WASHINGTON – House Speaker John Boehner needs to decide whether he wants to be remembered as an effective leader or a befuddled hack. So far, I’m afraid, it’s the latter.
Boehner’s performance last week was a series of comic pratfalls, culminating Friday in a stinging rebuke from the House Republicans he ostensibly leads. Boehner wasn’t asking for much: three weeks of funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which was hours from shutting down. He came away, humiliated, with just seven days’ worth of operating money for the agency charged with keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks.
By any standard, the whole situation is beyond ridiculous. The government of the world’s leading military and economic power cannot be funded on a week-to-week basis. There’s no earthly excuse for this sorry spectacle – and no one to blame but Boehner.
As everyone knows, the speaker is being stymied by far-right conservatives who insist on using the Homeland Security funding measure as a vehicle to protest President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. And as everyone except those far-right conservatives knows, this is a self-defeating exercise in utter futility. The Senate won’t pass these immigration provisions. The president won’t sign them into law. For the House conservatives, this is not a winnable fight.
Boehner knows this. He also knows that the sprawling government department in charge of airport security, border protection and a host of other vital tasks has to be funded. And he knows that while failing to pass an appropriations bill would impact many Homeland Security functions, the agency charged with implementing Obama’s immigration orders – the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services – gets 95 percent of its funding from application fees, meaning it would be largely unaffected.
Finally, Boehner knows that a clean Homeland Security funding bill without the ridiculous immigration measures would surely pass the House. But he has refused to do his duty and bring such a bill to the floor.
We’re supposed to feel sorry for him. We’re supposed to boo-hoo about the fact that his majority refuses to fall in line – and might even take away his gavel if he dares to face reality. Mr. Speaker, would you please get over yourself?
When Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., held that job, she faced a similar impasse in 2007 over a funding bill for the Iraq War. Pelosi and most Democrats in Congress were, at that point, vocal opponents of the war. However, it was unthinkable to leave the troops without adequate funding. Democrats managed to push through both chambers an appropriations bill that specified a timetable for troop withdrawals. George W. Bush vetoed it.
So Pelosi swallowed hard and did what was necessary. She ended up bringing a funding bill – with no timetables – to the floor, and it was approved with the votes of Republicans and moderate Democrats. Pelosi voted against it, knowing it would pass.
“I am the speaker of the House,” she told reporters that day. “I have to take into account something broader than the majority of the majority of the Democratic caucus.”
When do we hear words like that from Boehner? Never.
He does eventually bow to reality, but not before a lot of pointless brinkmanship that wastes everybody’s time. There are those who argue that standing with the far right in these lost causes somehow strengthens Boehner’s hand as speaker. Really? To me, he seems to be demonstrating, again and again, that every time the children throw a tantrum, they’ll get to stay up all night watching television and eating candy.
Immigration is a matter of principle for conservatives. Everyone gets that. But guess what? It’s also a matter of principle for liberals and moderates. Whose principles triumph depends on arithmetic: Who has the votes to pass a bill or override a veto. In this case, the winner is Obama.
What amazes me is that Boehner had the perfect opportunity to declare victory and get the Homeland Security funding mess behind him. Last month, a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked Obama’s executive actions on immigration. I think it’s likely that the judge’s order will eventually be reversed. But in the meantime, Boehner could have said, “See, our view about presidential overreach has been vindicated. Now we’ll let the courts take it from here.”
But no. Instead, Boehner knowingly led House Republicans up a blind alley.
One major theme for the Democratic presidential nominee next year, obviously, will be sharp criticism of the GOP-controlled Congress. At this rate, the Republican nominee will be tempted to join in.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.