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Let’s take our eyes off the Republican presidential race for a minute and ask the question, where if anywhere are we getting adult leadership on major public policy issues this year?
The answer, I think, is where the Founding Fathers seem to have least expected it, from the House of Representatives, and specifically from its Republican leaders.
“The House, unlike the Senate, has actually passed a budget resolution.” — Michael Barone
The Founders expected the House, with all its members elected directly by the people every two years, to be the flightiest branch of government, most susceptible to momentary enthusiasms and nostrums, in need of restraint from a Senate full of old-timers and a president gifted, they hoped, with the gravity of a George Washington.
But that’s not exactly what we see in Washington today. In calendar year 2011 we have seen Speaker John Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan taking on tough issues and providing adult guidance when others seem to be doing the opposite.
Certainly Barack Obama, touted as an instinctive bipartisan compromiser, has proven to be something like the opposite. True, on occasion he caves in to the opposition — on extending the 2001-03 tax cuts last December, on rescinding an Environmental Protection Agency air quality regulation recently. But he does so grudgingly and with an eye obviously on election politics rather than on public policy.
When he senses he has more leeway, he pushes unceasingly but carelessly toward big government programs (the 2009 stimulus, Obamacare) and rejects all but the slightest changes in unsustainable entitlement programs.
This year his February budget, his April revised spending concept (not specific enough to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office), and his September “jobs act” have all been concocted to gain advantage over Republicans in 2012. None has had any chance of passage into law, and none has much serious justification as public policy.
The best that can be said for the Senate is that it has rejected these ploys. The February budget got zero votes on the Senate floor. The April speech proposals were never put in legislative form. And this past week it became clear that the Democratic president’s “job plan” doesn’t have a majority of votes in the Democratic-majority Senate.
But the Senate hasn’t moved forward on serious reform. It did produce a solid majority for a China-bashing bill that has the potential of triggering a disastrous trade war. Obama has signaled he’ll go along. That leaves it for Speaker John Boehner to be the adult in the room and to block it in the House.
But Boehner and the Republican-controlled House have done much more than obstruct Obama’s feckless proposals. The House, unlike the Senate, has actually passed a budget resolution. And that resolution, shepherded through by Paul Ryan, addresses the long-term entitlement crisis in a serious way.
That’s the House that includes 87 Republican freshmen, many of them favorites of the Tea Party movement who, Washington insiders predicted, would prove obstructive and irresponsible. And it’s true that Boehner on occasion has found it difficult or, at least momentarily, impossible to muster a majority.
But that’s in line with Boehner’s promise not to have the majority party’s leadership and a few top staffers control the House agenda as tightly as was the case under previous House speakers of both parties. He has mostly delivered on that promise and still has been able to persuade enough freshmen or, on some issues like the three free-trade agreements approved last week, enough Democrats to make a majority.
He has delivered on other promises as well. On Thursday, when Obama called him to congratulate him on passage of the FTAs, Boehner challenged Obama’s assertion that House Republicans had not presented a jobs program.
Boehner, saying he wanted Obama to have all the facts (a polite way of saying “you lie”), said they had done so in May and had discussed it with the president in the months since. He pointed out that the “jobs act” was blocked in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid changed long-standing Senate rules to keep it off the floor. He noted that the House had passed some elements of the “jobs act” on which both parties agreed and said others would come up for a vote.
That’s Boehner’s version of the call. Obama’s may be different. But it sounds like a rebuke by an adult concerned about public policy of an adolescent interested only in politics.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.
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