A Speaker of the House in Name Only

During the February budget standoff, I quoted a Capitol Hill veteran noting that House Republican freshman had scuttled a pork barrel project in their leader’s district, which would have been unthinkable in prior eras. At the time I predicted that because Boehner clearly couldn’t control his own troops, we would have no fiscal year budget agreement, leading to a federal government shutdown.

I am not unhappy to say that I was wrong. But after yesterday’s humiliation of Boehner by the Tea Party freshman, I will plead to having been correct a bit too early for events.

John Boehner is an experienced and able politician, and post the Gingrich-led changes in House Rules, he has at his disposal an array of tools to deal out suffering to whippersnapper members. He could put one little twerp on the committee to oversee public sewage, move another one’s office into the men’s room, and assign another to chair a commission on whether the Treasury department could print a gay-friendly three dollar bill.

Yet no one seems scared of him. Maybe the Republican freshman just don’t care, or maybe they sense that Boehner is too scared of them and their supporters to lower the boom. But either way, the breakdown in Congressional Republican discipline is stunning and does not augur well for a resolution to the debt ceiling standoff.

FOOTNOTE: Thoughtful take on this issue here by Norm Ornstein.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

16 thoughts on “A Speaker of the House in Name Only”

  1. Managed to get 218 Republicans to vote for his bill, kicking the can over to the Senate. It’s not nothing.

  2. I’m not sure that relocating a rogue Republican to the men’s room would be seen as a punishment.

  3. The real question here is can the Republicans hold on to the Tea Party. Any perceived weakness Boehner has is due entirely to that sect. If Reid’s bill manages to pass with a coalition of Ds & Rs (which is the only way it will pass), it will infuriate the tea hobbits, and I expect cause some of them to bark about third party status.

    The Tea Party branching out on their own would be the greatest turn of events one could dare expect. It would give real value to this whole debt-ceiling nonsense. Of course, their billionaire funders will try to tamp down any rebellion; but even so, the tea hobbits smell the sulfur that comes with power. And of course, zealotry and delusions tend to go hand in hand. They probably believe they’d make a viable third party…

  4. koreyel, the Tea Party isn’t going to separate from the Republican Party. They will continue their efforts to take over the Republican party, and if they don’t succeed (and so far, they have succeeded) they might be more likely to stay home in November. But visions of Tea Party splitters and spoilers are likely to remain mere visions.

  5. “But either way, the breakdown in Congressional Republican discipline is stunning and does not augur well for a resolution to the debt ceiling standoff. “

    I’d say it’s been a demonstration of increased discipline among the members. They’re showing the discipline to stick to what they ran on, despite a ‘leadership’ desperate to coopt them. And it augurs well for a favorable resolution of the debt ceiling standoff.

  6. @Brett Bellmore (7/30, 3:23 am) How, in your view, does it augur well for a favorable resolution of the debt ceiling standoff? (And what, in your view, would constitute a “favorable resolution”?)

    I’m partial to Ezra Klein’s analysis here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/tonights-vote-made-boehners-job-harder-not-easier/2011/07/11/gIQAEVd3hI_blog.html#comments

    I think his contrasting of Pelosi’s and Boehner’s actions as Speaker is useful and illuminating:

    “When Nancy Pelosi served as Speaker of the House, her job was conditioning her members for disappointment. It was Pelosi who had to bring them around to a Senate-designed health-care law that lacked a public option, a cap-and-trade bill that gave away most of its permits, a stimulus that did too little, a bank bailout that endangered their careers. Pelosi had to do that because, well, that’s what the speaker of the House has to do. To govern is to compromise. And when you’re in charge, you have to govern.

    Lately, Boehner has not been governing. After he failed to pass a conservative resolution to the debt crisis without Democratic votes, he should have begun cutting the deals and making the concessions necessary to gain Democratic votes. That, after all, is what he will ultimately have to do.”

  7. Brett predictably ignores reality in favor of ideology.

    Reality: Congress is obligated to fund the spending it has committed to through the laws it has passed. If revenues are less than obligations, and lowered tax rates fail to produce enough increase in economic activity to make up the difference, the only options are to borrow or default on some of those obligations.

