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Thursday, December 8, 2016

WASHINGTON — If you wonder why Congress is so feeble these days that it can’t even find a simple way to pass a transportation bill, look no further than Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who proffered a little resolution on Tuesday night to oust John Boehner from the speakership.

The move was quickly dismissed by Boehner loyalists as showboating by a second-term member, and Meadows himself said he might not even seek a vote on his own measure. His hope is to provoke a “family conversation” among Republicans. It’s a heck of a dysfunctional family. The GOP these days may have its advantages on the Lannisters of Game of Thrones fame, but it’s a very long way from the Brady Bunch.

Perhaps by crushing Meadows’ insurrection, which many of even the most rebellious right-wing Republicans thought was ill timed, Boehner will strengthen his hand. The more likely outcome is that this resolution to “vacate the chair” will once again remind Boehner of the nature of the party caucus over which he presides. I use “preside” rather than “lead” precisely because his difficulty in leading these folks is the heart of his problem.

The House GOP (and this applies more than it once did to Senate Republicans as well) includes a large and vocal minority always ready to go over a cliff and always ready to burn — fortunately, figuratively — heretical leaders and colleagues. More important, a significant group sympathizes with Boehner privately but is absolutely petrified that having his back when things get tough will conjure a challenge inside the party by conservative ultras whose supporters dominate its primary electorate in so many places.

This means that Republicans have to treat doing business with President Obama and the Democrats as something bordering on philosophical treason. Yes, on trade, where Obama’s position is relatively close to their own, they will help the president out. But it’s very hard to find many other issues of that sort. Politicians of nearly every kind used to agree that building roads, bridges, mass-transit projects, and airports was good for everybody. Now, even pouring concrete and laying track can be disrupted by weird ideological struggles.

The text of Meadows’ anti-Boehner resolution is revealing. He complains that the Speaker has “caused the power of Congress to atrophy, thereby making Congress subservient to the Executive and Judicial branches, diminishing the voice of the American people.” Actually, Congress has done a bang-up job of blocking Obama’s agenda since Republicans won control of the House in 2010. How, short of impeachment, is it supposed to do more to foil the man in the White House?

Meadows also hits Boehner for “intentionally” seeking voice votes (as opposed to roll calls) on “consequential and controversial legislation to be taken without notice and with few Members present.” He has a point. But since so many Republicans are often too timid to go on the record for the votes required to keep government moving — they don’t want to be punished by Meadows’ ideological friends — Boehner does what he has to do.

On the other hand, Meadows’ charge that Boehner is “bypassing the majority of the 435 Members of Congress and the people they represent” is absolutely true.

But the logic of this legitimate protest is that Boehner should allow many more votes on the floor in which a minority of Republicans could join with a majority of Democrats to pass legislation, thereby reflecting the actual will of the entire House. If Boehner had done this with immigration reform, it would now be a reality. Boehner didn’t do it precisely because he worried about what Republicans of Meadows’ stripe would do to him.

Meadows’ move bodes ill for the compromising that will be required this fall to avoid new crises on the debt ceiling and the budget. Republicans already faced difficulties on this front before the “vacate the chair” warning shot, as Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent noted on Wednesday.

And Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) another Boehner critic, reacted to the resolution by invoking the Lord Voldemort all Republicans fear. Jones expressed the hope that “the talk-show hosts who are so frustrated would pick up on this thing and beat the drum.” It’s enough to ruin a speaker’s summer.

Republicans are talking a good deal about the threat to their brand posed by Donald Trump’s unplugged, unrestrained appeal to the party’s untamed side. The bigger danger comes from a Republican Congress that is having a lot of trouble getting that governing thing down.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 17, 2014 (AFP Photo/Jim Watson)