Leading from behind is also a useful strategy when you have no others. Boehner has few options in the House. If he pushes conservatives too hard to a specific outcome, they will not go. Ultimately, a House speaker’s strength comes from the size and unity of his majority. Boehner’s majority is not unified. He’s not the first speaker to face this problem. As Molly Ball points out in the Atlantic, Speaker Tip O’Neill was equally constrained by Democratic conservatives in his caucus who wanted to vote with President Reagan. O’Neill had to stomach a lot of votes with which he personally disagreed. But he played a long game, waiting for Reagan to overplay his hand so that he could win new members in the 1982 election that expanded his liberal coalition. When that came to pass, O’Neill could orchestrate a far more left-leaning budget in 1983.
Speakers have found ways to force unity, but Boehner has fewer tools than his predecessors. He still retains the office’s big powers — the ability to dictate what legislation makes it to the floor and committee assignments — but he has fewer day-to-day tricks to get the job done. When Sam Rayburn was speaker, he kept the legislation coming up for a vote secret to keep as many members in the dark as possible; their ignorance helped him push through bills.
Previous speakers could also make it easier or harder for members to bring pork home to their districts. Earmarks are essentially gone now, which means Boehner and his team have far fewer inducements to woo members to his side. The hardcore conservatives who give Boehner heartburn are also not rewarded by their constituents for bringing home goodies. Committee assignments don’t mean as much as they once did because members can build their own brand and power base in the media.
Members are highly suspicious now of the back-room deal, so the speaker has to appear more hands off than ever. That’s why Boehner talks so much about letting the House “work its will.” This serves two purposes. It allows members time to have their say, which makes them feel good and allows them to show their constituents how hard they are fighting for them. It also allows constituencies to get to them and make their case directly. So while talk radio hosts are railing against amnesty in the comprehensive immigration bill, local farmers, faith leaders, and high-tech CEOs can perhaps help these members get to yes.
If in the end if comprehensive immigration skeptics fall in line, they don’t feel like they’ve been jammed into it. They also aren’t likely to be accused of being railroaded by a rigged process if they can show their constituents that the game was played fairly. This was something Rayburn understood as he tried to balance a split between Southern and Northern factions of his party. “You cannot be a leader, and ask other people to follow you, unless you know how to follow, too,” said Rayburn.
So far, momentum has been useless when it comes to passing immigration reform. The initial burst of momentum gained by the GOP’s postelection panic over losing Hispanic voters has not changed the minds of enough conservatives. Senate passage of a comprehensive bill did not change minds in the House either. If Boehner permits a free-flowing process that moves the House in the direction he wants, that creates actual useful momentum for him. What does he want? His biggest goal is an outcome that allows him to put the immigration issue behind him.