Futility (Boehner Repeat Rehash Remix)

Don't ask me, I'm just the Speaker of the Fucking House

“He’s never wanted to just be speaker. He’s wanted to be a historically significant speaker.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK04)

It seemed a strange enough thing to say at the time. Consider that John Boehner’s historical significance as Speaker of the House might well be that he is the worst Speaker in history, at least until another Republican holds the job. Mr. Cole spoke of his friend and colleague just last November; Republicans had won a bicameral majority, and the article from Carle Hulse and Jeremy W. Peters is significant to this moment, opening:

John A. Boehner does not want to be remembered as the Shutdown Speaker.

As Congress returns from recess on Monday facing a Dec. 11 deadline for funding the government, Mr. Boehner and his fellow Republican leaders are working to persuade the rank and file — furious over President Obama’s executive action on immigration — that engaging in a spending confrontation is the wrong way to counter the White House. That would set the wrong tone, they argue, as Republicans prepare to take over Congress and fulfill promises to govern responsibly.

And, well, as matters of House leadership go, kicking the can so we can do this for another week works, but the question of tone and avoiding a spending confrontation over immigration worked out just about as well as you might expect.

That is to say, Nancy Pelosi bailed Mr. Boehner out, and all she really gets in exchange is to do this again later this week.

And all of this leading to Josh Hicks’ headline today explaining “Why a DHS shutdown won’t stop Obama’s immigration orders”.

While Boehner’s allies in the House explain, as Jesse Byrnes reported yesterday, that the Speaker’s job is not in jeopardy, it’s worth noting that when Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH04) “repeatedly denied” the prospect of an ouster, it would seem someone was asking him directly.

Betsy Woodruff of Slate stirred this pot on Saturday, explaining:

While most of the GOP-watching world (your correspondent included) spent the last 24 hours zeroed in on the antics at CPAC—Donald Trump said some things! The Duck Dynasty guy said some things! There were millennials!—Capitol Hill offered its own drama. On Friday night, at the last possible moment, Congress managed to squeak through legislation to keep the Department of Homeland Security funded. But don’t worry if you missed it; the compromise is just a weeklong patch, which means we may very well have a replay of the same drama in seven short days.

More importantly, the funding-fight fiasco could lead to a major political casualty: John Boehner’s speakership. If that happens (and admittedly, it’s a very big if), Boehner would be the second member of the House Republican Leadership to be dethroned in less than 10 months, and it would indicate that some public policy differences within the Republican party are lethally irreconcilable.

† † †

Even though the possibility still seems remote, the fact that we’re even talking about it is telling, and it’s a significant indicator of how fraught the GOP’s divide over immigration has become.

Here’s how we got here: Last summer, a few months before the midterm elections, President Obama promised to take unilateral executive action that would defer deportations and provide work authorization for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally. The idea was immediately controversial and didn’t poll particularly well, and some vulnerable Democrats representing red states persuaded the president to postpone the move until after the November elections.

Republicans pounced. The president’s plans gave them a rare moment of near-total unity on the immigration issue, and his timing couldn’t have been more opportune. Many Republican candidates made opposition to the president’s move the centerpiece of their campaigns, Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus promised Tea Party activists that the party would fight it tooth and nail, and the GOP proceeded to coast to historic wins. A few weeks later, the president announced that his executive action was going full steam ahead.

So if Boehner and his fellow Hill Republicans were to cave on the fight over the president’s executive action—whatever “cave” actually means in this situation—then many grassroots activists would feel cheated and deeply betrayed. This brings us to the question of DHS funding. Many on the Hill have argued that the best way to nip the president’s executive action in the bud is to do so by using legislation that funds the DHS to prevent it from implementing the president’s policy.

The result is predictable; Boehner cannot bring the House Republican caucus to do anything useful, and as Steve Benen reminds, seems to calling from a strange playbook:

As his weekly press conference was getting underway yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), before he starting making odd kissing noises, tried to argue that Democrats are responsible for the Homeland Security mess his party created.

“I just think it’s outrageous that Senate Democrats are using Homeland Security funding for blackmail to protect the actions of the president,” the Speaker argued.

