Boehner’s Choice

by John Lawrence

Washington and the nation are watching in wonder to see how House Republicans will climb out of the very deep and perilous hole they have studiously dug and jumped into.  Once again, America is on the brink of a self-inflicted economic and diplomatic embarrassment because House Republican leaders cannot control their hardline Orwellians for whom defeat is victory, and collapse is constructive.  To honor this congressional clumsiness by calling it a “train wreck unfolding in slow motion” is to ignore the fact that sitting in the locomotive, opening up the throttle,  are the very same people who tore up the track.

Congress likes to resolve legislative impasses at the last moment.  For generations, congressional combatants drove close to the cliff to demonstrate their own fearlessness and to test the resolve of their adversaries.  But everyone knew (or was pretty sure) there was a mutual interest in turning away from the cliff at the last moment to avoid the abyss.  It doesn’t always work that way anymore. 

Over the past two House election cycles, a new breed of legislator has infiltrated the Republican ranks, hardline ideologues who not only dislike the policies and programs of modern American society, but who have taken Ronald Reagan at his word: government is the problem. They welcome any opportunity to grab the steering wheel and plunge off the cliff.  For them, and their extremist base, there is nothing to fear from a government shutdown or defaulting on the national debt, because such debacles confirm the failure of government.  They are self-fulfilling fatalists, and they have the Republican Party firmly by the throat. 

The good news is that they may have just lit the first flickers of responsibility in what used to be considered the “mainstream” of the Republican party that’s been missing in action of late.  Sen. Bob Corker’s dust-up on the floor with Sen. Ted Cruz on Thursday provided one of the faint glimmers of hope that someone in the GOP retains a shred of responsibility, let alone interest in winning elections in any but the reddest of red districts. 

House Republicans are still firmly in the grip of the hardliners, and neither Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, nor anyone else in the leadership seems to know how to tame their passion for the legislative apocalypse.  These leaders are either befuddled or intimidated by their extreme wing.  “Gone are the days when the leaders decide what the conference is gonna do,” declares Rep. Lynn Jenkins (Kan) — and she is Vice Chair of the House Republican Conference.  With team players like that, you hardly need Democrats.

It shouldn’t be surprising that people who actually know how the economy works are a bit worried about who’s making decisions in the Republican House.  Republicans used to listen to corporate leaders who understand the precarious nature of the current recovery and are pleading with congressional Republicans to steer away from the cliff.  “Engage in whatever political machinations you wish, but do not default,” said Honeywell International’s Chief Executive David Cote. “Don’t throw away a credit history built up since George Washington.” Paul Stebbins, chairman of World Fuel Services, warns that the current  “dysfunction is doing deep damage to the country and to the world’s perception of us” and terms it “reckless … to hold the whole country hostage because you don’t like a law.”  Richard Hunt of the Consumer Bankers Association, hopes the “adults in both parties” will fashion an agreement.

The non-adults are ably represented by Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), who dismisses the predictions of economic catastrophe, asserting “I don’t think we should run government based on economists’ predictions.”  Fleming sees no risk if the debt ceiling is not raised. “Technically, it’s not possible to default because there’s always enough revenue to cover the interest,” Fleming explains. “If we defaulted it was because the president chose to default, not because we ran out of money.”  Or something like that.

Few in Washington can figure out how House Republican leaders handle the final, delicate steps.  Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) assured recently, “We’ll worry about the Senate after the Senate actually does something.”  Well, time to start worrying, since the Senate has sent back to the House a resolution to keep the government open long enough to confront the debt ceiling crisis. 

The real question is the call by the House Republican leadership.  Speaker Boehner still has the bruises from the last time he went to the brink with President Obama and Democrats and ended up repealing the upper class tax cut.  Boehner is still hurling bromides like, “We’re not going to raise the debt ceiling without real cuts in spending,” pledging he will “do everything we can to repeal Obamacare.” 

