John Boehner's Deal with the Devil
House Speaker John Boehner shocked the political world last week when he announced his resignation less than 24 hours after hosting Pope Francis on Capitol Hill. As it turns out, his timing was altogether fitting. After all, Boehner's life had become a living hell precisely because he had a done a deal with the devil in his own Republican caucus. From the very beginning of his tenure as Speaker, John Boehner advanced many of the radical right's most extreme and obstructionist positions, kamikaze tactics he knew were not just misguided, but dangerous.
Consider, for example, his role in the GOP's unprecedented debt-ceiling hostage taking. Increasing Uncle Sam's borrowing authority had been a routine, bipartisan occurrence, with over 40 debt ceiling hikes just since Ronald Reagan first took the oath of office. No party ever had the both the votes and the intent to block a debt ceiling increase. Just days after first picking up the Speaker's gavel in January 2011, John Boehner explained why:
"That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy. Remember, the American people on Election Day said, 'we want to cut spending and we want to create jobs.' And you can't create jobs if you default on the federal debt."
Just days after his November 2010 midterm triumph, Boehner issued that same warning to the Tea Party extortionists who stormed into Washington with him:
"I've made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it's pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with this," Mr. Boehner, who is slated to become House speaker in January, told reporters.
"We're going to have to deal with it as adults," he said, in what apparently are his most explicit comments to date. "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."
But Boehner also had made commitments to the hardline House conservatives who elevated him to Speaker. And as they clamored for draconian spending cuts and even the privatization of Medicare as the ransom for releasing their debt ceiling hostage in the spring of 2011, Speaker Boehner declared "there's no daylight between the Tea Party and me":
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), fresh off the budget talks, told donors this weekend that if Obama wants an up or down vote on the debt ceiling he's not going to get it.
"The president says I want you to send me a clean bill," Boehner said. "Well guess what, Mr. President, not a chance you're going to get a clean bill."
"There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it," he continued in a clip of his remarks at a fundraiser that was played during "Face the Nation."
That was an amazing statement for Boehner to make, given that he, along with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) voted for all 7 debt ceiling hikes as President Bush nearly doubled the nation's red ink over the previous 8 years. (That included a "clean", $800 billion increase in 2004.) More amazing still, Speaker Boehner told a gathering of Buckeye state Tea Partiers that same April of 2011 that the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling must be raised --and not for the last time:
The private April 25 meeting was convened by the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the request of Tea Party leaders, who were seething over recent Republican compromises, most notably on the 2011 budget.
One of the 25 or so leaders, all from Boehner's district, asked him if Republicans would raise America's $14.3 trillion debt limit.
According to half a dozen attendees interviewed by Reuters, the most powerful Republican in Washington said "yes."
"And we're going to have to raise it again in the future," he added. With the mass retirement of America's Baby Boomers, he explained, it would take 20 years to balance the U.S. budget and 30 years after that to erase the nation's huge fiscal deficit.
Even as the August 2011 deadline approached to avert a sovereign default by the United States, Speaker Boehner continued to try to have it both ways. "Missing August 2nd could spook the market," he warned that July, "And you could have a real catastrophe. Nobody wants that to happen." But that's precisely what many of his Republican colleagues wanted to happen. And in late June, Boehner joined the "default deniers" claiming the Obama administration's warnings about that early August deadline were "scare tactics" and "outright blatant lies":
"Dealing with this deficit problem is far more important than meeting some artificial date created by the Treasury secretary."
Ultimately, the Budget Control Act of 2011--best known for its arbitrary "sequestration" process to chop discretionary spending by $1.2 trillion over a decade--averted the worldwide "financial disaster" Boehner himself darkly predicted. The Speaker's reaction?
"I got 98 percent of what I wanted."
But spending reductions weren't all he got. With the debt ceiling showdown, Boehner had created what Mitch McConnell would call "a new template" for "a hostage that's worth ransoming." Going forward, Congressional Republicans were empowered to threaten to shut down the government, block debt ceiling increases and trigger a global economic calamity over immigration rules, Obamacare funding, Planned Parenthood spending or just about any other blackmail du jour. (John Boehner's Catholic Church even got into the act in 2013, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops demanding Congress refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless "unless religious employers were given a special right to deny birth control coverage to their employees.") It's no surprise that in 2011 and again in the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling showdowns of 2012, majorities of Americans came to believe that the debt ceiling shouldn't be raised at all.
And Boehner got something else: a reduction in the U.S. credit rating in what many rightly called the Tea Party Downgrade:
A Standard & Poor's director said for the first time Thursday that one reason the United States lost its triple-A credit rating was that several lawmakers expressed skepticism about the serious consequences of a credit default -- a position put forth by some Republicans. Without specifically mentioning Republicans, S&P senior director Joydeep Mukherji said the stability and effectiveness of American political institutions were undermined by the fact that "people in the political arena were even talking about a potential default," Mukherji said. "That a country even has such voices, albeit a minority, is something notable," he added. "This kind of rhetoric is not common amongst AAA sovereigns."