Boehner shouldn’t use words if he doesn’t know what they mean; it ends up being embarrassing for him and annoying for everyone else. In this case, Republicans are holding DHS funding hostage and Democrats aren’t prepared to pay the ransom. In English, that’s not what “blackmail” means.

But with 16 hours remaining until Homeland Security funding expires, it seems Boehner doesn’t know what “leverage” means, either.

The basic situation: Something needs to be done. The Department of Homeland Security, in order to perform its functions, requires specific funding. This can be done easily, and once upon a time this sort of housekeeping was fairly routine in Congress. But during the Obama years, the GOP has transformed into a straightforward opposition party, even, as we now see, when they hold a bicameral majority.The Seal of Speaker Boehner's House of Representatives

The phrase “clean bill” gets tossed around in this quite a bit, and here again the proposition is straightforward. Congress could simply pass DHS funding and get on with its other business; a funding bill that appropriates the necessary money and does nothing else would generally be the defintion of a clean bill.

Except, of course, these are Republicans, which means we must rewrite the dictionary to accommodate their version of political correctness. They offer a bill that funds DHS, but also instructs the department to oppose the president. And if Senate Democrats say no to attaching that kind of extraneous lever, House Republicans would like you to view their fund-and-lever as the “clean bill”, and an actual clean bill as “blackmail”. That is to say, the evil Democrats won’t negotiate for the GOP’s chosen hostage; how dastardly.

But there is also the question of the GOP’s leverage; can they convince Senate Democrats, who hold the power of the filibuster, to assert Congressional purview against an executive order? And even if that was possible, could the bill to fund DHS and strike the president’s executive authority overcome a veto?

The answers are no, and, even then, no.

And perhaps House Republicans know this; the question of ignorance versus apathy is a genuine toss-up.

And, yet, even so convinced, Speaker Boehner’s caucus is playing this game poorly:

If given a choice between kicking the can down the road and nothing, the Senate may feel like it has no choice but to accept this silly solution.

The obvious flaw, however, is that this wouldn’t solve the underlying problem, so much as it delays the inevitable for no apparent reason. The less-obvious flaw is that the Speaker’s office is effectively abandoning the whole idea of leverage.

From the outset of this mind-numbing fight, the Speaker felt he had the upper hand: he’d hold Homeland Security funding hostage, threatening Democrats with a shutdown unless Congress were permitted to destroy the White House immigration policy. Under the ham-handed plan, Dems wouldn’t want a shutdown; they would be convinced that the GOP isn’t bluffing; and they’d give in to Republican demands.

Except it was all a sham. Boehner is making it abundantly clear he doesn’t want to cut off Homeland Security funding, which means, of course, that Democrats have no incentive to pay the ransom and free the hostage.

So we get to do this all again. And who knows? Maybe again.

And once again questions arise, or rumors swirl, about John Boehner’s speakership.

And still that seemingly interminably awful tenure continues.

Before we can wonder why this works, there must first exist some reasonable comprehension of how it works. The problem there is that beyond cheap cynicism, that this is post-partisan, post-policy, fundraising politics of a sardonic and intellectually stunted era―sometimes a simple difference ‘twixt acknowledging human frailty and calculating to exploit it―there really isn’t much for a real, functional explanation.


Hulse, Carl and Jeremy W. Peters. “Boehner Uses New Mandate to Muffle Talk of a Shutdown”. The New York Times. 30 November 2014.

Shabad, Rebecca. “Shutdown of Homeland Security averted as Pelosi comes to rescue”. The Hill. 27 February 2015.

Hicks, Josh. “Why a DHS shutdown won’t stop Obama’s immigration orders”. The Washington Post. 2 March 2015.

Byrnes, Jesse. “Conservative: Boehner coup ‘not going to happen'”. The Hill. 1 March 2015.

Woodruff, Betsy. “Boehner’s Last Stand?”. Slate. 28 February 2015.

Benen, Steve. “House Speaker forgets how leverage works”. msnbc. 27 February 2015.

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