John Boehner: Liked but Not Well-Liked

National Review‘s Robert Costa has a behind-the-scenes report on Speaker Boehner’s failed effort to get his caucus to pass his “Plan B,” an entirely political, ultimately feeble attempt to confuse the issue and insulate Republicans from incurring the public’s wrath in the event that we go off the cliff. It’s a tragicomic read that, in its weird way, reminds me a bit of Death of a Salesman:

Boehner’s speech to the group was short and curt: He said his plan didn’t have enough support, and that the House would adjourn until after Christmas, perhaps even later. But it was Boehner’s tone and body language that caught most Republicans off guard. The speaker looked defeated, unhappy, and exhausted after hours of wrangling….

There were audible gasps of surprise, especially from freshman lawmakers who didn’t see the meltdown coming. Boehner’s friends were shocked, and voiced their disappointment so the speaker’s foes could hear. “My buddies and I said the same thing to each other,” a Boehner ally told me later. “We looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and just groaned. This is a disaster.”

Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, a burly former car dealer, stood up and urged the conference to get behind the speaker. “How the hell can you do this?” Kelly asked, according to several people inside the room. A few of Boehner’s critics told Kelly to stop lecturing, but most were silent. They had been battling against “Plan B” all week, and quite suddenly, they had crippled the leadership. Boehner sensed the tension, requested calm, and then exited.

I suppose we can cast Congressman Kelly in the role of Happy Loman. It’ll be considerably harder to find the right fit for Biff, however; it would require someone in Boehner’s caucus to love him so deeply the affection curdles into hate. And as the Costa report makes clear, not only do none of Boehner’s fellow Republicans love him — they can’t even muster a real, red-blooded, American hate.

He’s just there. Sad and downcast and muttering Hallmark pieties like the serenity prayer to himself before slouching off to wherever he goes to knock ‘em back and pretend to be Tip O’Neill. Imagine it, being a Speaker whose caucus actually did as it was told. Must’ve been bliss; and at the very least O’Neill didn’t have to deal with Cantor, breathing down his neck. Cantor was probably in diapers at the time, in fact…

Here’s the thing about Plan B and its ignominious defeat: for all the drama of a Party at war with itself, paralyzed by a significant minority of hardcore conservatives whose response to November’s election is to pretend it never happened, the dissolution of a fiscal cliff deal has been stubbornly predictable. As I’ve written before, John Boehner was always a Speaker, alone. Or at least alone enough. The Tea Party faction has neither lost its veto power nor its preferred stance of total intransigence.

Unless and until he had an answer to the Tea Party’s nihilism, any Grand Bargain Boehner could dream up with the president was the lawmaking equivalent of fantasy football. It looked good on paper, but it didn’t exist. Not really. And with his decision to throw up his hand and tell Democrats that the fiscal cliff was a YP, not an MP, Boehner seems to have finally accepted this existential truth of contemporary American politics.

If only the president would do the same.

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31 thoughts on “John Boehner: Liked but Not Well-Liked

  1. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a whole shitload of bronzer. And when they start not voting the way you tell them to — that’s an earthquake.

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  2. The right of the Republican party has laid down a marker: we won’t vote for anything left of Plan B.

    But there is no way Obama and the Senate can accept Plan B or anything to the right of it.

    That’s gridlock.

    If a few R members vote for a centrist Dem plan (without losing too many D’s on the left) they will be primaried and are ending their careers. That is the only hope for a pre-cliff deal.

    The debt ceiling will be a different matter. The right of the Republican party will, obviously, try to use it as leverage again, and the only question is whether the MSM (backed by some more centrist R’s like, say, Scarborough, Powell, Hagel, Christie, Jeb Bush or maybe even McCain, Romney, or W.) will clearly, unequivocally, and loudly call it out as the most irresponsible, crazy, self-deatructive action possible. If they do call it out, the right will back down amd maybe accept something like the McConnel proposal to turn the debt ceiling vote into a vote of disapproval that can be vetoed.

    If the MSM don’t call out the right, we will have to have a smallish constitutional crisis where the executive promises to pay all debts regardless of the outcome of the debt ceiling approval vote. No way around it. If the White House gives in on the debt ceiling this time, and future executives must do the same, and we are fundamentally altering the power of the executive amd the legislature. (Note, as inflation happens, we are bound to hit new debt ceilings even if our overall debt to GDP ratio improves.) IMO, Obama will view that as more important than his legacy on taxes, immigration, education, and healthcare, as he should.

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  3. If the White House gives in on the debt ceiling this time, and future executives must do the same, and we are fundamentally altering the power of the executive amd the legislature.

    Fundamentally altering power? It is the legislative that passes laws–including budgets–not the executive. The President’s agenda-setting role as budget initiator is only a statutory role, a consequence of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. Not to make any normative claims about what ought to happen in this go-round, but the executive accepting the legislature’s budget is the way the system was designed to normally work.