    Ideology: It’s alright favorable to default on one’s obligations, as long as they are the “right obligations” for the “right reasons”.

    Please, tell us, Brett. What’s your idea of “a favorable resolution of the debt ceiling standoff”?

  8. “Yet no one seems scared of him. Maybe the Republican freshman just don’t care, or maybe they sense that Boehner is too scared of them and their supporters to lower the boom. ”

    Keith, did not read your very own previous post?
    Tea Partiers got elected to DO SOMETHING SPECIFIC. They are true believers. They didn’t get elected to be elected. What’s Boehner going to do to them that is worse than their failing in their goal when they got elected?

    This is the problem with people who don’t take ideology (religious or political) seriously — at the end of the day, they simply will not believe that these people have a different set of priorities, and that compromise and maintenance of the status quo are not among those priorities.
    I remain amazed at how the “intellectual elite” of the US — and this includes not just Brad DeLong’s media pundits, but apparently also the cream of UCLA and their friends — persist in their unwillingness to accept what is going on here, whether it’s the righteous fervor of theses politicians, OR the fact that (oh so sadly) they do in fact represent a substantial strain of thought in the US population.

  9. Maynard: I make it a rule never to read my own posts lest my judgment be clouded as a result.

  10. My idea of a “favorable” resolution to the debt ceiling standoff, would be one where the ceiling is only raised in return for real (IOW, not relative to an inflated baseline.) cuts in government spending, and systematic reforms to discipline spending in the future. Rather than just kicking the can a couple years down the road, when we’ll be even closer to insolvency, and any real solution will be that much more difficult.

    If you look at this chart, you’ll notice that this year’s revenues would cover 2000’s inflation adjusted levels of spending. Let me repeat that: Inflation adjusted levels of spending. Was the nation a hell-hole back then? Not so I noticed.

    Now, current revenues wouldn’t really bring us to a balanced budget if we restricted spending to circa 2000 levels of (Inflation adjusted!) spending, because the debt we’ve piled up over the subsequent years, especially the last few, have dramatically increased the cost of debt service, even with recession lowered interest rates. So as part of a compromise, I’d agree, once spending was lowered appropriately, to a dedicated tax to pay debt service, with a bit more for paying down the debt.

    I realize YOU wouldn’t consider that a favorable outcome. More of a dystopian nightmare. But that’s why we’ve got a deadlock in Congress, isn’t it? Because people disagree about these things…

  11. Interesting that Brett basically ignores that the USA is not the same country as it was in 2000, due to deliberate right-wing looting and destruction.

  12. Interesting chart, Brett. I noticed that the revenue line tracked the spending line very closely in slope and reasonably close in magnitude with a few prominent exceptions: Revenue dropped significantly in magnitude while spending maintained it’s historic slope about midway through Reagan’s presidency. The resulting deficit gap remained fairly constant through Bush I’s presidency until about midway through Clinton’s presidency, when the revenue line sloped upwards while the spending sloped towards level, with revenue eventually surpassing spending until just after Bush took office, where they diverge again sharply as spending sloped upward while revenue took a plunge and then leveled out on average to roughly 1997 levels. Looks to me like somewhere along in there several administrations screwed up, big time. Spending discipline winners were the Nixon and Clinton administrations, with Clinton uniquely also simultaneously showing increasing revenue resulting in the only surplus on the chart. Spending seems to have gone out of control since then.

    I realize YOU wouldn’t consider that a favorable outcome. More of a dystopian nightmare. Not sure who you’re directing this toward, since two of us asked for your resolution, but I’ll answer it. I couldn’t say whether or not I would favor your plan, since it is COMPLETELY DEVOID of any specifics on what spending would be cut. I might like it a lot if the “right things” were on the chopping block. I used to mostly vote Libertarian before the Randroids took over and aligned with teh evil. I think maybe you and I could find some common ground there in areas like war on drugs spending, etc. In any case, the plan Obama just announced on TV sounds a lot like what you said (and about as detail-free). How proud you must be!

  13. Brett’s offer is so generous. He’s only asking everyone to accept a 10% cut in the level of government spending per capita and a (roughly) 10% increase in the part of the tax burden borne by the middle class as compared to the rich. Compared to the teahadis, he’s a prince.

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