Former House Speaker John Boehner doesn’t seem angry with the Republican conference that sent him packing in 2015. But you couldn’t blame Boehner if he felt just a little annoyed with the bunch, especially the loudest among them, whom he called “knuckleheads.”
Despite the moans and groans about Boehner’s leadership from his own caucus, his strongest legacy for the Republicans in the 114th Congress will likely be their own glide paths to reelection.
So far in 2016, not one incumbent Republican has lost a primary in a year that will be remembered for millions of angry voters going to the polls demanding change. This week’s Georgia primaries were only the latest to see incumbents cruise past challengers in conservative districts to what should be easy November wins.
If they’re all looking for someone to thank, they should thank Boehner for generous donations to their campaigns, short Washington work weeks and his almost maniacal effort to keep controversial votes off the floor and his own members out of the headlines. Many of them didn’t like the way he did it, but all of them are reaping the rewards.
The first thing any incumbent will tell you they need in order to fend off challengers is money to scare off upstarts, and Boehner gave his people a lot of it. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Boehner raised nearly $100 million over the course of his career and gave most of it away to other Republicans. In 2014, he was the single largest donor to the National Republican Congressional Committee that got the 114th class elected.
Even the members who gave Boehner the biggest headaches in 2015 took his money for their re-elections the year before. Of the 25 lawmakers who voted against the Ohio Republican for speaker in 2015, the CRP found that 19 of them took money from his Freedom Project leadership PAC, including Florida Rep. Daniel Webster, who ra
n against Boehner for speaker.
For the 2016 cycle, Boehner’s PAC has already given to 81 House incumbents, the Republican National Committee, the NRCC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, according to Federal Election Commission filings, and will likely give away more.
With money in the bank, the next thing incumbents want is time to campaign. The Boehner era gave them a steady stream of three-day work weeks that allowed for more time at home with constituents. In 2014,
the House had 113 works days scheduled
for the year even before Boehner canceled the last week of session to let members get home to campaign.
Democrats howled about the vacation time, but Republicans reaped the benefit. The 2014 midterm elections gave Republicans their largest majority since the Great Depression. The
incoming freshmen had a light workload
in 2015, with 132 days in session and no five-day work weeks.
When Congress was in session, Boehner typically gave his members the path of least resistance, with as few controversial votes as possible. If it looked like a bill wouldn’t pass, he often pulled it off the floor.
Even getting a vote usually required a majority of the majority, a strategy designed to keep legislation in line with what conservatives would support and that had the added benefit of saving incumbents the effort of explaining a vote that could be unpopular back home.
A rare exception to following the so called Hastert rule — which somebody should probably rename — was the 2015 debt ceiling deal that Boehner negotiated with the White House in one of his last acts as speaker. With Paul Ryan already selected as his successor, Boehner pushed for
a two-year deal
to keep the issue and, worse, a possible government shutdown from coming up again before the 2016 elections.
Ironically, the most explaining that many incumbents have had to do in their 2016 primaries has been why they voted for John Boehner for speaker. But by leaving before the next Congress, he’s taken even that issue off the table for incumbents, too.
Boehner’s approach didn’t always yield great legislative achievements — the 113th Congress bottled up all kinds of bills and produced the fewest pieces of enacted legislation of any Congress in 60 years. But it did help Boehner’s members keep their seats to live to fight another day.
In the next few months, some Republicans will lose their primaries when redistricting in states like Florida puts two House Republicans in a race against each other. And more House Republicans in swing districts are in danger of losing with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. But Boehner did his part to get House Republicans this far, and there’s only so much a man can do from the 19th hole of his time as speaker.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.