The three pillars of any democracy are the rule of law, transparency, and a functioning civil society. Over decades, all three of these pillars have been chipped away in the people’s House.
A wonderful sentiment, don’t you think?
House minority leader John Boehner, R-OH, spoke these words to conservatives in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute this week. I was moved: If I could be convinced he would adopt the solutions he offered in this speech in a fair, even-handed manner, I’d vote Republican in November. (Well, maybe not … he and 434 other people actually still call their congressional pay-to-playground the people’s House despite their average annual median income of $650,000.)
If the GOP takes control of the House, Boehner would displace Nancy Pelosi as speaker. (There’s even a Boehner for Speaker website.) Given that pundits of many political persuasions believe a GOP takeover is within reach, some of his ideas merit inspection — but he is not their most credible advocate.
Speaking before the conservative choir, he correctly identified the principal tool both parties, when in power, have wielded to maintain a death grip on legislation — the ability to rewrite House rules to favor the party in power.
The institution does not function, does not deliberate, and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people. From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas — the very lifeblood of the House — is virtually nonexistent. Leaders overreach because the rules allow them to. Legislators duck their responsibilities because the rules help them to. And when the rules don’t suit the majority’s purposes, they are just ignored. There’s no accountability, and there are no consequences. [emphasis added]
He misspoke (obfuscated?) here. The House does not fail to act on the will of the people; it simply ignores the will of the people.
Boehner has, by his own admission, been a central power figure in the House for two decades after entering as a member of the Gang of Seven. But his speech was given in the third person or the first person plural. He takes no personal responsibility as a member of the GOP leadership in being party to the very acts he now decries — legislative obstruction through arcane rules and rules changes. Had he done so, he would have been more persuasive.
The lofty rhetoric from the minority leader included his claim that he has a no-earmark policy and would press for the end of that legislative lard ladle.
I’ve had a personal ‘no earmarks’ policy since I began serving in Congress, and I always will. I believe it is our obligation to end earmarking as we know it and bring fundamental change to the manner in which Washington spends taxpayers’ money, and I will continue to be an advocate for reforms to ensure that happens. [emphasis added]
But would he?
From Sam Stein at FrumForum:
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) illustrated just how thorny the issue is for the party when he refused on two occasions to say whether he would put an end to earmark spending if he became Speaker of the House after the midterm elections.
“Today, we have a moratorium on earmarks. I can tell you that if Republicans win the majority in November, it will not be business as usual here in Congress,” Boehner said.
Host Chris Wallace, clearly unconvinced by the response, asked again.
“It will not be business as usual here in Washington, D.C.,” said Boehner. “It will not be. It will not be business as usual.”
That’s hardly persuasive.
But, whether Boehner’s words should be ascribed to political positioning or, perhaps, the mellowing of age — he is 60, just under the average age of a member of the House — some of his remarks require consideration. If named speaker, he said he would make significant procedural changes to break legislative roadblocks. Reports Jennifer Steinhauer of The New York Times:
Many of his recommendations could be done through changes in House rules and procedure if he could win backing of a majority and overcome resistance from senior lawmakers who could see their influence diminished under the changes. He called for rewriting the budget act, ceasing the practice of cobbling together enormous spending bills that cover multiple agencies, ending leadership-driven legislation that freezes out the vast majority of members and instituting a cut-as-you-go requirement in which any member offering a new program must “terminate or reduce spending on an existing government program of equal or greater size — in the very same bill.”
He called for an end to stultifying speechmaking — to stop “all these commemorative moments and special honors, and handle them during special orders and one-minute speeches.” You may recall seeing The Daily Show lampoon these honorific bills earlier this week. Cutting down on the calendar-clogging crap is a good idea.
He wants Congress to rethink and revise its committee structure, which he says hasn’t been done in 15 years: “Think about that. We can’t ask members to become more engaged if they sit on three different committees and more than a handful of subcommittees. We currently have rules regarding member limitations, but of course they’re frequently waived to have warm bodies in those slots. We need to rethink that.” Another good idea.
Overall, he argued that procedural changes he would support as speaker are designed to increase debate, deliberation, and civility. Again, these are worthy goals.
But wait: Something in all these seems so familiar. Deja vu?
Boehner drew heavily on mechanisms from the GOP’s Pledge to America unveiled just a week ago. That makes the timing of Boehner’s AEI speech suspect. (You remember the pledge: Jon Stewart debunked that, too, as a collation of recycled GOP ideas going back two decades.)
Democrats were unmoved by Boehner’s remarks. Again, from The Times‘ Steinhauer:
Democrats said Mr. Boehner’s own record and ties to lobbying groups belied his interest in overhauling the House. “John Boehner has about as much credibility talking about reforming the system as Bernie Madoff does talking about smart investing,” said Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Boehner never broaches the role of money in politics in his speech, particularly the tens of millions of dollars of corporate (and union) cash granted anonymity by the Supreme Court.
He could not reshape and reform the House as speaker until he — and the Democratic leadership — bring full, immediate transparency to the corporate cavalcade of cash contributing to the election of members of the House. Without an honest financial accounting who gave what money to whom for what reason, the corruption in Congress will continue unabated, Boehner’s high-minded speechifying notwithstanding.
Boehner’s speech was pure political positioning. That’s why it sounds so familiar.
Other speakers of the House have orated as such.
Here’s Nancy Pelosi after members elected her speaker on Jan. 4, 2007:
I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership not partisanship, and look forward to working … with you on behalf of the American people. In this House, we may belong to different parties, but we serve one country. We stand united in our pride and prayers for our men and women in uniform. They are working together to protect the American people, and we, in this Congress we must work together to build a future worthy of their sacrifice. [emphasis added]
Solutions to problems cannot be found in a pool of bitterness. They can be found in an environment in which we trust one another’s word; where we generate heat and passion, but where we recognize that each member is equally important to our overall mission of improving the life of the American people. [emphasis added]
Now we have speaker-wannabee Boehner calling for change that would transform the House:
The House, more than any other part of our government, is the most direct voice of the people — and therefore should be afforded the most care in protecting its ability to reflect the people’s will. [emphasis added]
His speech had a few good ideas, but he’s the wrong advocate for them.