Opinion: Boehner’s loss of control sad to watch

September 29, 2013


— In the line of succession, House Speaker John Boehner is the third ranking official in the country. In actual fact, he has all but disappeared. Even Democrats should hope that Boehner gets his mojo back.

Boehner’s collapse as speaker has been sad to watch. Unable to control his own caucus, negotiate effectively with the president or pass legislation, he flounders in office — a likable man who is utterly ineffective. He is the prisoner of the extreme wing of his party, and of his supposed lieutenants, such as Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who spend their time pandering to the extremists rather than helping Boehner lead.

Boehner’s problem is that he is unable to deliver the 218 House Republicans  for any pragmatic piece of legislation. He survives from crisis to crisis, thanks to Democratic votes that salvage last-minute compromises. But on major issues that Boehner personally supports, such as immigration reform, he has been powerless.

We are seeing the consequences of a leaderless House in the GOP’s renewed threat of a government shutdown or debt-ceiling default. These reckless actions are part of a grandstand play to reverse the Affordable Care Act, which begins to take effect in October, but they’ve assumed an illogic of their own. The House Republicans seem almost to enjoy holding the country hostage. Their version of Russian Roulette has become so familiar that we forget just how outrageous it is.

Boehner surely knows this course is folly. Legislation to defund Obamacare won’t pass Congress. And the GOP’s brinkmanship, however popular with the right wing, is damaging the party nationally. But Boehner simply cannot control his members. His latest maneuver last week was an example: He is urging his right-wing members to back off the crazy shutdown idea only by threatening an even crazier debt default.

Boehner declared his impotence during a July 21 interview on “Face the Nation.” Moderator Bob Schieffer asked him to express support for the comprehensive immigration bill he had earlier said he favored. “If I come out and say I’m for this and I’m for that, all I’m doing is making my job harder,” answered Boehner. “This is not about me,” he said several times, as if abdication of control were some kind of virtue.

A dumbfounded Schieffer responded: “That is kind of an interesting take on leadership, though. In other words, you don’t see yourself as someone who has an agenda. You’re there to just sort of manage whatever your people want to do?”

Cantor has cunningly worked to undermine his nominal boss. By often allying himself with the roughly 40 tea-party extremists who refuse any compromise with Obama, Cantor gives them political oxygen. He encourages their showboating, as on the bill he championed this month to slash the food-stamp program. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, described this bill as “a monumental waste of time.” House committee chairmen ignore Boehner; they know Cantor is the guy with the knife.

This dysfunction isn’t built into the system. It’s a result of human failure. President Obama gets pummeled daily for his weak leadership but compared with Boehner, he’s a titan.

It’s useful to remember a time when House speakers were able to cut deals that put the country’s interests first. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews describes such a moment in his new book, “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” It was early 1981, and a newly elected President Ronald Reagan needed the votes of the House Democratic majority to, yes, raise the debt ceiling. House Speaker Tip O’Neill (for whom Matthews worked at the time) agreed — on condition that Reagan send “thank you” letters to all the Democrats who backed his request.

Perhaps O’Neill is an unfair comparison. He had the rare combination of loyal lieutenants and a president who, for all ideological bluster, wanted to govern effectively. But even by comparison with GOP conservatives Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, Boehner has been a disappointment. He doesn’t have Gingrich’s intellectual horsepower or Hastert’s deal-making savvy. 

Nancy Pelosi wasn’t a perfect speaker, but she showed that a strong leader can enforce discipline even within a House majority that’s being pulled toward its extreme wing by activists, interest groups and the effects of redistricting. She wielded power, sometimes ruthlessly, to keep her committee chairmen and rank-and-file members in line.

 I’d love to celebrate Boehner for finding a way to re-empower the speakership and lead the House GOP. But he seems to have given up. 

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


weeslicket 6 months, 2 weeks ago

  1. excellent editorial.

  2. sadly, this is where the gerrymandering of districts leads us. it would be far better if the task of drawing voting districts were taken out of the hands of state legislatures and given to professional adults.


oldbaldguy 6 months, 3 weeks ago

our government is not parliamentarian. the majority in power governs. here is what I know, we still have troops in contact with the enemy and our representatives cannot pass a budget,. they fight over an act that is the law of the land. why not work on making ACA work, iron out the bugs and inequities in conference like they used to do? see what a shut down does to the economy in the next 2-3 weeks. my investments are just now back to where they were before 2008. i was planning on retiring in 2-3 years. it is time for term limits in the House and the Senate. the people up there are not effective.


Liberty275 6 months, 3 weeks ago

It looks official, government is shut down. My message to the GOP, keep it shut down.


kansas_cynic 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Rather enjoying watching the GOP implosion.


