Nothing ever became John Boehner as Speaker of the House as the way he left it. It probably won’t prevent him from being considered the worst Speaker in congressional history, but at least he made an effort to clean out some of the you-know-what from the barn before his departure.
I’ve always thought you couldn’t shame the shameless, but I never considered the impact that Pope Francis would have on Mr. Boehner. The Speaker seemed genuinely embarrassed over his performance since he took the gavel in January 2011 and decided to do the right thing in spite of his fractured party’s wishes. But to do it, he had to resign.
For the first time, when Mr. Boehner came to the microphone singing “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay,” I found a reason to actually like the man. The song continues, “My, oh, my, what a wonderful day. Plenty of sunshine headin’ my way.” Anyone could plainly see that he was glad to say “good riddance” to a job that his party had made impossible.
(Sadly, many younger Americans haven’t seen “Song of the South,” the 1946 movie from which the Oscar-winning song came. Disney doesn’t re-release it anymore and hasn’t made it available on DVD in the United States. By a one-time fluke, I was able to get it on eBay, and I watch it every couple of years to keep my spirits up and my standards high. The Speaker couldn’t have picked a more appropriate song to bid us farewell.)
Mr. Boehner’s last act and finest hour was his bringing a bipartisan two-year budget-debt bill to the floor for a vote. There was some fear that 32-needed Republican votes would not be found (they were necessary to join the Democrats to pass the bill), but the bill passed easily with a 266-167 vote. For the sake of the nation, over 70 Republicans risked being exiled or being primaried by radical-reactionary TEA Party types.
Embarrassingly, only one of four representatives in my home state of Arkansas, Steve Womack of District 3, voted for it. The other three (Rick Crawford, French Hill, and Bruce Westerman) voted with the Anarchist-Kamikaze-Deadbeats that hoped to shutdown the U.S. government, not pay our bills, and wreck havoc on the world economy. The bill was sent to the Senate where it passed 64-35. Predictably, my senators (John Boozman and Tom Cotton) were among the 35 Anarchist-Kamikaze-Deadbeats.
Mr. Boehner entered the House in 1991, a time when the old GOP was already fading into history. When he finally became the Speaker in 2011, he had to contend with and be a part of the new Fox-Republican-TEA Party. This new phenomenon was a product of the plutocracy (the few who are rich – the 1%) which tolerates no compromises with the masses (the poor and the middle class – the 99%). If you believe in democracy, you have to believe in compromise. If you do, you may find yourself unwanted in the Fox-Republican-TEA Party. Boehner knew that, so he became part of the problem in order to survive. At the end, he couldn’t continue and changed.
To pass the vital budget/debt bill, Mr. Boehner suspended the odious Hastert Rule, which prevents any bill, no matter how popular or necessary, from coming to a vote unless a majority of the Republicans support it. Dennis Hastert initiated the rule after he replaced Speaker Newt Gingrich, who resigned after the 1998 elections. The rule entrenches the concept of tyranny by the minority and discourages anything resembling democracy, compromise, and bi-partisanship. The Hastert Rule is the father of gridlock.
The new Speaker of the House is Paul Ryan. I won’t say he is the worst possible choice because I know of no good choices among Republicans in the House. Even Sen. Cotton recognized that dilemma when he suggested the House elect Dick Cheney to be the Speaker, a position that can be held by a non-member. However, as you would expect from Mr. Cotton, Mr. Cheney would absolutely be the worst possible choice.
Mr. Ryan was a member of the 15 Republicans who met at the elite Caucus Room Restaurant on President Obama’s first inauguration day. They all agreed their party would obstruct anything the new president was elected to do and then to sabotage anything he did get passed. Like the Affordable Care Act, it didn’t matter whether a bill was one of their own Republican ideas or not, they would oppose everything.¹ Most importantly, they had to prevent a quick economic recovery from the Great Recession hoping that voters would blame Obama. As Pete Sessions (R-TX) boasted, they became be the “Taliban insurgency.”
Initially, there was some hope because John Boehner, then-Republican minority leader in the House, and Mitch McConnell, then-Republican mnority leader in the Senate, refused to attend the Caucus Room Restaurant meeting: neither had any use for Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist who masterminded the plot. Unfortunately, both of them fell in line with the “obstruct and sabotage” strategy. McConnell publicly announced that the goal of the his party was to make Obama a one-term president. Boehner proclaimed his party to be the party of “Hell No!”
John Boehner had been around Congress long enough to understand what a loyal opposition is and to know that he was supposed to be a public servant. Under the mantras of “obstruct and sabotage” and “plutocrats and party first,” he wasn’t able to be either. Meeting Pope Francis reminded him.
By the way, don’t get excited too soon about the House functioning properly. Mr. Ryan is more devoutly loyal to “obstruct and sabotage” and “plutocrats and party first” than Mr. Boehner, and Pope Francis had no conversion effect on him at all.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published November 18, 2015, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.
¹ A conspicuous except to the Republican opposition to everything Obama is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and that should tell voters how bad the TPP really is. Written largely by corporate executives and lobbyists – Republican donors, the TPP is essentially a Republican document that undermines the environment, workers’ wages and rights, food inspections, and more. This trade treaty also undermines much of what Mr. Obama professes to stand for.