Last week's drama in the House of Representatives, when Speaker John A. Boehner needed Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to rescue him from his own rebellious party, looked like a messy disaster for Republicans. But it could have been worse.
If the House GOP had forced a shutdown of the Homeland Security Department, as conservatives had threatened, it could have been a genuine debacle for a party trying to show it can govern: Transportation Security Administration and Border Patrol agents forced to work without pay, offices shuttered and more. Instead, Boehner's quiet capitulation to reality was mostly just humiliating.
And it suggests that Boehner has begun to master an unexpected challenge: the art of leading a minority government.
Minority? On paper, Republicans hold an impressive majority in the House of Representatives, with 245 seats to the Democrats' 188. But the GOP conference has been chronically, even theatrically divided. Hard-line conservatives — we once called them the tea party caucus, but they've rebranded themselves the Freedom Caucus — won't swallow the compromises needed to keep the government running. So if Boehner wants to avoid a shutdown, he sometimes needs to cobble together a temporary majority of pragmatic Republicans and Pelosi's opposition Democrats.
That's what happened last week. Initially, Boehner had vowed to fight "tooth and nail" against President Obama's decision to exempt from deportation as many as 5 million immigrants in the country illegally. But when conservatives tried to do that by holding up funding for Homeland Security, it quickly became clear that they had painted themselves into a corner. They could actually shut down Homeland Security or cave.
So, naturally, they divided. About two-thirds, led by the Freedom Caucus, voted defiantly for a shutdown. The rest, led by Boehner, voted to surrender. The non-Freedom Republicans (ouch!) were joined by Pelosi and her Democrats, who voted gleefully for a bill that left Obama's immigration decision intact.
"This decision, considering where we are, is the right one for this team, and the right one for this country," Boehner glumly told his colleagues.
In 2012, political scholars Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann wrote that Congress had acquired some of the worst features of the British parliamentary system: "ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional parties." But in the U.S. system, separation of powers between Congress and the White House "makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will," they noted.
Since then, the problem has only gotten worse.
Some have suggested that Boehner is effectively running a coalition government of red and blue pragmatists. But that's not quite right. Instead, in parliamentary terms, it's more like a minority government.
Instead of two parties, there are three: the Freedom Caucus, the Boehner Republicans and the Democrats. To win on any issue, the speaker needs two of those factions. Most of the time, he still depends on the two wings of his own GOP conference. (That's how he won reelection in January, despite 25 Republican dissenters.) But in a pinch, he can strike a temporary alliance with Pelosi.
If we really had a parliamentary system, one of three things might have happened last week: Boehner would have called new elections. (Not available in our system.) Or his party would have ousted him and installed a leader who could hold Republicans together. (There's no such person.) Or the Republicans could split into two mini-parties, as happens in countries like Israel.
That's not going to happen because the two-party system is so deeply rooted . But as a practical matter, it's already occurred.
Boehner is likely to get a lot more practice in running a minority government because the House faces a long list of divisive votes.
First, there's the budget, which Congress is supposed to pass by April 15. That doesn't risk shutting down the government, so Boehner can give the Freedom Caucus free rein. But it's hard to imagine how the conservative House and the more pragmatic Senate GOP are going to agree.
Then there's Obamacare. If the Supreme Court strikes it down, Congress will have to deal with the chaos that ensues.
And in the fall, government spending bills and the federal debt ceiling come up for votes. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has already promised that there won't be another government shutdown. But that's a recipe for another Freedom Caucus revolt — and another last-minute deal between Boehner and Pelosi.
It's a system that works, more or less — just as long as the speaker doesn't mind looking foolish now and again. Still, it means Republicans are avoiding disasters rather than passing legislation and showing they deserve to win the White House.
"People expect Republicans in Congress to focus their efforts on proposing and passing policies to improve the economy," Boehner's pollster, David Winston, wrote in an internal GOP memo after the 2014 election. "They didn't vote for Republicans simply to be a check and balance on President Obama."
So far the party has accomplished neither.