He may do everything he can, but he isn’t going to repeal the ACA or force an equivalent level of spending cuts to offset a debt ceiling increase, since Congress has already approved over $2 trillion in discretionary cuts. 

Boehner cannot be having much fun these days.  Just before he assumed the Speaker’s chair in 2011, he acknowledged the eccentric extremists who enabled Republicans to win the majority would be a challenge to govern.  He privately predicted he would be more popular in 6 months among Democrats than among his own Conference.  Boehner is your old fashioned NFIB conservative, a small businessman motivated to enter politics because of high taxes and environmental regulations affecting his plastics business.  Banished from the leadership ladder in the late 1990s, he plunged into the substantive business of committee work as Chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce where he was a happy collaborator with leading liberals like Ted Kennedy and George Miller in writing labor and education law.  Following his elevation to Republican Leader, he actively participated with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in writing the first stimulus bill and the TARP bailout.  For a decade as Chairman and Leader, he was co-authoring precisely the kind of bills that fueled the Tea Party revolt against big government.  

Yet even in the white-knuckle TARP battle, which culminated five years ago this month, the seeds of Boehner’s current problems were evident.   In discussions with President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and various congressional leaders, Boehner warned that House Republicans would likely resist the emergency legislation.  Republicans balked both at the proposed cost of the TARP bill and the taxpayer safeguards Democrats insisted be added to Bush’s tissue-thin draft: restrictions on executive compensation, a ban on golden parachutes,  foreclosure forbearance, and a mandatory payback of all loans, with interest.  Despite warnings from Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke that the U.S. financial system was within days of implosion, Boehner proposed slowing the legislative process down, a suggestion swiftly rejected by Pelosi.

As the legislation was readied for the House floor, Boehner’s staff privately warned Republicans might not be able to deliver the 100 votes Boehner had pledged, and advised that Democrats might have to provide all the votes for passage.  Pelosi, facing Democratic protests that the proscriptions were too mild, knew there was no chance of passing the bill without Republican votes and urged Boehner and the White House to press his Conference hard.

Despite a tearful floor appeal to Republicans, during which he described the carefully written bill as a “crap sandwich,” Boehner was unable to move his obdurate members, winning just 65 Republican votes for his own President’s highest priority.  Privately, Bush admitted, “My problem is House Republicans.”   As the Dow Jones average plummeted an historic 778 points, the strategic advantage passed to the Senate which added $150 billion in business tax breaks, boosting the cost of the bill even further and complicating Pelosi’s job selling the bill to the Democrats.  When the House bowed to the urgency of the moment and passed the House bill, Boehner was still unable to deliver the 100 promised votes, coming in at just 91 while Pelosi drummed up enough Democrats to prevent a complete financial meltdown.

Whatever pragmatic tendencies Boehner had exhibited as chairman and Republican Leader evaporated instantaneously with the election of Barack Obama.  Unwilling to offer any support to Obama initiatives during the 2009-2010 period, Boehner found himself saddled with a dilemma when he became Speaker in 2011 thanks to the infusion of uncompromising Tea Party supporters.  With few exceptions, he was unable to pass essential legislation, including several Continuing Resolutions and a debt ceiling increase, without a substantial number of Democratic votes.  His Conference’s ambivalent decision to re-elect him as Speaker last January by just four votes further chilled his interest in seeking common ground with either Obama or congressional Democrats, but left him unable to formulate credible alternative policies.   He seemed to diminish his role as Speaker, asserting,  “I don’t need to be out there beating the drum every day… It doesn’t need the heavy hand of the speaker all over everything.” 

There is a need for serious adult leadership in the House Republican Conference as once again the nation skirts closely to a manufactured and eminently avoidable crisis.  Reliable Republican allies are losing confidence that Boehner’s team can produce results.  Nearly 240 business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, recently send Congress a letter warning against the dire consequences of a failure to pass a Continuing Resolution by October 1.  The effect, the groups advised, “be economically disruptive and create even more uncertainties for the U.S. economy.”

