Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Failing Arithmetic -- and Civics

In explaining his decision to resign, Speaker of the House John Boehner said that "the first job of any Speaker is to protect this institution that we all love." And since a group of hard-core conservatives were intent on deposing him, he added, a period of "prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution."

Boehner's statement highlights a critical point that demands more attention: Members of the "Hell-No Caucus" that forced his departure do not understand or respect the institution in which they serve.

The Hell-Noers generally represent safe, gerrymandered districts, and face no risk from a Democratic opponent. Their only real fear is a primary challenge from the right. (Boehner specifically said he didn't want his supporters to "walk the plank" and provoke such a challenge by voting for him again.)

As a result, the Hell-Noers are encouraged to come to Washington and proclaim: "I have my principles, and I cannot bend them." But there are 434 other members of the House who also have principles. And they represent a vast country containing wide differences in ethnicity, economics, geography, demography and ideology.

The only way Congress can function, the only way those differences can be reconciled, is through compromise and accommodation. That's the lubricant that makes the machinery of democracy run smoothly.

But if one group refuses to honor that tradition, if it insists on ideological purity, if it equates compromise with betrayal, then the machinery breaks down. And "irreparable damage" results.

Here are the facts: Democrats hold 46 seats in the Senate, and it takes only 41 to sustain a filibuster. And if our Democratic president vetoes something, it takes only 34 senators to uphold that veto.

This means no policy proposals -- none, nada, bupkis -- advanced by the Hell-Noers can ever succeed. Unless they respect the institution of Congress and master its mechanisms, they can only make speeches, not laws. They are sails with no boat.

Instead of telling this truth to their followers, however, the Hell-Noers lie. We won, they say, so we get to enact our stridently conservative program.

As Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a card-carrying Hell-Noer from South Carolina, said on Fox: "We told people, 'Give us the Senate and things would be different.' We told them back in 2010, 'Give us the House and things would be different.' Things are not that different."

No, they're not. Because that's not how the system works. That's why Boehner, a professional legislator, said on CBS that rivals like Mulvaney are "false prophets" with a completely "unrealistic" view of the legislative process.

Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, a Boehner ally, chimed in: "The charlatans who try to tell our Republican base that it's easy and we can do all these things when we don't have a (Republican) president and we don't have a veto-proof majority in the House or Senate ... they're just delusional. It's just not realistic."

Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, was even blunter, calling Boehner's ouster "a victory for the crazies."

But the issue here is far deeper than the current balance of power, bigger than "false prophets" misleading their followers. The issue is about the basic nature of American democracy.

The Founding Fathers were very concerned about the danger of "factions," defined by James Madison in the Federalist Papers as "a number of citizens ... who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

That's a pretty good description of the Hell-Noers, and the Founders created a whole series of checks and balances designed to mitigate the impact of factions: two legislative chambers, each with a different constituency; a president with veto power; a Supreme Court authorized to overrule unconstitutional legislation.

As Boehner said on CBS: "Our founders didn't want some parliamentary system where, if you won the majority, you got to do whatever you wanted. They wanted this long, slow process."

The Hell-Noers are not only "charlatans" and "false prophets" but hypocrites, since they've used this "long, slow process" at times to push their own agenda: for example, by burying a bipartisan Senate bill providing a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants. Senate Republicans are using those same procedural roadblocks today to block many of President Obama's judicial appointments.

So yes, the Hell-Noers would fail grade-school arithmetic since they obviously cannot count. But they would also fail civics, because they don't understand how American democracy really should work.

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