Cait McKnelly 6 months, 3 weeks ago

If the GOTea is so much against the ACA and truly believe it will "wreck the economy" then why not let it go into effect and PROVE what they believe and let Obama and the Dems take the fall?
The truth is, they are terrified it WILL work; so frightened that they are threatening to do something to this country with far worse consequences. The smell of desperation is an overwhelming stench.
This is the third year in a row that Teapublicans have tried to take this country hostage. How did that work out for them last November?


yourworstnightmare 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Great summary of John Boehner's capitulation to the tea party and his loss of control of the republican party.

I suspect Boehner has not yet plumbed the full depths to which the tea party will drag him, meaning he will get the boot in a primary.


Cait McKnelly 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Even the WSJ says that if the GOP takes it all the way to a shutdown that it will sign the death warrant of the Republican party, especially in the House. (One must remember that Kansas isn't representative of the rest of the nation. It's the last bastion of TeaParadise. Even Texas is going down the toilet in that regard.)
Remember, this is America. We don't negotiate with terrorists.


grammaddy 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Watch. Once the PPACA is fully instated and working, the right will no longer call it "Obamacare".


Richard Heckler 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Shutting down government over Obamacare = GOP threatening to Default on the nations debt which is remarkable and insane.

This would be the third major global financial crisis created by this GOP. The first was set off by the Reagan/Bush home loan fiasco. The second by selling bad bundles of home loans to banks world wide under the watchful eye of Bush/Cheney. Henry Paulson was turning a blind eye while Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was denying the housing bubble’s existence—not fraud exactly, but deception that kept the bubble going.

This will screw over the very smart and very rich people, and the central banks of Japan, China, and many other countries that hold a large share of their assets in U.S. government bonds. The government of the United States has never defaulted on any bond obligation. The GOP appear to be ready to break this tradition.

This GOP obviously feels the United States doesn’t have to meet its obligation to the working people or its obligations to ultra-wealthy bondholders. The suggestion that the U.S. government might not be willing to repay its debt obligations is remarkable and will completely disrupt global financial markets.


Trumbull 6 months, 3 weeks ago

The ACA is not really that big of a deal. The R's are using it as a device to obstruct, and to the peril of us all. We very well could have reached the point that our credit rating will be downgraded again like it was in 2011. The last time, the reason was the dysfunctional congress. If this happens we will likely see the interest rate on our debt load increase. This will be very bad. Not very fiscally conservative is it?

Again the ACA is not to big a deal. I just looked at my own booklet.....300+ pages. Man we can sure bog ourselves down by making things way more complicated than they need to be.


Richard Heckler 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Republican Party shutting down the government is stupid and reckless beyond belief. That shuts down trillions of tax dollars coming to our communities nationwide which could very well cause a ton more unemployment. Have these people no brains?

As if the Reagan/Bush home loan scandal were not enough there were millions more jobs lost as a result of the world wide calamity aka Bush/Cheney home loan fiasco. This GOP party is all about economic chaos NOT economic growth and new industry.

This GOP can put people out of work at the speed of light but is incapable of putting these unfortunate workers back to work. Putting millions of workers back to work is the key to reviving this economy. Where are the bold democrats?

The other day I was stunned after reading how much had been lost between August 2000 and February 2004. Manufacturing jobs were lost for a stunning 43 consecutive months—the longest such stretch since the Great Depression. Can anyone believe such poor management from the highest levels of government?

It was also noted that 51,000 manufacturing plants in the last decade went up in smoke creating more than a 12.5 percent loss, between 1998 and 2008. What the hell is going on?

These stable, middle-class jobs have been the driving force of the U.S. economy for decades and these losses have done considerable damage to communities across the country. What is the USA government doing other than catering to special interest campaign funds?

As a registered republican I have been convinced this GOP is no longer republican but most certainly right wing and reckless. I'll be looking to vote democrat,Green Party or whatever it takes to put America back to work. This country most assuredly needs some bold new faces in the democrat party as well. As for the GOP I'm afraid is a goner ..... dead. How sad.

Considering all of the above can the USA sustain the war spending and put Americans back to work at the same time? I am not so sure.


riverdrifter 6 months, 3 weeks ago

I saw that edition of Face The Nation. I thought Schieffer was going to fall out of his chair. Boehner is the politician's version of Lane Kiffin.


Liberty275 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Either Boehner fights the aca every chance he gets or he will be primaried out. Right now, he is not doing neatly enough to oppose the aca. If he was in an election campaign, I would send money to his primary challenger.

Either he gets the job done, or he gets the boot .


grammaddy 6 months, 3 weeks ago

He gave all his power away the first time he gave in to the Tea Party. Couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy.


Armstrong 6 months, 3 weeks ago

If you substituted Obama for Boehner in this piece it would still be accurate. You're right wounded either lead, follow or get out of the way.


Abdu Omar 6 months, 3 weeks ago

Good summation. Either lead, or follow or get out of the way.


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