Political Animal


July 11, 2011 1:20 PM The incredible shrinking Speaker, cont’d

By Steve Benen

As recently as Friday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was on the same page as President Obama, at least far as debt-reduction targets go. Both wanted a plan with $4 trillion in savings; both eyed a “grand bargain” that would include new revenue; and both believed they could convince enough members of their respective parties to get on board once the deal was done.

By at least one account, the Speaker was “enthusiastically” endorsing the notion of a grand bargain and told his Republican colleagues that this is why he wanted to be Speaker in the first place.

Boehner, humiliated, reversed course on Saturday night, after learning that his own caucus refused to follow his lead. How bad is it? This bad.

“It’s crazy to think the speaker was considering a trillion [dollars] in tax increases. After all, we’re the anti-tax party,” said one veteran Republican lawmaker close to leadership. “Cantor brought him, the economy and our party back from the abyss. Cantor is strengthened, clearly. And it’s another example of the speaker almost slipping beyond the will of the GOP conference.”

Note, that’s not a quote from a Democrat trying to drive a wedge between the House Speaker and his caucus; that’s a quote from a long-time Republican member of Congress who’s “close” to the GOP leadership.

By another account, when the 10 participants in the talks reconvened yesterday at the White House, Boehner “basically just sat there,” and let House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) do all the talking.

That’s probably as it should be. It’s Cantor, after all, who’s less willing to strike deals and more ideologically in line with the right-wing House caucus.

It almost certainly didn’t help that President Obama praised Boehner for his good-faith efforts at a press conference this morning — praise that will be perceived as weakness and appeasement by House Republicans.

The next question, though, is what the consequences will be for the Speaker’s weakness. It’s hard to imagine the GOP forcing him out, but it’s equally hard to imagine the party putting up with his recent willingness to find common ground and compromise.

Either way, Boehner’s influence appears to be evaporating quickly. Under the circumstances, I’m not even sure why he should be negotiating on behalf of his caucus.

As we talked about over the weekend, the Speaker of the House is arguably one of the most powerful offices in the government, at least in theory. It’s supposed to be within Boehner’s power to simply tell his caucus what they have a responsibility to do, and demand their fealty.

But a leader with no followers is, by definition, weak. Boehner may be the Speaker, but as he’s quickly realizing, he’s taking the orders, not giving them.

In the asylum known as the House of Representatives, is there any doubt as to the inmates’ power?

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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  • Danp on July 11, 2011 1:32 PM:

    Imagine trying to carry on a serious conversation with Eric Cantor. Ugh! And of course, it would be awkward for a black man to slap the little weasel upside the head.

  • Ron Byers on July 11, 2011 1:36 PM:

    This is bad. Eric Cantor is an ignorant opportunist who probably thinks he will win the speakers job if he destroys the economy. He won't, because if the economy goes up in flames he will be gone with everybody eles.

    This is sort of like living through the French revolution, but this time the revolutionaries haven't deployed the guillotines yet.

  • Anonymous on July 11, 2011 1:41 PM:

    If Boehner knows he's on his way out as speaker, he really should (for the sake of the country, too) figure out a way to take Cantor out as well. There must be some dirt or scandal with Cantor that would be so awful that even IOKIYAR won't cover. At least Boehner would get the last laugh for the grief and humiliation that Cantor is foisting on him.

    Captcha: decision, Madedu

    Made you, no forced you to make that decision, eh Eric?

  • walt on July 11, 2011 1:42 PM:

    Ron Byer's thought about the French Revolution occurred to me, too. As much as we love to lampoon Boehner, he was still someone who understood politics as the art of compromise. It's why I'm so troubled with Obama since he had to know that his Grand Bargain would make Boehner's hold on his caucus even more fragile. Unless, there's a rabbit in a hat somewhere, it really looks like there's nothing for Boehner to midwife. If that's the case, what's the endgame? My best guess is that Obama will capitulate to avoid Armageddon, in which case there's really no point to his presidency.

  • Mimikatz on July 11, 2011 1:49 PM:

    "Speaker Cantor" is a horrifying thought, as the guy is not only stupid and self-aggrandizing, but doesn't have any interest in governing and doesn't understand most government programs anyway or how government actually functions. As someone said, people tend to think he must be smart because he's Jewish and wears glasses. The current shenanigans should convince anyone with half a brain that this just isn't true. So I think the analysis si right that Obama is waiting for a crisis.