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    • But the debt ceiling approval isn’t about passing a budget, right? Spending and tax policy has been set separately from the debt ceiling vote by legislation that was passed prior to the debt-ceiling vote. So the debt ceiling vote -if we continue to treat it as something non-symbolic- wold give Congress power (as long as it was willing to behave like the R’s) that it didn’t even have in 1921.

      If the debt ceiling isn’t approved, then the spending that Congress has already voted for will -eventually- cause the government to not be able to make good on its debts even though it has promised to pay those debts in passing prior legislation. The power of the debt-ceiling vote is “Do whatever I say or the world economy gets it.” The traditional power of the purse is “Do whatever I say or federal workers may find themselves without pay and no SS checks will go out.”

      Voting “No” on the debt ceiling is ultimately (in the long term, anyway, because in the short term the government can shut down spending on things other than owed interest on treasuries) voting to cause a crash in the world’s financial system by failing to pay for treasuries. (Originally, it was treated as a symbolic vote, of course, but now it is actually a real vote.) Obviously, no sitting president wants that to happen, so any sitting president will have to say “go fish yourself” or give up -and not veto- whatever the Congress is demanding. If Presidents get in the habit of saying yes, then they will have to accept -and not veto- virtually anything Congress demands, even outside of future spending policy.

      Indeed, the debt ceiling would -if a future President didn’t care about the economy- give a majority in the House the power to effectively annul all prior legislation (that requires any funding) without even a 2/3 majority in the Senate. Simply vote to not raise the debt ceiling until 2/3 of the Senate pass a bill on the floor saying all prior legislation is annulled and pass it in the House and then have the president sign it and then increase the debt ceiling if they choose to hold up their end of the bargain.

      Though having said all that, I guess the Congress could use the power of the purse to not pay interest on the debt even without the debt ceiling vote. Or no?

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    • Yes. A fundamental change will occur if the Executive ignores the debt limit and continues selling Treasuries and gets away with it, establishing the precedent that in the face of conflicting laws from Congress, the Executive gets to choose. The House may impeach, but the Senate will acquit, and I don’t see Roberts letting the Court get involved in this one, so it seems to me likely that the President can get away with it if he chooses that option.

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      • If Congress doesn’t approve of the high level of spending and low level of taxes that lead to issuing all those treasuries, then why did Congress approve all that spending and that low level of taxes? Congress approved those levels of debt regardless of the debt-ceiling vote.

        Debt in the form of treasuries are the consequence of the policies that the legislature has passed. Indeed, the legislature still has the power to pass new spending and tax policies, too, even if there had never been a debt-ceiling vote, as there isn’t in non-crazy places.

        Without the debt ceiling vote, the legislature has all it’s traditional powers, just not the power to threaten the reliability of U.S. debts that the legislature had previously approved of.

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      • If Congress has passed two conflicting laws, both of which the President is Constitutionally REQUIRED to do, what’s he supposed to do?

        Congress has passed a budget — the President is duty bound to disperse the funds accordingly. Congress has told the President to spend more funds than Congress has raised, or has authorized to borrow.

        So what’s the President to do? Take unto himself the power of the purse — Congress’ prime purview — and pick and choose what to fund, ignoring whatever parts of the budget he wants? Borrow without authorization?

        The debt ceiling is a fiasco because Congress has set up two mutually conflicting laws, and told the President “Do both” even though he can’t.

        Personally, I’m of the mind that the old statuatory precedent — if two laws conflict, the most recent takes precedence — is better than the 14th Amendment dodge. I’d happily state that Congress’ budget, which requires borrowing in excess of the debt ceiling, itself authorizes such borrowing.

        It’s the only real way to save both the budget AND the debt ceiling laws from absurdity, as well as satisfy the President’s Constitutionally required duties. Two laws conflict, he enacts the most recent by default.

        I’m sure he’ll be impeached over whatever he does, because the GOP is run by crazy people, but whatever.

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        • Well said, except I’m less sure about impeachment. Not all the House Republicans are such rabid ideologues. It would take 90% of the House Republicans to get a majority for impeachment. I wouldn’t say that’s impossible, but I’m more skeptical than others here about them being able to do that over the debt ceiling. I think there’s at least 10% of them that will realize a) they’ve created this problem so they share responsibility, and b) there’ll be no electoral gain for them, but that they just might strengthen the Obama presidency (even more than the Clinton impeachment strengthened him in the public’s eyes).

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    • Let me put my claim a little more clearly:

      Congress has always had and would still have the power of the purse without the debt ceiling vote. The debt ceiling vote gives Congress the power to control the reliability of current and future U.S. debt (issued in treasuries) with the simple act of failing to pass an approval in ine house of Congress. That is an incredible power, especially for those who are willing to threaten self-destruction.

