Politics & Policy

John Boehner Is Not a Man to Be Crossed

(Mark Wilson/Getty)
Voting against the speaker's reelection may have cost one Iowa Republican his seat.

John Boehner has found ways to punish the fractious conservatives who have formed into a thorn in his side since attempting a coup at the beginning of the year.

Through means both petty and significant, Boehner has made his displeasure felt while trying to lead the broader conference in a series of high-profile legislative fights. A number of rebel backbenchers have had their overseas travel curtailed and their committee posts threatened or even taken away. But the treatment of one lawmaker in particular stands out: Colleagues worry that a vulnerable Iowa freshman who crossed the three-term House speaker may receive the political equivalent of the death penalty.

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Of the 25 Republicans who opposed Boehner’s reelection as speaker, leadership was particularly galled by Representative Rod Blum, whom Boehner had stumped for in the homestretch of his bid to replace Democrat Bruce Braley in Iowa’s first district just months earlier. “I was elected by Iowans to stand up to the status quo in Washington, DC, and I refuse to turn my back on them with my first vote,” Blum said in a statement after breaking with Boehner.

A month later, the National Republican Congressional Committee named twelve lawmakers who would receive support through its Patriot Program, a funding initiative dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable House members. Blum was not on the list, and he wasn’t among the eight Republicans chosen when the second round of program funding was announced in May, either.

‘There’s lots of ways you can punish a guy, but to flush him down the toilet?’ says one incredulous House Republican who voted for Boehner. ‘They’re making an example of him.’

Boehner warned the malefactors that he doesn’t “reward bad behavior,” but Blum’s exclusion from the Patriot program startles some lawmakers nevertheless. “There’s lots of ways you can punish a guy, but to flush him down the toilet?” says one incredulous House Republican who voted for Boehner. “They’re making an example of him.”

Blum’s absence from the NRCC program seems especially glaring given what lawmakers know of the criteria that usually determine who qualifies for the funding. Party operatives lean heavily on the Cook Political Report’s assessment of congressional races when disbursing the money. In general, the first round of funding prioritizes lawmakers who represent Democratic-leaning districts, according to a House member familiar with the process. Lawmakers who represent districts in which Republicans have less than a four-point edge in voter registration have a strong chance of qualifying for the second round. Blum is the only Republican in a seat rated by the Cook Political Report as “toss up” who is not receiving Patriot funding, having been passed over in favor of lawmakers representing districts that are both more and less likely to vote for Republicans than his own.

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Another congressman who backed Boehner agrees that GOP leadership would sacrifice a seat in order to enforce party unity. “They don’t need the seat to maintain the majority,” he says.

Blum adopts a cautiously optimistic tone when discussing the matter. “I’ve always believed that when one door closes another one opens,” he told Roll Call. “There’s been other groups out there that are interested in a career businessman who represents a Democrat district who won and who’s principled and they’re very interested in what I’ve done so far.”

An NRCC aide warns against reading too much into the Patriot Program roster. “There are multiple rounds of our Patriot program, so just because you’re not on the first or second [round] doesn’t mean you’re not included,” says the aide. “I also think you need to keep in mind the fact that [Blum]’s a self-funder. That also plays into the equation.” For instance, Representative Tom Macarthur (R., N.J.) loaned his campaign $5 million to win a seat in which Republicans have just a one-percent edge over Democrats in voter registration. He is not in the Patriot Program. (Blum sympathizers note that another self-funder, Representative Bruce Poliquin of Maine, was included in the first round.)

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Blum’s vote against Boehner also undermined his bid to win a Financial Services Committee slot that came open when a member of that panel gave up the post in order to replace resigning Representative Aaron Schock (R., Ill.) on the Ways and Means Committee in April. Though Blum’s background would seem to make him a strong candidate for Financial Services — a successful businessman with a degree in finance, he was appointed to the board of a bank in 2010 — his bid for the position was not taken seriously by the House Steering Committee members who made the decision. “They were laughing at him,” says one lawmaker familiar with the process.

A GOP leadership aide downplayed the idea that Blum had been denied the spot as retribution for the speaker’s vote. “The competition for [top-tier] committee slots is intense, and there are always capable, experienced candidates ready to fill those roles,” the aide says.

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And yet, the aide acknowledges that leadership has punished other lawmakers who voted against Boehner, denying Representative Steve King (R., Iowa) and Representative Louie Gohmert (R., Texas) the resources to travel overseas on government business, for example. “Taxpayer-funded travel is a privilege and not a right,” the aide says. “And frankly, a large majority of our members would excoriate leadership if we rewarded members who don’t want to be part of the team.”

Blum hasn’t helped his own cause since January. Last week, he joined House Freedom Caucus chairman Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) and other Republicans in voting to kill a trade bill favored by Boehner on a procedural vote. “If you don’t want to be part of the team, get out right now!” the impassioned speaker said at an NRCC conference meeting on Tuesday, according to a lawmaker who attended. A Boehner aide denies that he said “get out,” saying he simply questioned those who voted no, and asked whether they wanted to be part of the team. 

Some Republicans wonder if Boehner has already kicked Blum off the GOP team.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.

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