House Republicans: Living in Spin

by John Lawrence

A largely overlooked decision last March by House Speaker John Boehner provided incontrovertible proof – if anyone needed it – that Republicans are more interested in creating chaos and controversy than addressing (or even acknowledging) substantive issues.

Beset by worries about the unresolved budget conference, a looming confrontation with President Obama over the debt ceiling, booming entitlement spending, continued need for job creation, deteriorating infrastructure, an inequitable and capricious tax system, arbitrary cuts in critical areas like education, health and law enforcement due to sequestration, Boehner decided the time was right for a major new leadership hire: a top investigator to coordinate the investigations into the “scandals” afflicting the Obama Administration.

Leave aside the likelihood that when all is said and done, none of the so-called “scandals” will amount to more than bad judgment, and likely not even that.  But one would think, what with Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa and numerous other Republicans convening hearings like the Energizer bunny, that Republican sleuths were well deployed already to ferret out the misbehaviors of the Obama Administration, and at considerable cost to taxpayers.  There has even been talk of creating a Select Committee to inflate the severity of the improprieties under scrutiny. 

Boehner has decided that the Republican Leadership should staff and coordinate the investigatory offensive, and has hired Rob Borden to serve as the director of oversight for himself and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.  And from where did Boehner pluck the newly minted “director of oversight”? From none other than … Oversight Chairman Issa’s own staff! 

The implications of this cannibalizing of the Republican investigatory hierarchy are pretty clear.  First, Boehner and Cantor don’t trust Issa to conduct the hearings in a strategically sound way.  Clearly, the Republican leadership believes the often-inflammatory Issa needs adult supervision. Not trusting your chief inquisitor to behave responsibly is a less-than-optimum situation as you head into a summer of salacious scandal mongering.  Yes, you will hear about the need to coordinate the five or so committees engaged in the investigations food fight, but speaking from experience, that is what staff director and chairmen meetings are supposed to resolve. 

Second, elevating Borden and the primacy of the oversight function within the Leadership offices makes it abundantly clear that the legislative agenda for this Congress is pretty well cooked in the Speaker’s mind.  Boehner will have to do something in the House should the Senate pass an immigration bill, but he must be careful not to agree to a final bill more tolerant of undocumented workers that a majority of the Republican Caucus (not to mention GOP grassroots) will accept.  The chances of Boehner agreeing to pass a conference bill (or other vehicle negotiated with the Senate and White House) that relies primarily on a large Democratic vote in the House would seem to be slim.  Such collaborationist behavior earlier in 2013 put his speakership very much at risk.

Lastly, it is interesting that the hiring of Borden was ascribed not just to Boehner but to Cantor as well.  Clearly aware of his tenuous hold on the big office, Boehner is being careful to include the often devious Cantor as a partner in the oversight of the oversight process.  The Speaker certainly doesn’t need Cantor second-guessing every strategic decision as the wily Majority Leader has done throughout the Boehner speakership, especially on issues of deficit reduction.

On urgent issues like tax reform, sequestration, debt ceiling, budget deal, education reform that were supposed to constitute the agenda for the 113th Congress, the signs aren’t looking very positive.  Had Boehner hired a strategist for working out deals with Sen. Harry Reid, Democratic Leader Pelosi and President Obama, he could have sent a signal of interest in serious legislating.  But as with so many issues, Boehner and Republicans feel no pressure to compromise or even move forward with serious proposals because they know the Republican media machine and grassroots are invigorated by any sign of government ineptitude, even if it is self-inflicted by Republicans.  Witness the willingness of Republicans to take down modest gun reform in the Senate, which confirmed that “government can’t do anything, even when 90% of the country wants it done.”  Failure is success for anti-government zealots.

Interestingly, Republicans focused on Borden’s purported thoroughness, fairness and calm, professional traits he doubtless finely honed while working for the scandal-obsessed Issa.  Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, the National Journal reported that Borden will “keep a close eye on making sure … oversight responsibilities, while front and center, don’t eclipse the agenda.”  That chore won’t consume much of Borden’s time since the Republicans have no agenda beyond repeatedly passing politically inspired message bills (37 votes to repeal Obamacare so far) that expire well before they reach the Rotunda.   Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi accurately summed up the priorities Borden will have to protect by noting, “Nothing is their agenda. Never is their timetable.”

One prediction that is beyond challenge: were the Boehner-Borden-Cantor team perceived by their Republican colleagues as tamping down inquiries in order to pursue legislative goals, the leaders would face even more Member heat than they have felt already this Congress.  In a Republican Conference that many conservatives already see as “adrift” and “fractured,” according to the Washington Post (6/4/13), and with Conference confidence in the Boehner speakership depending on the management of scandal summer, the last thing Republicans want to appear as is engaged in substantive legislating or negotiations with their mortal adversaries, regardless of the cost to the country.