    Obama did a few good things today, oe of which is to call the GOP's bluff on being sincere about deficit reduction. Another is to reiterate that social security has nothing to do with the deficit and is a problem down the road, and it seemed clear he was saying any changes that do affect benefits would be gradual and down the road. He was also good in making it clear that no one is talking abitu raising taxes now, in the middle of economic hard times, rather it is letting the Bush tax cuts on the rich expire. OTOH, most of the cuts are now. And seemingly any SS changes would also be gradual and down the road.

    He did not clearly explain that raising the debt ceiling is not authorizing new spending, it is authorizing borrowing to pay back loans for what we have already spent. He did not hit hard enough that the GOP is trying to protect the tax breaks of millionaires and would sink the economy before compromising on that point, and he did not explain that uncertianty will mean jigher interest rates, which will make the deficit worse. But there is going to be three weeks to escalate that while the deal doesn't get done.

    I do think that he went out on a limb sufficiently that he has to get some significant revenues in the deal. I think we will go up to a crisis in the bond and or stock market before it gets resolved. He shouldmhave done this sooner, but ut was good, and may possibly even help.

  • Chris on July 11, 2011 1:56 PM:

    Not being familiar with the inner workings of the House, I'm wondering what, if anything, Boehner could do to strengthen his hand with his own caucus. Is it possible for Boehner to crack the whip, and if so, how?

    Having said that, I'm glad the GOP is turning its back on President Obama's so-called "Grand Bargain". His proposal ain't grand, and its no bargain for this country, its poor, or its middle class.

  • rusty chainsaw on July 11, 2011 1:58 PM:

    And it wouldn't have hurt for Obama to mention that Cantor is invested in a fund that does well if the government defaults.

    Even if he didn't want to call weasel-boy out by name he could have said "some republicans."

  • Josef K on July 11, 2011 2:01 PM:

    I wonder, when the history of this period is written, if July 11th will be considered the day that America was set on an irrevocable course toward national default.

    Its not like we can rationally hope for any other outcome when you have Eric Cantor doing the negotiating on this issue. I'll wager even if the President and the whole Democratic caucus were to agree to all the GOP's demands today, he'd say "no".

    Let's be blunt: Senator McConnell was being completely up-front when he stated that the GOP's sole, overriding goal was to make President Obama "a one-term President". Everything they've done to date has been towards that end, so their deliberate negligence in this case isn't that much of a stretch.

    Basically, and unless there's an outbreak of sanity amongst the GOP (or the Democrats decide to give the store away), we're about to see something thoroughly unprecedented in our nation's history. Unprecedented, and quite possibly fatal.

  • CDW on July 11, 2011 2:03 PM:

    Looks like the winds are changing and the cons have begun their tack to jobs and taxes instead of the debt. Hard alee! (see boner's presser this morning)

  • DRF on July 11, 2011 2:04 PM:

    It's been clear since the beginning of the current Congress that Boehner was in the Speaker's chair on sufferance from the Tea Party wing of the Republican caucus and that, as a result, he had no real power.

    He should do the honorable thing and resign. However, my guess is that he hangs on through the current Congress but doesn't run for re-election in 2012, retires and takes a lobbying or trade association job.

  • g on July 11, 2011 2:05 PM:

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't one of the strengths of the Speaker the ability to reward members by committee assignments, etc? What other rewards does the Speaker have to dole out?

    When these assignments are made, do they stand for the duration of the congressional year, or can the speaker rescind an appointment, give it to someone else, and do otherwise mid-term?

  • steve duncan on July 11, 2011 2:05 PM:

    Why Dick Armey and Grover Norquist aren't the people in with Obama negotiating this budget is puzzling. They're the ones with final say. Cut out the Republican Congressional caucus, they're toothless message boys. Why have middlemen muddy up the marching orders?

  • Irv Mermelstein on July 11, 2011 2:07 PM:

    I think you are hitting some of the very important points concerning the question of who is running the House leadership at the moment. At the negotiating table, one has to have something to buy or sell. Boehner has neither. He cannot get his caucus behind him, so he may as well "just sit there" during the talks. In fact, his presence is not really necessary.

    But Eric Cantor is not buying or selling anything either. His leverage is completely of the negative sort (to say the least) and he is playing the spoiler here, pure and simple. Talking to him is not only a waste of time, it tends to strengthen Cantor's position vis a vis Boehner.

