic votes to pass the most essential bills or will lead to even more temporary bills punting the ball down the road until the Republicans can pick a new speaker is unknown. Whether the public airing of the problems in the Republican Party (and the inability of the Republican Party to govern) will lead to some swing seats in the House and Senate going Democratic in 2016 is still to be seen (especially given the short attention span of modern politics).