WASHINGTON – The U.S. House seems to be trying mightily to make itself irrelevant, with Speaker John Boehner leading the effort. I can’t help but think of the old proverb: “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”
The caravan, in this case, consists of President Barack Obama, the Senate and the American people. It’s still early, but one has to wonder whether anything but yipping and yapping will emerge from the House before the next election. Prospects, thus far, are not promising.
Under Boehner’s leadership, the House insists on holding the Department of Homeland Security hostage in an attempt to force Obama to undo his executive actions on immigration. Funding for the agency expires at the end of the month, and the House refuses to take up a simple appropriations bill without attaching unrelated immigration measures that have no chance of getting past the Senate or the president.
The timing of this attempted power play is less than exquisite.
Each day seems to bring new reminders of the potential threat posed by terrorism. A group allied with the Islamic State parades 21 Coptic Christians onto a beach in Libya and savagely beheads them. A lone-wolf gunman stages a deadly attack in Copenhagen, perhaps modeled on the Charlie Hebdo killing spree in Paris.
So is this the moment to play political games with the nation’s safety from terrorist attacks? “Certainly,” said Boehner, when asked Sunday whether he was prepared to see Homeland Security run out of funding.
Boehner’s stated position is that “the House has acted, we’ve done our job,” and that blame should fall on Senate Democrats for refusing to acquiesce in the anti-immigration putsch. “Senate Democrats are the ones standing in the way. They’re the ones jeopardizing funding,” Boehner said.
Some Republicans worry, however, that if Homeland Security does run out of money, the GOP will surely be blamed. Boehner has been around long enough to see his party get hammered after previous government shutdowns. Surely he can’t really believe the political impact of this one, if it happens, will be any different.
So what is Boehner up to?
A couple of weeks ago, it appeared that the speaker was staging an elaborate demonstration for the benefit of the more radical members of his caucus. They would pass their bill to undo Obama’s immigration reforms, witness that it had no chance of getting through the Senate, and decide, sensibly, to pass a clean funding bill. Then they would pick a more favorable battleground – or, at least, more favorable timing – for their next fight with the president.
If this were Boehner’s grand plan, though, by now he should be scrambling to design a climb-down that does not look like capitulation. Instead, he continues to actively encourage right-wing intransigence. I don’t understand why.
A clean Homeland Security bill, with no immigration provisions, probably would pass. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi says such legislation would receive unanimous Democratic support, and there may be enough moderate Republicans who will join in.
But Boehner is loath to bring to the floor any bill that does not have the support of a majority of the Republican caucus. This policy has allowed him to keep his job as speaker through four politically tumultuous years. But it has not allowed the House to accomplish much of anything at all.
Things were supposed to be different once the GOP won control of the Senate. Indeed, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell came into office determined to show the nation that the Republican Party is capable of governing.
But it isn’t. The GOP can’t even pass a bill allowing the agency that’s supposed to protect us from terrorist attacks to stay open for business.
This is not a dispute over money; the House isn’t being frugal. It isn’t even a dispute over policy: House Republicans could have a proper immigration debate, if they wanted to, by using as a starting point the bipartisan immigration reform package passed by the Senate in 2013. Members of the tea party caucus don’t really want to take up the immigration issue, however. They want to stamp their feet.
And Boehner chooses to let them stamp away. There are those who believe Boehner to be a skillful tactician. I see, instead, a hapless substitute teacher whose unruly class refuses to come to order. At this rate, his only legacy will be his own survival.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.