      We usually think that the value of money, and interest rate policies should be controlled by the independent Federal Reserve precisely because partisan politics can poison the trust these financial institutions need to operate. We should invole the same principle with the reliability of U.S. debt. We can’t issue debt and have the reliability of that debt threatened by partisan politics.

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        • Yes, I will agree with that they have had the power latently. Fair enough,

          Have debt ceiling votes always been around, though?

          Seems to me it is still unclear what happens, or what should happen legally, if Congress has passed laws requiring spending X, Y, and Z and tax level A, but then declines to approve the debt ceiling.

          If I were the administration, I’d write an executive order now stating this is what will happen if the debt ceiling is not raised “Given that all federal agencies must be staffed and the staff paid, amd given that all federal agencies require spending at levels indicated by Congress, the U.S. Federal Government cannot function if it is stripped of the cash it has been promised to function, if that cash is not disbursed as it has been lawfully promised to be dispursed all of the following will happen in the near future: 1. All SS checks and food stamps and payments to medicare and medicaid providers and transfer payments to the states will stop immediately. 2. All federal employees will be dismissed immediately, including after a few weeks, the Secret Service for the current and all former presidents and the capital police. All federal agencies will immediately be shut down and their security dismissed within a few weeks, including the NSA, CDC, the energy department, the CIA, and FBI. 3. The military will receive no pay starting immediately, nor will Veterans Hospitals be funded. All overseas troops and embassy staff will be commanded to return home as soon as safely possible with the help of their commanders, whereupon they will all be discharged as soon as possible given that they cannot be paid. 4. No interest payments on any U.S. debt will be paid. However, none of these things will come to pass if the Congress continues to fund the agencies that they have promised to fund in prior legislation.

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          • If you are a GOP congressperson who do you answer to? Not anyone who spends 3 seconds worrying about the “full faith and credit” stuff.
            Your Tea Party constituents have more pressing matters that need your attention.
            Like the Muslim infiltration of government.
            20 year old videogames sparking a mass shooting.
            Or the Amero.
            Or FEMA camps.
            Even Planet Nibiru.

            “Full faith and credit”?

            Meh.

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  4. One disagreement Elias. If Boehner and Obama could have worked out a deal it would have happened no matter what the Tea Party said. Boehner would schedule the vote and Pelosi/Obama would deliver the votes to fill in the missing TP votes. Most likely, of course, this would result in Boehner losing his job as speaker of course.

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  5. I hear scuttlebutt that they might do a micro-deal that does little but maintain the status quo for a while, puts off the cliff for months or a year, but will not renew the Obama payroll tax cut and the Bush tax cuts for the rich, maybe keeps U.I. extensions as incentive for the President.

    Will the R’s vote for that? Or is that a tax increase that can’t be voted for out of principle? I’m guessing the latter actually. The R’s won’t have a stronger hand when the economy is growing more strongly. Obama can say “Well, the cliff is irritating in how it cuts, but who cares because the cuts won’t affect the economy and we can add more defense or domestic spending to replace it over the following months now that revenue has returned.” The R’s seem to be itching for a debt ceiling fight to win big concessions more than anything, IMO. And that fight, fought with the threat of economic self-destruction, is best fought during a down economy.

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  6. The basic problem of the GOP is this – the crazies actually got power within the actual power centers of the party. Even twenty years ago, Newt could go throw some red meat to the base, Rush would shovel it out more, but then Newt could go make a deal with Clinton on welfare reform and the budget and the most that happened was Rush and others like him bitched some for the next week, before moving on to the next horror Bill Clinton was going to impose on good Americans.

    The difference is now, the ‘base’ is in a 24-hour conservative radio/Fox News/Internet smorgasbord that gets people convinced they’re part of some silent majority and if Boehner and the rest just acted like ‘true’ conservative (the definition of which changes weekly), then they’d win massive landslides.

    Now, you’re going to say, there’s some of this on the left. Of course there is. But, to be blunt, the modern Democratic Party has never met a hippie it minded punching. Obama didn’t come out for gay marriage because he finally changed his view. He came out for it because he got enough pressure for big donors and polling said it was at worst, would have zero impact on 2012. And guess what, as a social democrat left of probably 90% of America, I was fine with that. Because having a second term of centrist Democratic President is more important than that President agreeing with me exactly when I want him too.

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  7. One of the things missing from this discussion is filibuster reform in the Senate. At this point in time, Obama negotiates with the House Republicans, and everyone assumes that (a) the more liberal Dems in the Senate will support the President even if they have to hold their noses, because (b) they need several Republican Senators on board to bring any significant bill to the floor and to a vote. Post-reform, those more liberal Senators would have a bigger say in what’s in the bill. Just me, but I suspect that some of the rush to try to get something done in December that included entitlement changes (sans any significant public discussion) was the President’s fear that come January, the Senate Dems will no longer allow “snap” changes in SS or Medicare.

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