Since January 5, 2011, for John Boehner (R-OH), his position as Speaker of the House has been just a title in words not in deed. The words are those of the 1789 US Constitution. The Speaker presides over the proceedings of the House and is the highest position in the House leadership. However, the deed is that Boehner does not demonstrate leadership of the majority party. The Tea Party wing that enabled the GOP to achieve its majority status has also rendered it factious. Once again it has compromised Boehner’s speakership by its handling of a Continuing Resolution to fund the government. Once again, oblivious to public opinion, House action threatens us with a government shutdown.
Tea Party Republicans defied their leaders and brought down a bill to keep the government running after September 30 because it did not meet their demands to make deeper spending cuts. In the past, disaster relief rushed out of Congress with strong backing from both parties. Not this time. Instead, the House Republicans made it the focus of a political issue: offsetting the cost of funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with cuts elsewhere.
The bill failed. Boehner and his operatives cobbled together support for a slightly different but essentially similar bill. They brought some recalcitrant freshmen on board in video and photo opportunities with the old pros to recite sound bites, and then narrowly passed a stopgap bill two days later.
“We are now watching the Tea Party shutdown movie for the third time this year,” said Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) of the House not passing the CR. “The ending isn’t surprising,” Durbin said on MSNBC. “It isn’t even interesting anymore. They can’t get together the basic Republican votes on the House side to even pass the continuing resolution they agreed to just a few weeks ago, let alone some disaster aid for a country that’s been hard-hit by a lot of disasters.”
A Continuing Resolution is a temporary measure designed to buy time for negotiations to continue when the fiscal year ends. In the past, as with raising the debt ceiling, passing a stopgap was routine business. It becomes necessary when the House and Senate fail to agree on appropriations bills to fund government for a whole fiscal year, as is the case. Tea Party Republicans said they believed their party should push for deeper cuts at every turn. 50 of them signed a letter to Boehner calling for those deeper budget cuts and when those demands were not met, 48 of them voted against their own party’s bill.
So did Democrats, but for different reasons. Former Speaker of the House and now House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told reporters that Democrats believed disaster funds were for emergencies and no offset spending cuts would be acceptable to her members. Asked whether there might be any offset that House Democrats would back, Pelosi said, “I think I answered that question: there has never been an offset for disaster assistance.”
Boehner and other House leaders had to rewrite the measure to appease Democrats and to appeal to the Tea Party wing of their own party. Democrats saw the amount of disaster assistance as inadequate and objected to the Republicans’ insistence on offsetting some of the cost with cuts elsewhere. They remained nearly united against the measure. So, Boehner cracked the proverbial whip with his members and the revised bill passed by seven votes to go to the Senate in time for the House to go on recess.
“The House bill is not an honest effort at compromise,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). “It fails to provide the relief that our fellow Americans need as they struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of floods, wildfires and hurricanes, and it will be rejected by the Senate.” Saying that he had hoped House Republicans would move toward the middle Reid said, “Instead, they moved even further toward the Tea Party.” The Senate voted 59 to 36 to table the House bill, which effectively killed it.
The funding for the federal government got wrapped up into the debate about FEMA funding and they became tied together. Speaker Boehner had assumed and hoped that the stopgap bill to keep government operating until November 18 would be a routine matter, as such resolutions usually are. Instead, the matter blew up and illustrated that his control of the House majority only exists on paper.
The government’s funding will run out Friday evening, September 30, if something is not passed by then. Of course both Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly said that they do not want a government shutdown and they do not want to have FEMA run out of funds. However, just how they are going to achieve that is anything but clear.
So House Republicans decided to blame the Senate and its Majority Leader Harry Reid for the impasse. Led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), they contend that the Senate is responsible for blocking desperately needed disaster dollars from flowing to FEMA.
“Harry Reid is now talking about perhaps bringing up a clean CR without disaster relief funding,” Cantor said, and that the House acted to provide the disaster relief. “If that happens, FEMA will run out of money, and it will be on Harry Reid’s shoulders because he won’t act,” Cantor said.
For the record, in October 2004, Cantor voted against an amendment to an emergency supplemental bill for disaster aid that would have “fully offset” the cost of that supplemental with “a proportional reduction of FY05 discretionary funding” elsewhere. The 2004 emergency supplemental bill was proposed after five hurricanes hit the United States. Tropical Storm Gaston, that year, brought damage to Cantor’s home district of Richmond.
Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner shrugged off the defeat as the price of trying to get legislation through the democratic process. “I have no fear in allowing the House to work its will,” he said. “Does it make my life a little more difficult? Yes it does.” Boehner added, “There is no threat of a government shutdown. Let’s just get this out there.”
Are there philosophical differences within the Republican Party, as has been suggested in our media, particularly in the House of Representatives? If there are, that would require intelligence and thought such that would lend it to making compromises in the best interests of House member constituencies. As the polls suggest, however, that does not appear to be the case. Instead, the differences are not philosophical but ideological. That relies on slogans and sound bites, scripts that are rehearsed and recited that require neither thought nor care. Unfortunately, such last minute play acting is making the audience weary of disagreement and threats.
The threat of a government shutdown proved to be just a threat back in April. Likewise, the threat of government default proved to be just a threat in August, but with collateral credit rating fallout. With this threat of a government shutdown, it should be of little wonder that Gallup’s Congressional Approval poll finds 15% of Americans approve of Congress and 82% do not. It is also clear that despite his efforts, the current Speaker of the House is only the leader of the majority of the majority party which has once again compromised his leadership. Boehner maybe acting as a leader, but he is actually just a part of the audience.