Political Animal


May 10, 2011 8:00 AM Boehner puts a price tag on his ransom note

By Steve Benen

The financial industry is desperate to hear congressional Republicans assure the world that they’ll do the right thing and raise the debt ceiling. Indeed, Wall Street wants to hear this sooner rather than later.

But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is less concerned about responsible policymaking and the nation’s best interests, and more concerned with playing a very dangerous game of chicken. The Speaker who was, just a few months ago, sensible and mature when it came to the debt ceiling, has been replaced with this guy.

In his most specific statement to date on what Republicans will demand in the debt ceiling fight, Mr. Boehner told the Economic Club of New York that the level of spending reductions should exceed the amount of the increase in borrowing power.

“Without significant spending cuts and changes to the way we spend the American people’s money, there will be no debt limit increase,” Mr. Boehner told members of New York’s business and finance community. “And cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given.” Mr. Boehner said those cuts should be in the trillions of dollars, not billions.

In more precise figures, the Speaker now expects Democrats agree to more than $2 trillion in cuts, without raising taxes on anyone by any amount. If Dems balk, Boehner and his party will deliberately destroy the economy — or, as part of the hostage strategy, that’s at least what the Speaker wants Democrats to believe.

Boehner added that, while failure on this issue could prove catastrophic, he believes a clean debt-ceiling bill would be worse for the economy. It’s an argument so preposterous, it’s enough to make me wonder if the Speaker has suffered some kind of head trauma recently.

It’s worth noting that the Speaker’s ransom note now has a price tag — albeit, an unrealistic price tag — but no additional details. Boehner doesn’t know where the $2 trillion in cuts should come from or over what kind of timeframe. He just knows that he’s picked an arbitrary number and expects Democrats to figure out a way to meet his demands.

The ambiguity is not an accident, and it’s not just the result of a lazy House Speaker who isn’t proficient enough with policy details to do the work himself. Rather, Boehner can’t get more specific without committing to massive reductions in Medicare and Social Security — there’s almost certainly no other way to find those kinds of savings, given the Speaker’s parameters — which he doesn’t want to put on paper.

Boehner prefers to present the radical target and demand that Democrats scramble to meet it. All the while, he’ll hold the proverbial hostage at gunpoint.

Given recent history, we know how this game is supposed to work. GOP leaders will start negotiations with an outlandish demand, with the hopes that a “compromise” will still be to their liking. The difference in this case is that the White House and congressional Dems know what Boehner knows — he can’t shoot the hostage without destroying the economy on purpose.

If the Speaker has even a modicum of patriotism — if, in other words, he actually cares about the health of the nation — he can’t pull the trigger. This should, in theory, undermine Republicans’ leverage, unless the GOP really has gone stark raving mad.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • c u n d gulag on May 10, 2011 8:10 AM:

    2 Trillion dollars?

    I'd stay away from that money for awhile, since he just pulled it out of his ass.

  • j on May 10, 2011 8:11 AM:

    Boehner is in a tight spot, he is trying to win the support of the Tea Baggers, he knows he has no chance of getting the cuts, he is also afraid to mention the republican's proposed budget to gut medicare, they will then lose the support of seniors. Lastly he has had his warning from his backers in Wall Street that not to increase the debt limit will cause a meltdown of the economy. What's a poor crybaby to do - the pressure is on him.

  • Nancy on May 10, 2011 8:16 AM:

    Doesn't Boehner also need a refresher course on the constitution when he says "cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given?"

  • SteveT on May 10, 2011 8:19 AM:

    GOP leaders will start negotiations with an outlandish demand, with the hopes that a “compromise” will still be to their liking.

    And GOP leaders can negotiate that why secure in the knowledge that while they're fighting with eye gouges and knees to the groin, the Democrats will politely "compete" under "fair" rules.

    If the Democrats had any idea how the game worked they would counter Boehner's proposal with a demand for an additional $500 billion in economic stimulus aimed at the bottom half of the economy or else they won't approve the debt ceiling to help out the Republican's Wall Street allies.

  • FRP on May 10, 2011 8:24 AM:

    Seconded SteveT

  • thymezone on May 10, 2011 8:27 AM:

    Boehner has obviously already lost this contest. He talks as if the Democrats are running the government. He is the speaker of the House with a huge majority, and all he can do is threaten to burn down the building if the Democrats don't tell him what to do ... and tell him in a way that his crazy caucus will go along with?

    This guy needs to be replaced. The GOP needs a real speaker.

  • Kelly on May 10, 2011 8:29 AM:

    How did the Economic Club of New York respond to his speech?

  • SW on May 10, 2011 8:29 AM:

    Dear John,


    Thanks for playing.

