Capitol Idea: The Sad Pointlessness Of John Boehner

In this 2007 photo, Republican John Boehner stands with then-President George W. Bush and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Were I John Boehner, I’d be deeply envious of Nancy Pelosi right about now. As House speaker, Pelosi clearly was in charge. And whether you agreed with her results or not, she got things done. She clearly enjoyed being speaker, but the office in and of itself was not what mattered most. What Pelosi wanted, and what she delivered, were accomplishments. She helped preside over the 111th Congress, which became the most productive lawmaking session in decades.

The 112th Congress that Boehner is ostensibly leading? The charitable way to put it is, well, much less so in terms of accomplishment. The current session is on track to be one of the least productive in decades.

What’s the point of being speaker if you’re not truly in charge of the House? Not only could he not sell his fellow Republicans on the grand budget bargain he had been trying to work out with President Obama, Boehner reportedly has been reduced to allowing his deputy, Eric Cantor, do most of the talking during negotiations. President Obama even has apparently become unclear of whether Boehner really is leading the House of Representatives. Obama reportedly was forced to ask Cantor, “Am I dealing with him, or am I dealing with you?”

In Nancy Pelosi’s day, there was no such confusion. She made the deals, and she delivered. She got major, controversial legislation through the House. Not only health care reform, but a contentious cap-and-trade bill to deal with climate change, too. (In that latter case, it was the Senate which couldn’t follow through.) Pelosi may not have won every fight she took on, but she never just gave up and shut up the way Boehner seems to be doing now.

Boehner appears paralyzed, too terrified of crossing the more conservative, tea party-backed members of his caucus, to pursue the big grand budget bargain he and the president were trying to hammer out. Just what is he afraid of? He could lose his speakership. That’s the absolute worst that could happen. Cantor, who more clearly than ever has emerged as more rival than friend these recent weeks, could depose him in a conservative coup. So what? After all the dust settles on this budget/debt crisis, Boehner might find himself ousted, anyway. And, he might lose his speakership, regardless, if Democrats retake the House next year.

Such crass, self-serving calculations were not what Nancy Pelosi was about when she held the gavel. She bet big. Yes, she ultimately lost her speakership, but she’s okay with that. It was everything she had accomplished that mattered.

Cantor reportedly says that “nothing” could pass the House right now. Malarkey. If Boehner truly believes, as he says, that the debt ceiling must rise for the sake of the overall economy, he could take that “mother of all no-brainer” deals, as conservative David Brooks termed it. The speaker could pull together whatever Republicans he could and then, gasp, work with Democrats to pass it. That’s just the sort of thing Nancy Pelosi might do is similar situation.

But, I guess John Boehner isn’t half the speaker she was.

I hope he enjoys the plush speaker’s office, while he still can.
Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was first published as The Sad Pointlessness Of John Boehneron Blogcritics.


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