Thanks for Nothing, John Boehner! Will He Leave Behind a Budgetary Mess?

by Neil H. Buchanan

The United States government did not shut down yesterday.  That is good, of course.  Apparently, Republicans in the House would have shut it down if Speaker of the House John Boehner had not announced his resignation before cutting a deal with Democrats to fund the government through December 11.  In that way, as Professor Dorf noted earlier this week, Boehner showed that he was tactically moderate, at least compared to the very low standard set by the most radical members of his caucus.

I will say that, although I completely agree with Professor Dorf's overall argument in that post, I cannot "imagine having a rational conversation with Boehner about government spending and taxes."  I really cannot.  Boehner has never said anything substantive about budgetary policy (or, come to think of it, about anything) that struck me as intelligent or even coherent.  (Remember "the Boehner Rule"?)  Boehner's perceived moderation is both a matter of a fat guy standing next to even fatter guys in order to look thin by comparison, and (as Professor Dorf argued) his non-nihilistic attitude about the government.  That is to his minimal credit.

Before I move on to my larger point that even the minimally defensible government-respecting meme about Boehner does not ultimately hold up to inspection, I offer a question to our readers in the form of an observation.  The current party breakdown in the House is 247 Republicans and 188 Democrats.  The reports of Boehner's demise suggested that a group of two to four dozen hyper-conservative members made it impossible for Boehner to govern, and they were going to oust him from the Speaker's chair if he had allowed a vote to fund the government without de-funding Planned Parenthood.  Thus, the story goes, Boehner had to fall on his sword in order to avoid a shutdown.

Let's say that this story is right, and thus that there are about 200 Republicans in the House who would not join the rebellion.  I have not seen any explanations of why one-sixth of the Republican caucus could bring down the Speaker.  Yes, the Speaker needs 218 votes to be Speaker, but what is the process by which the withholding of votes for Boehner would serve the purpose of the radical Right?  I am genuinely curious.  If the final vote has to be a plurality, the final vote with be: 200 Boehner, 187 Pelosi, 47 Gohmert/King/Yoho/McHenry/whoever.  If the vote needs to be a majority, what happens then?  Was there no scenario in which Boehner could make a deal with Democrats to supply the necessary votes, in exchange for cooperation on other matters?  Is the concern that this would drive off some of the remaining 200?  Why would these people -- who, by assumption, are not the institution-busting radicals who oppose Boehner -- not be willing to build a coalition simply to keep the government open and to put the 47 or so super-nutcases in the corner?

Again, there might well be perfectly reasonable explanations for how parliamentary realities prevent such a thing from ever coming to fruition.  I sincerely encourage readers to educate me about this point on the comments board.  At the very least, however, it is not obvious why a group that might include as few as 24 Republicans could form a blocking coalition, nor is it obvious why Boehner was unquestionably stuck between choosing to capitulate or to walk away.

For the remainder of this post, however, I am willing to stipulate that there is a procedural explanation for all of this, which I have simply missed.  For present purposes, therefore, let us assume that the soon-to-be-former Speaker truly had no other option than stepping down, in order to foil a group of people whom Gail Collins once described as "a herd of rabid ferrets."  Should we cheer him, even half-heartedly?

The editors of The New York Times noted earlier this week that Boehner could use his remaining month in office to revive immigration reform, finally bringing to a vote a bill that the Senate passed in 2013 (formerly championed by the now-pandering Marco Rubio, among others).  The editors are surely right to include that goal on a wishlist, but we do not even have to leave the budgetary arena to find some important work for a departing, purportedly heroic statesman to undertake.

What, after all, did Boehner really do?  The government did not shut down, because (with a few hours to spare before the fiscal year ended on September 30) Boehner allowed a vote on a continuing resolution to fund the government for 72 additional days, at levels that are clearly arbitrary (think "sequester") and inadequate in most domestic programs.  And what happens as we approach December 11?  The post-Boehner speaker, who will surely have pledged fealty to the rabid ferrets, will be forced -- where "force" here assumes, as above, that there is no possibility of a bipartisan coalition -- to shut down the government because of Planned Parenthood (or whatever the next issue is that sends them around the bend).

Moreover, when Boehner made his big announcement, the best estimate was that the drop-dead date on the debt ceiling was also on or about December 11.  This means that Boehner's selfless act involved aligning the debt ceiling deadline and the government shutdown deadline, which worked ever so well in October 2013.  The last thing we need is another fracas in which no one (certainly not the political media) even understands the difference between a shutdown and a default, and in which the hostage-takers have two bombs to strap to their chests.

As it happens, news broke yesterday that the drop-dead date is going to arrive sooner than expected, perhaps as early as November 5.  Boehner had nothing to do with that, of course, but at least we will now deal with the problems one at a time.  But why would anyone imagine that this will go well, in the post-Boehner era?  We now do not even have 72 days of peace.

Interestingly, the article in The New York Times that reported the new drop-dead date also described nascent talks between the White House and Boehner toward a possible two-year budget deal, and even possibly an agreement to increase the debt ceiling.  Unfortunately, the article made it clear that all of this is a longshot.

But why?  There are many ways to package a solution to the debt ceiling issue that do not require anyone to vote for a "clean" debt ceiling increase.  For example, Boehner could agree to pass (with mostly Democratic votes) a statutory version of the so-called Gephardt Rule, in which all future appropriations bills would include authority to borrow all funds necessary to pay for the spending included therein.  Any non-obstructionist Republican could say: "I did not vote for a debt ceiling increase, now or in the future.  I voted to force us -- and all future Congresses -- to understand the consequences of our decisions to spend money."

Maybe something like that could still happen.  Maybe these semi-secret talks between Boehner and Obama will lead to a true resolution to the budgetary insanity that has done so much damage for so long.  And if that does not happen, maybe it will not be John Boehner's fault, because the Republican Party is not really being led astray by a small minority of extremists but is in fact a party of extremists.  We will find out soon.