Worst in Governance: John Boehner

by Jeremy Loudenback

January 2015 Worst in Governance

That the United States is increasingly riven by strong partisan divisions is not exactly news in 2015. But the recent controversy around House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress establishes sets a dangerous precedent of disrupting the protocols that undergird the governance process.

Boehner’s announcement of Netanyahu’s speech the day after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address seemed to signal the Republican majority’s opposition to the administration’s on-going negotiations with Iran for a nuclear agreement, a process that the hawkish Israeli leader has often disparaged. But Boehner’s arrangement, conducted in secrecy over the course of several weeks, was orchestrated without the prior knowledge of the White House, leading to a still-escalating war of words between Obama and Netanyahu. Boehner’s gesture seems to suggest that his party sided with a foreign leader over its own president, a significant and dangerous departure from the way the country has handled foreign relations even if the speech ultimately remains more symbolic than substantive.

And the timing of Netanyahu’s invitation to interface with the U.S. government in an official capacity is also irregular given politics in the prime minister’s own country. The defiant Netanyahu faces a domestic election on March 17, two weeks after the March 3 address. As Obama noted earlier this week, not even the equanimous Angela Merkel would be permitted to appear in the U.S. so close to an election lest the U.S. be perceived as influencing the outcome.

Protocols are small matters that are often hard to decipher outside of the byzantine and mannered world of Beltway politics. But Boehner’s cynical ploy to galvanize Republican opposition to President Obama on a new political front disregards the sometimes-meaningful role of decorum and form in the political process. Protocols often help to advance the negotiation process, build opportunities for reciprocity, and help channel interactions as part of a diplomatic process.

However, as Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy observed in deciding to skip the speech, Boehner’s invitation has set a poor precedent that could serve to weaken national interests. The opposition to Netanyahu’s speech continues to grow from both Democrats as well as Israeli supporters who see a dangerous precedent in making support for Israel a one-party affair. Whether entirely deliberate or not, a seemingly small breach of protocol has hijacked any hope of meaningful foreign policy debate for the near future.