    So who represents the Republicans here? No one, I would argue. And who should the President be negotiating with?
    There is no one and Obama today really seems to be talking to himself.

    Obama created this situation, to some extent, by entering into negotiations with the House republicans to begin with. This created an expectation of compromise and suggested that the matter was one that just needed a little good faith and some give and take. This has never been the case.

    The President's position should have been from day 1--nothing but a clean bill. And that should be his position now. He should advise the GOP that there is no longer time for negotiations--that they have walked away from the Biden talks and now the talks with him, and that time has simply run out.

    And if he needs to use the 14th Amendment route, he should do so without hesitation. Geithner is 100% correct in this regard.

  • T2 on July 11, 2011 2:13 PM:

    Boner's presser responding to Obama's presser was sad. It was as if he'd taking the Way Back Machine a few weeks back....launching the same old "Job Killer" soundbite the GOP uses to respond to everything Obama does or says. He admitted that he is not in control of his caucus. He also admitted that the Debt Ceiling must rise. He also admitted to a quick morning trip to a tanning parlor. He also admitted big cuts in "entitlements" were absolutely necessary. He also admitted that the GOP was determined to cut taxes on the Rich (or as they are now referred to: the Job Creators - might as well just call the Slave Owners).
    Obama cleverly pulled Boner and the rest of them into one big trap...by doubling the amount of reductions the GOP had demanded, he can now simply sit back and say 'Hey, I doubled what they demanded and they rejected that in order to protect the Rich from having to pay fair taxes".

  • square1 on July 11, 2011 2:31 PM:

    The fundamental problem that I have with Obama is that he is completely full of shit on debt reduction.

    Personally, I don't think the debt is that big a deal as long as we figure out how to grow out of it. But let's say that I did. Let's say that I really, honest-to-God believed that deficit reduction was a necessary immediate, short-term goal. And let's say that I believed -- as Obama's supporters claim -- that this goal is so important that the President thought it was necessary for everyone to sacrifice, even members of his own party, and even if it cost Obama a second term.

    Well then, Obama was handed a solution on a silver platter 6 months ago: Don't extend the Bush tax cuts AT ALL. Just go back to the Clinton-era tax rates for everybody.

    Sure, it would be politically difficult (even if economically rational) to explain to the middle class why their taxes are going up in a recession. But, according to Obama's defenders, those are exactly the types of tough calls that he is supposedly willing to make: telling us that we need to tighten our belts, etc.

    The current unwillingness of the GOP to consider revenue increases that the White House -- and Steve Benen, of course -- is constantly whining about would have been completely moot if Obama and Congressional Democrats had simply allowed the tax cuts to expire.

    The Congressional Research Service has estimated that total cost of permanently extending all of the Bush tax cuts, including interest necessary to service the increased debt, will be over $5T over the next ten years.

    Could it be any more clear that if Obama really cared about debt reduction, to the point of risking his political future, he would have either allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire? Or, at least, Obama could have negotiated a much more favorable deficit-reduction package with the prior (pre-tea-bagger) Congress.

    Personally, I completely object to the anti-stimulative spending cuts that the Democrats are currently negotiating. But if Democrats really think that the spending cuts are a good idea, why the hell didn't the Democrats propose them 6 months ago when the Democrats could have taken complete credit for them? Or 9 months ago and taken a campaign issue away from the GOP?

    Even if it is theoretically possible to defend Democratic behavior at any snapshot in time (e.g. right now it is necessary to concede to GOP demands in order to avert a debt crisis), it is impossible to defend the Democrats total behavior over the past 12 months.

    It is truly impossible to come to anything other than one of two possible conclusions: The Democrats are completely complicit or the Democrats are massively, massively stupid.

  • Catsy on July 11, 2011 2:42 PM:

    Cue the flood of "Republicans in disarray" news stories in 3... 2...

    Oh, wait.

  • flubber on July 11, 2011 2:49 PM:

    The debt ceiling will be raised. Perhaps without tax increases or spending cuts. This is all just posturing for donors and the rubes. In the end, a deal will be voted through. Like magic.

  • Gretchen on July 11, 2011 3:47 PM:

    I called my rep's office this morning and asked where he stood on the debt ceiling vote. The guy who answered the phone said "I haven't talked to him about that". I said it needs to be done, gave him my thoughts on the subject, and pointed out that this is not a Tea Party district, that a (Blue Dog) Democrat was elected over and over until he retired. I asked if he wanted to stand for reelection with ads saying he'd blown up the economy over tax breaks for corporate jets and hedge fund managers., because this isn't something to play with in the hopes that it won't turn out as badly as some say. He sounded like he was writing down everything I said. So call your reps if you have a Republican one!

