John Boehner is not going to win any popularity contests among conservatives. The Republican speaker of the House is much maligned among his own party and has even been the target of several unsuccessful coup attempts by Tea Party factions, including the one last week. In spite of his unpopularity on the right, Boehner has done much to stymie President Obama’s agenda and to make the 2014 Republican sweep possible. In spite of his accomplishments, most members of his own party would not vote for Boehner as speaker according to an EMC Research poll released on January 2. Boehner is truly the most underrated man in American politics today.
John Boehner has served Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1991. In February 2006, he replaced Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as majority leader. After the Democrats won control of the House in the 2006 elections, Boehner served as minority leader, a position he held until 2010 when victorious Republicans unanimously elected him speaker.
Even though Republicans gave Obama and the Democrats “a shellacking” in 2010, the party was still at a terrible disadvantage. The GOP controlled only half of one of the three branches of government. Democrats still held the presidency and a majority in the U.S. Senate. The Republican majority in the House gave conservatives just enough power to block the liberal agenda, but not enough to enact their own policies.
Republican control of the House came too late to stop landmark Democratic bills such as the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, but the GOP did score important victories under Boehner. The website of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) includes a list of bills that were blocked by Republicans. These include the DREAM Act, the DISCLOSE Act , the Paycheck Fairness Act, a millionaire tax, federal firearms background checks, increased taxes for companies relocating outside the U.S. and subsidies to keep federal student loans below market rates. Additionally, Republicans also blocked an internet sales tax and a bill that would have gutted the First Amendment by allowing Congress to regulate spending on federal elections.
Boehner and the House Republicans began to fight Obama’s out-of-control spending as soon as they reached Washington. In 2011, Democratic spending had almost reached the debt ceiling specified by law. The battle that raged over raising the debt ceiling culminated in the Budget Control Act of 2011, a compromise bill that raised the debt limit in exchange for spending cuts and the creation of a “super committee” on deficit reduction. While Republicans did raise the debt limit, that outcome was never in doubt because it was necessary to preserve the “full faith and credit” of the United States. It was a victory for Republicans in the sense that they exacted meaningful cuts without corresponding tax increases from the Democrats.
The spending victory was also due to another Boehner victory, that of the fiscal cliff and the sequester. For those who don’t recall, the fiscal cliff was the large number of tax increases scheduled to automatically go into effect at the end of 2012 as the low Bush-era tax rates expired. The tax increases coincided with automatic spending cuts that hearkened back to the Budget Control Act of 2011. When President Obama ignored the recommendations of the super committee in favor of pursuing tax increases, automatic spending cuts were scheduled to go into effect across the board.
In spite of having lost the presidential election, Republicans in Congress stood firm under Boehner. In a last minute deal, the GOP was able to prevent income tax rates from increasing for the majority of Americans, a compromise endorsed by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. The deal also postponed the sequester and permanently fixed the Alternative Minimum Tax, a previously ever present threat to middle class taxpayers, but resulted in a number of other tax increases. Elections have consequences and the Republicans simply did not have the numbers to force a better deal.
Two months later, everyone once again expected Boehner to cave in on the sequester negotiations. Republicans hoped to avoid defense cuts, while Democrats opposed entitlement cuts and pushed for tax increases. In the end, there was no agreement and the budget cuts went into effect across-the-board. Much to everyone’s surprise, the sequester was scarcely noticed by most Americans. What they did notice was the government shutdown a few months later.
As the implementation of Obamacare approached in October 2013, a faction of the Republican Party proposed an attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act. As opponents of the plan noted at the time, the defund attempt was unlikely to succeed because Obamacare was already funded and the Republicans did not have the votes to overcome the Democratic majority in the Senate. Nevertheless, with a large number of Republicans in favor of trying to defund the ACA, Boehner and the rest of the party went along as well.
The attempt was disastrous. The government was shut down at the same time that Obamacare enrollments started and the exchange websites crashed. Because of the shutdown, the focus was on the Obama’s negotiations with Republicans rather than on the website catastrophe. For 16 days in October 2013, Republican poll ratings were in freefall. Boehner attempted to negotiate with Obama during the shutdown, but with Obama enjoying the Republican self-destruction, no agreement was reached. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) finally reached a deal to end the shutdown. This deal was passed with mostly Democratic support and has rightly been called a Republican surrender. The alternative to surrender, however, was the destruction of the Republican Party. For Republicans, the best thing that can be said about the deal that ended the shutdown is that it kept the sequester, the only real leverage against Obama that the Republicans had, in place.
The sequester also survived a late 2013 budget deal brokered by Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). This deal kept the sequestration in place while Republicans held the line against Democratic calls for more taxes.
Less than a year after the failed attempt to defund Obamacare, Boehner and other conservatives were campaigning hard for the midterm elections. Boehner campaigned hard for Republican candidates around the country and raised $100 million for the party according to USA Today. Boehner’s own PAC doled out $1.3 million to dozens of Republicans according to campaign finance data from Open Secrets. The 2014 Republican landslide was due many people, but John Boehner deserves much credit for his hard work in recruiting candidates and his tireless campaigning. The resulting Republican majority, the largest since 1928, would not have been possible with an ineffective Republican leader in the House.
As 2014 drew to a close, Boehner was again criticized for the passage of the so-called “cromnibus,” a compromise bill to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year. While many conservatives were angry about the bill, few proposed viable alternatives. Also, as U.S. News pointed out, the bill was hardly a sellout to the Democrats. Republicans gained many concessions, including cuts to the budgets of the EPA and IRS, no new funding for Obamacare, and a prohibition on the transfer to Guantanamo Bay detainees to U.S. courts. Nevertheless, for many conservatives, any credit that Boehner had earned with the election victory was lost in the cromnibus deal. This led to the recent coup attempt by a small number of Republicans.
In the end, cuts to federal spending may be Boehner’s biggest triumph. According to Congressional Budget Office figures, federal spending has fallen each year since 2011 when Republicans assumed control of the House. The budget deficit has fallen by nearly 70 percent in that time. As Michael Medved recently pointed out on his radio show, the last time that federal spending declined in three consecutive years was under President Calvin Coolidge.
In the new session, the House has already approved construction of the Keystone pipeline and passed a bill restoring the 40-hour work week. These bills will now go to the Senate where, with Mitch McConnell. in charge, they will probably pass and go to the president’s desk.
As Boehner shifts from defense to offense, it is likely that many of his critics will be surprised. With a record of strong accomplishments from a weak position, the man that Ralph Benko of Forbes called “the worst thing to happen to progressives since” the fall of the Soviet Union, will be a much more capable foe of Obama and the Democrats when allied with Mitch McConnell’s Senate. The alliance is likely to produce results that cannot be ignored.
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