  • Curtis Walker on May 10, 2011 8:30 AM:

    Well, this fits right with the Republicans number one goal to have lousy economy for the 2012 Presidential Election.

  • John Dillinger on May 10, 2011 8:35 AM:

    Doesn't the Ryan budget add a couple of trillion in debt the next couple of years? All Obama should do is announce that he'll only sign a clean bill that increases the debt ceiling by that amount. Let the Republicans explain why they voted for the budget then refused to raise the debt ceiling to accomodate it.

  • Bhaal on May 10, 2011 8:46 AM:

    There was a headline on the front page of USA Today last week saying the tax burden was lowest since the 1950's.

  • SWENXOF on May 10, 2011 8:58 AM:

    The Boehner was on Today this morning. Lauer, to his credit, kept the conversation away from being a bitch fest about Obama. I had to laugh a little because Boehn, who was actually in studio doing a one-on-one interview, was still using his stage voice as if he had just walked out to do a press conference on the capitol steps. It was also pretty clear that whining about the President in his smoker voice is his only real schtick. He just comes off as an empty suit without that.

  • KurtRex1453 on May 10, 2011 9:02 AM:

    Remember, those who can govern, do. Those who cannot govern cut budgets.

  • rikyrah on May 10, 2011 9:06 AM:

    he is absolutely ridiculous and pathetic.

  • dweb823 on May 10, 2011 9:13 AM:

    Sorry folks, but if the past is any guide, your good Democratic friends in Congress are more likely than not to cave in to this and agree to still more, and more damaging, cuts.

    By the way....where is Harry Reid's scheme to force the GOP to vote on the Ryan budget?

    Could we look any more weak kneed than we do?

  • Mike D on May 10, 2011 9:15 AM:

    Ok, Mr. Speaker. We can be adults about this, as you keep exhorting us to be. Just write up some draft legislation with your proposed $2 trillion in cuts -- be specific, mind you; this is legislation, not stumping -- and we can discuss it, via town halls and the like.

  • bigtuna on May 10, 2011 9:24 AM:

    Like Kelly said - what did wall street think? The past blow ups are portrayed in the press as dustups that wall street mostly ignores, with a sanctimonousness and disdain that WS apparently has for Washington.

    Is it any different this time, or as we get closer, will WS signal its concerns .. which I assume is via bond rates?

    Of course BOner will ten say that rates are going up because of democrats injecting "uncertainity" into the system ...

    what an ass.

    ps. Why the captcha? Do people really robospam this blog?

  • Tracy on May 10, 2011 9:30 AM:

    Meanwhile the polls suggest support for blocking of increase of debt limit. Why doesn't the press spend some time on explaining the consequences of this?

  • roughdraft on May 10, 2011 9:58 AM:

    The Dems can shut them up with a counter-offer---either give us a clean debt ceiling raise OR drop all tax breaks to churches, oil, farms and corporations. And emphasize that it means ALL (no exceptions)

  • golack on May 10, 2011 10:38 AM:

    Does he have a mini-me too?

  • biggerbox on May 10, 2011 10:44 AM:

    I have a question: when he said that, did he stick his extended pinky into the corner of his mouth? Was he speaking from a secret lair with a hairless cat? Because that demand has about as much credibility as one from Austin Powers' Dr. Evil.

    "I will crash the economy unless you give me two TRILLION dollars!"

  • Roger the Cabin Boy on May 10, 2011 11:01 AM:

    Bo(eh)ner is obviously a lousy poker player. Only question is, are the Democrats up to calling his bluff?

    Btw, if the republicans keep the house in '12 say hello to Speaker Cantor.

  • Jon on May 10, 2011 11:56 AM:

    Call that bluff. House Democrats should announce their intention to sit out the debt ceiling vote in protest of the huge deficits in the budget the GOP just passed.

  • barbaratop on May 10, 2011 7:36 PM:

    I am not sure we live in America anymore. The Repukes have decided that the Soviet Union is what we should become. Let them go there and let the real Americans have their lives back. As far as the Tea Party, they can take a hike in the Atlantic or Pacific.

  • leon de los Reyes on May 10, 2011 10:05 PM:

    Boehner where are the jobs? Quit playing politics and grow up. boehner and his party would rather see America fails so to hurt obama's whitehouse run. What ever happened to country first and poltics later. When will Amrica wake up to The Repukes trying give the rich underserved tax breaks while taking money from people who can't afford it. Look at all the money the oil compamies are amking but do not pay a cent in taxes and lets not forget GE who also did not [pay any taxes.

  • Dave Exner on May 11, 2011 8:46 PM:

    Boehner is capable of repeating 1929. Just watch him and don't forget to buy Kleenex stock, that way you can recoup your money via his tears.