  • June on July 11, 2011 8:11 PM:

    @square1, I have to guess you know it was never as simple as: "Well then, Obama was handed a solution on a silver platter 6 months ago: Don't extend the Bush tax cuts AT ALL. Just go back to the Clinton-era tax rates for everybody."

    If it were that simple, and Obama had let the tax cuts expire, here's what would and would not have happened:

    Because the Republicans in the Senate sent a letter to Obama vowing to not participate in any vote whatsoever unless the Bush tax cuts were extended:

    *Don't Ask, Don't Tell would not have been repealed
    *The New START Treaty would not have been passed, seriously threatening national security at a time when Obama was strategizing the capture of bin Laden
    *The Zadroga 9/11 Bill extending "health benefits to workers who responded to the Sept. 11, 2001" would not have been passed
    *There would have been no 13-month extension of unemployment benefits which would have dried up in the days right before Christmas and right during the New Year holiday

    I'm going to go ahead and post the rest of what Obama put on that platter:

    *Patching the Alternative Minimum Tax to ensure an additional 21 million households will not face a tax increase. This was done by increasing the exemption amount and making other targeted changes. The negative revenue impact of this measure was estimated at $136 billion.

    *A temporary, one-year reduction in the FICA payroll tax. The normal employee rate of 6.2 percent is reduced to 4.2 percent. The rate for self-employed individuals is reduced from 12.4 percent to 10.4 percent.[9] The negative revenue impact of this measure was estimated at $111 billion.

    *Extension of the Child Tax Credit refundability threshold established by EGTRRA, ARRA, and other measures. According to the White House, this would benefit 10.5 million lower-income families with 18 million children.

    *Extension of ARRA's treatment of the Earned Income Tax Credit for two years. According to the White House, this would benefit 6.5 million working parents with 15 million children.

    *Extension of ARRA's American opportunity tax credit for two years, including extension of income limits applied thereto. According to the White House, this would benefit more than 8 million students and their families.

    The above three provisions, as well as some other similar ones, are intended to provide about $40 billion in tax relief for the hardest-hit families and students.

    *An extension of the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act of 2010's "bonus depreciation" allowance through the end of 2011, and an increase in that amount from that act's 50 percent to a full 100 percent. For the year of 2012, it returns to 50 percent.[9] The White House hopes the 100 percent expensing change will result in $50 billion in new investments, thus fueling job creation.

    *An extension of Section 179 depreciation deduction maximum amounts and phase-out thresholds through 2012.

    *Various business tax credits for alternative fuels, such as the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit, were also extended. Others extended were credits for biodiesel and renewable diesel, refined coal, manufacture of energy-efficient homes, and properties featuring refueling for alternate vehicles.[9] Also finding an extension was the popular domestic Nonbusiness Energy Property Tax Credit, but with some limitations.

    *Estate tax adjustment. EGTRRA had gradually reduced estate tax rates until there was none in 2010. After sunsetting, the Clinton-era rate of 55 percent with a $1 million exclusion was due to return for 2011. The compromise package sets for two years a rate of 35 percent with an exclusion amount of $5 million. The negative revenue impact of this provision was estimated at $68 billion

    *An extension of the 45G short line tax credit, also known as the Railroad Track Maintenance Tax Credit, through January 1, 2012. This credit had been in place since December 31, 2004 and allowed small railroad companies to deduct up to 50% of investments made in track repair and other qualifying infrastructure investments.

    Obama essentially got a back-door stimulus done, and made sure struggling people had at least 13 months more of some income from somewhere coming in, plus got pressing national issues successfully moved through Congress. It was never a simple choice; if he hadn't chosen as he did... a lot of people would have intensely suffered. Is that what we really view as "progressive" thinking?

