House Speaker John Boehner's surprise announcement today that he would resign was a direct result of the House Republican caucus' internal dispute over Planned Parenthood funding and a possible shutdown of the federal government, but it was also the straw the broke the back of his fractious four years as speaker. His decision only underscores how ungovernable the highly polarized GOP majority has made the House in recent years.
It seems likely that Mr. Boehner's decision will strengthen his hand in the short term and allow the House to eventually approve a so-called "clean" continuing resolution and avoid a shutdown. After all, even the most hardened tea party obstructionists and Ted Cruz disciples can now brag that they bagged a speaker, something many had been threatening to do. And wasn't that the point of the Planned Parenthood hysteria anyway — to demonstrate to the folks back home that they were fully committed to their cause no matter how much it cost taxpayers or the party's image in the eyes of centrist and independent voters?
Make no mistake, Speaker Boehner was nobody's liberal. But he was rational — a "regular guy" as he explained at a news conference in an extraordinary job who wanted to avoid the turmoil of an internecine leadership fight . Like most people who ascend to positions of leadership in Congress, he is a believer in the legislative process who sought to keep his party in the majority. That made him a reluctant ringleader for the more recent arrivals in his chamber who were far more willing to set their hair on fire to get attention, the consequences of such anarchy be damned.
Like the Obamacare shutdown battle royale of 2013, the dispute over defunding Planned Parenthood is about as fatuous an undertaking as one can imagine. Republicans don't have the votes to defund Planned Parenthood. That much was made clear last week when the Senate easily resisted a budget resolution with a defunding provision on a 47-52 vote. And even if a defunding bill somehow winds up on President Barack Obama's desk (attached to a continuing resolution or as a stand-alone bill), he's promised to veto it. So what does any of this accomplish aside from wasting an enormous amount of taxpayer dollars?
A government shutdown could potentially cost billions in lost productivity and have consequences for a variety of private sector employers that depend on government (the travel industry alone could lose $185 million a day, according to the U.S. Travel Association). One analysis of the 2013 shutdown estimated that it shortchanged the nation about 120,000 jobs. Even denying Planned Parenthood is costly because it would shutter clinics that provide a variety of health benefits including birth control. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently estimated the cost to taxpayers of defunding at $650 million over the next decade, chiefly because of a rise in unplanned births and all the social ills (and Medicaid costs) that stem from those.
And that doesn't even touch on the colossal folly of it all, stemming as it does from a kangaroo court prosecution of Planned Parenthood based on heavily-edited videos, the worst of which prove only that members of that organization are capable of talking clinically and insensitively about a medical procedure. The rest of the footage reveals only that the organization charged a fee for fetal tissue samples — and at an amount experts say is provided for under law — that were used for medical research. The use of human tissue for research is no more a crime than medical school cadavers are an example of grave-robbing.
Here's what the whole debacle really comes down to: an inability to act rationally. Whatever good will Pope Francis sought to bring to the chambers on Thursday, his call for unity fell on deaf ears. Tea party Republicans are merely playing to the polls — like the recent Fox News public opinion survey that found that 62 percent of GOP primary voters felt "betrayed" by politicians in their party — with many calculating that the benefit to their political careers of a truly futile gesture like a government shutdown outweighs the cost to taxpayers.
How could Mr. Boehner resign in the face of this familiar standoff? The better question is how could he not? Sadly, his departure doesn't really solve anything and the House may be back in a similar standoff in a matter of weeks. At least the choice seemed to please the 65-year-old departing speaker, who gave one more reprise of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" to reporters today . One can only imagine that for him, leading the House has been a bit like continuously hitting himself in the head with a hammer — it doesn't do anyone much good but it sure feels great when it stops.