Not satisfied with the prospects of a government shutdown, Boehner and the House Republicans also pledge to prevent a debt ceiling increase unless Obama and Democrats agree to a comparable reduction in spending (seemingly ignoring the $2 trillion in spending already cut in past compromises).  Boehner seems to understand the high stakes game he is playing.  He told Idaho Republicans last summer that his dollar for-dollar debt ceiling demand “may be unfair, but what I’m trying to do … to leverage the political process to produce more change than what it would produce if left to its own devices.” 

It would certainly produce “change.”  According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Republicans’ threat of a government default in 2011 cost taxpayers $1.3 billion in higher interest costs – and the 10 year cost of those bonds is nearly $19-billion, over eight times the size of the cuts agreed to in the last deal.  Even a short government shutdown next week would have dramatic ramifications – possibly worse than those in 1995 when at least some appropriations bills had safeguarded the budgets of a few federal departments.

What seems particularly incomprehensible is that Boehner and House Republicans refuse to accept their indisputable success in reorienting the focus of the federal government away from program creation and spending and toward budget cutting and deficit reduction.  The Republican Congress plowed through the second half of the Great Recession without a lick of concern for the jobless or those losing their homes; it passed massive spending reductions and an automatic decade of cuts through sequestration, sloppy though they may be.  True, they lost the upper income tax cut, which was unsustainable, but they delivered for their rich patrons by permanently extending and indexing the estate tax.  Spending is down; deficits are down. Obama’s domestic legislative policies are moribund at best. Why can’t the conservatives accept victory instead of plunging ahead into the chaos of shutdowns and default?

The reason is, of course, because the deficit was always a stalking horse for the hard right, a mechanism for elevating public concerns so they could cut taxes, fuel the growth of deficit, and thereby justify massive cuts in domestic programs. The enemy has never really been spending; it is government itself, which conservatives want to drown in the bathtub, starve of revenues or privatize.   Today, the goal is to leverage the financial security of the country to the impossible dream, repeal of Obamacare, although even the GOP House Conference Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers has acknowledged that is “probably not realistic.”

Boehner has to find a way to bring the extremists in his Conference under the control of the operational politicians.  It can be done, but there may well be a price.  That is often the case.  In the 1960s and 1970s, an increasingly liberal Democratic Caucus threw out hardline, southern conservatives who, thanks to seniority and one party districts, had retained their seats and therefore their chairmanships too long. Deposing them in a series of moves over several years, in combination with other demographic and political changes, winnowed down Democratic strength among moderates and conservatives.  Winning those marginal seats helped the Republicans secure the House in 1994. 

If Boehner or any “grown-up” Republican is to control the Republican Party, it is pretty clear what must be done, which is exactly what was done for most of the 112th Congress.  The GOP leaders, who lack sufficient votes in their own party, will have to go to Pelosi and other Democrats to cut a deal to pass appropriations bills and debt ceilings at reasonable levels.  They might be able to secure a few modest policy modifications that address legitimate problems but do not seek to undermine key Democratic policies.  But failure to do so will repeat the experience of TARP: the Senate will dictate the end product, and nobody in the House will like it very much.

In a GOP conference with a sizeable number of Tea Party extremists, taking such a rational course may well doom the Boehner Speakership and provoke a well-deserved fight within the Republican Conference about the future leadership and direction of the party.  But the alternative – presiding over an ungovernable group of extremists who have no interest in compromise or rational government – can’t be fulfilling and is deadly to the party. 

If, as Boehner mused before he even became Speaker, his unpopularity among Republicans makes his his job miserable, a bold step towards compromise might well prove a healthy move for his party and the governability of the country regardless of the personal cost.  Republicans don’t need many more analyses like GOP Chairman Reince Priebus’ March, 2013 “Autopsy Report” or “Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation” by College Republicans which warned the party was alienating key constituencies at rates likely to jeopardize the future viability of the party.

There are worse things in politics than being a former Speaker.