That kind of rhetoric may not be common amongst countries with AAA credit ratings, but it was just another day in the office for John Boehner and his Tea Party allies. With tax revenues up thanks to the rebounding economy, by March 2013 even Speaker Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan had to admit "we have no immediate debt crisis." Nevertheless, the Speaker tried to stick to his "Boehner Rule," mandating a dollar in spending cuts for each dollar increase in the debt ceiling. And he continued to rule out tax increases as part of any path to deficit reduction.
Ultimately, the "fiscal cliff" deal of January 2013 included an end to some of the Bush tax cuts sought by President Obama. But when Democrats urged that some or all of the sequester be rolled back to help accelerate the economic recovery, Speaker Boehner pretended that would have no positive impact on jobs. Asked if he had "a sense of how many jobs will be lost as a result of the sequester," the Speaker of the House said, "I do not." In March 2013, Boehner once again proclaimed his ignorance in an interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press:
"I don't know whether it's going to hurt the economy or not. I don't think anyone quite understands how the sequester is really going to work."
Of course, there were no shortage of dire, specific and nonpartisan warnings about the impact of the $85 billion in cuts to defense and discretionary spending in 2013 alone. And Speaker Boehner knows this, because over just the last three weeks he heard them directly from the heads of the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve. On February 13, 2013, CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf testified to the House Budget Committee about the economic blow from the first year of $1.2 trillion, decade-long sequester:
"The sequester alone will reduce GDP growth this year by 0.6 percentage points, lowering GDP at the end of the year by that 0.6 percent. We think that would reduce the level of employment at the end of the year by about 750,000 jobs."
And in his testimony to Congress that same month, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke echoed that warning:
The CBO estimates that deficit-reduction policies in current law will slow the pace of real GDP growth by about 1-1/2 percentage points this year, relative to what it would have been otherwise.
A significant portion of this effect is related to the automatic spending sequestration that is scheduled to begin on March 1, which, according to the CBO's estimates, will contribute about 0.6 percentage points to the fiscal drag on economic growth this year. Given the still-moderate underlying pace of economic growth, this additional near-term burden on the recovery is significant.
Moreover, besides having adverse effects on jobs and incomes, a slower recovery would lead to less actual deficit reduction in the short run for any given set of fiscal actions.
It's no wonder Bernanke lamented, "So it doesn't quite match to be doing tough policies today when the real problem is a somewhat longer-term problem."
But Boehner's Republican kamikaze caucus wanted to squeeze the government no matter the disastrous impact and no matter the truth. And when it came to the truth about Barack Obama's citizenship and faith, House Speaker John Boehner wasn't about to challenge the Cannibal Conservatives he helped create.
In his first month on the job, Speaker Boehner told David Gregory, "I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian, I'll take him at his word." But when Gregory pushed him to accept the "responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance," Boehner repeatedly refused.
David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people...Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think. I can't -- it's not my job to tell them.
Apparently, that job belongs to the likes of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump. Which is why, four and a half years later, a recent PPP poll found that "Trump Supporters Think Obama is A Muslim Born in Another Country":
Our new poll finds that Trump is benefiting from a GOP electorate that thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born in another country, and that immigrant children should be deported. 66% of Trump's supporters believe that Obama is a Muslim to just 12% that grant he's a Christian. 61% think Obama was not born in the United States to only 21% who accept that he was...
Trump's beliefs represent the consensus among the GOP electorate. 51% overall want to eliminate birthright citizenship. 54% think President Obama is a Muslim. And only 29% grant that President Obama was born in the United States. That's less than the 40% who think Canadian born Ted Cruz was born in the United States.
Now as he prepares to depart the stage, Democrats and some Republicans are lamenting Boehner's fate. President Obama and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid praised John Boehner as a "patriot" and a "good friend." While Republican Lindsey Graham warned a Congressional "meltdown" in Boehner's wake, the liberal ThinkProgress warned, "John Boehner may have been the only thing standing between America and madness." Looking at Boehner's efforts to avoid the Ted Cruz-led government shutdown in the fall of 2013, Ian Millhiser wrote Friday:
For four years, Boehner's been caught between hardline conservatives who insist on pressing the Republican Party's agenda by any means necessary, and his own understanding that perpetual shutdowns are a road to economic ruin and political oblivion.
Better the devil you know, apparently, than the devil you don't.
But E.J. Dionne and Paul Krugman offered more honest and accurate assessments of Boehner's tenure. "Boehner was happy to ride the tea party to the speakership," Dionne explained, "but to keep the job, he often had to appease the tiger." Krugman only needed his first paragraph to get the job done:
John Boehner was a terrible, very bad, no good speaker of the House. Under his leadership, Republicans pursued an unprecedented strategy of scorched-earth obstructionism, which did immense damage to the economy and undermined America's credibility around the world.
On Face the Nation Sunday, John Boehner himself warned his Republican Party and the nation about the those in the GOP who made almost any compromise with the Obama administration impossible:
"The Bible says beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done."
But John Boehner sold his soul to those false prophets years ago. It was only a time before they came to collect it.