  • Doug on July 11, 2011 8:59 PM:

    square1 @ 2:31 PM.
    The Democrats didn't propose spending cuts in 2010 because they saw no need for them. The cuts proposed by Democrats in 2011 aren't being made because Democrats necessarily perceive those cuts as "good" in themselves, but because in political negotiations, as in life generally, one sometimes has to make sacrifices. I know, I know, a "true" progreesive" would just damn the Republican opposition to hell and let the chips fall where they will but, as you have so often pointed out, Mr. Obama is no "true" progressive".
    He just gets things done. Such as the ACA, DADT repeal, etc. The Republicans are now out on a limb and sawing it off as fast as they can. The Democrats, President Obama included, have agreed to spending cuts in order to balance what has, suddenly become the MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE OF THE DAY! - reducing the deficit. Voters understand full well that, to reduce a deficit, the Federal government has more than cutting spending as an available. However, the Republicans refuse to even mention the second option - increasing revenues; whether by raising taxes, closing tax loopholes, or whatever. In fact Republicans have gone so far as to declare ANY increase in revenues to be "of the table". Not only do they declare it, they repeat it ad infinitum.
    Teabaggers, of course, love that, but I really don't believe it plays very well with those voters labeled "independent", including many embarassed (former)Republican voters. The idiots in the House may very crash the economy but, if they do, they're NOT going to be able to blame it on the Democrats.
    THAT'S what this is about, at least for the Democrats. If the deficit is so vitally important, then EVERYONE should sacrifice; not just those individuals receiving stipends/health care/food stamps from the Federal government, or those wishing to drink potable water, eat uncontaminated food or breath clean air, but also those receiving un-needed, preferential tax treatment; ie (among many), corporate jet owners. Democrats have done THEIR part, some say too much, but what are the Republicans doing? Nothing. And glorying in it, to boot!
    The audience this is intended for is all those voters who pay SOME attention to what goes on, but only concentrate on an election during the last month or so of a campaign. They're the ones that decide elections and, "mighty Wurlitzer" to the contrary, they vote what they see and what they see right now are the Republicans risking the country's economy rather than increasing taxes, or closing tax loopholes, on the rich.
    I have little doubt the Democrats will help jog the memories of those voters in 2012, although the Republicans are doing such a good job, so to speak, that even THAT may not be necessary.

    re June @ 8:11 PM -
    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I won't say I couldn't have said it better, because there's no way I could have said it so well!

  • June on July 11, 2011 9:20 PM:

    Humbly appreciate the shout-out @Doug.

  • square1 on July 11, 2011 11:56 PM:

    @June: Unfortunately, only a few items on your laundry list come anywhere close to being important enough to justify the multi-trillion dollar hole that the tax cut extensions blow in the national debt.

    Many of the items that you list, e.g. various tax credits and business incentives, are items that Republicans support anyway.

    Others, e.g. the unemployment benefits extension, were politically popular with voters and could have been put up for a vote pre-November, either passing outright or forcing the GOP to take an unpopular stand and possibly allowing the Democrats to keep the House. Passage of Zadroga owed more to Jon Stewart than to D.C. Democrats. Had Democrats made a campaign issue out of it during the fall, the GOP would have folded...or, again, hurt their chances of regaining the House.

    Others, including the payroll tax holiday were of highly dubious stimulative value. Indeed, the payroll tax holiday gave, for the first time ever, Social Security opponents a rhetorical fig leaf in claiming that SS contributes to the deficit. If any SS benefit cuts are included in the current "Grand Bargain" we can look back to the payroll tax holiday as the moment when the door was fully opened.

    The START opposition was a complete bluff, the equivalent of a 4-year old threatening to hold his breath. While it would have been disappointing to put off enabling legislation for the treaty, had the GOP gone forward with its opposition, it would have been devastating for the foreign policy credibility of Senate Republicans and Democrats could have hammered the fuck out of the GOP for exposing America to unnecessary nuclear threats.

    Finally, the few clearly good provisions in the deal, e.g. DADT, were not worth extending the Bush tax cuts. The direct consequence of that deal is that Democrats are now on the verge of agreeing to important and anti-stimulative spending cuts. Many of the programs that will be cut are more important than DADT repeal.

  • square1 on July 12, 2011 12:00 AM:

    @Doug: I would suggest that you read something besides this blog for your news. If you think that Obama doesn't "necessarily perceive those cuts as "good" in themselves," then I would suggest that you are doing a poor job of staying informed.

    Over and over and over and over again, the White House has made clear that they WANT massive spending cuts. It is true that, unlike the GOP, the White House has indicated support for significant tax increases. But that doesn't mean that Obama doesn't favor spending cuts. He does. He wants big ones. He keeps saying so. Over and over and over again. You just have to actually listen to him.