John Boehner is a decent, honorable man who displayed his deep commitment to country and party last week, announcing that he will resign from the House of Representatives in October and relinquish the speaker’s gavel.
Mr. Boehner would have easily beaten any challenge to his leadership. But having decided some time ago that a quarter-century in Congress was enough, he chose to spare his Republican colleagues and the institution he loves a bruising fight.
As Republicans’ leader in the House, Mr. Boehner’s record has been impressive. He marshaled united GOP opposition to President Barack Obama’s stimulus and to ObamaCare. He led the GOP House in forcing Mr. Obama in 2011 to agree to spending caps that slashed $2.1 trillion from federal outlays over a decade. This reduced the federal government’s share of the economy from 24% of GDP to 21%—a figure only slightly above its post-World War II average.
When Mr. Obama planned to dramatically increase income and other taxes at the beginning of 2013, Mr. Boehner forced him to keep President George W. Bush’s tax cuts intact for 99% of Americans. All this did far more to shrink Washington than the government shutdown pushed by the speaker’s intraparty critics.
The straight-talking, chain-smoking Ohioan was also the architect of this year’s entitlement reforms. Each year for nearly the past 20, Congress spent time crafting a short-term “doc fix” to stave off mandated cuts in Medicare payments to doctors. Mr. Boehner engineered a permanent solution to the problem and, in the process, passed the first significant reforms in entitlement spending in a decade.
Since his first days in Congress, Mr. Boehner has opposed earmarks as wasteful and corrupting, and he ended their use when he became speaker. A tireless advocate of increasing American exports, he led the House this year in passing trade-promotion authority, which will give the next Republican president a valuable tool to knock down barriers to the sale of U.S. goods and services abroad.
Mr. Boehner has also been a passionate advocate for life. This year he expanded the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortions, to cover community health centers that receive money from Washington. In 2011 he forced Mr. Obama to accept the reinstatement of the ban on using federal dollars for abortions in the District of Columbia.
But Mr. Boehner’s greatest institutional achievement may be the return to regular order in the House. Recent speakers of both parties had centralized power in a handful of legislative leaders. Now bills make their way through subcommittees and committees. Lawmakers work more hours and more days and cast more votes. No longer are 2,000-page behemoths drafted in secret. No longer is the theory, in the immortal words of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “we have to pass the bill so you can find what is in it.”
Coupled with Mr. Boehner’s refusal to use earmarks as carrots was his recognition that the Republican conference sometimes had to be allowed to take a course that he personally thought was destructive, as with the 2013 shutdown. This probably limited how long Mr. Boehner could expect to serve as speaker.
But his successor—and future speakers from both parties—will, at least for some time, be forced by his example to run the House as the Founders intended: from the bottom up, with legislation emerging from the committees, rather than being written and handed down by the speaker’s staff.
No congressional Republican worked harder than John Boehner to create the GOP House majority in 2010 and to maintain it. An indefatigable fundraiser, he spent 220 nights last year on the road, raising money and helping his Republican colleagues win election.
Now that Mr. Boehner is departing, his critics—mostly in the House’s Freedom Caucus—will celebrate. But they cannot shirk, as many of them have in the past, their own responsibility for keeping the GOP in the majority.
Though the Freedom Caucus includes 15% of House Republicans, they represent 36% of the GOP congressmen who have contributed zero dollars to their party’s campaign committee. More than half of Mr. Boehner’s Freedom Caucus critics have fattened their own war chests while doing zip for the GOP’s common cause.
John Boehner is a quiet leader from America’s heartland who got important things done. He can leave the House content that he gave his all and did the right thing—for conservatism, his party and, most important, his country.
A version of this article appeared October 1, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Boehner's Conservative Legacy and online at WSJ.com.