House Speaker John Boehner acts like he’s a customer at the Obama Emporium of Budget Plans. Shopper Boehner doesn’t like the wares he offered. “Bring me a better one,” he commands. Strangely, this is more or less how negotiations between the Obama administration and the GOP used to work. Now, however, the Obama people have reverted to claiming they want actual negotiations, the sort that requires both sides to have an actual opening bid. “Bring me a better one” will not do. Shopper Boehner, and the House GOP in general are finding this shift hard to cope with.
The conventional wisdom is that House Speaker John Boehner is weak. He can’t deliver his caucus, and he doesn’t really understand the budget; he appears to believe, for example, that the Ryan Budget adds up. Because he doesn’t command the loyalty of his caucus, and because he has an ambitious lieutenant just aching to put the shiv between his ribs, Speaker Boehner can’t discipline his troops either. For these reasons, I recently called Boehner the Yasser Arafat of the Republican Party. It wasn’t meant as a compliment.
President Obama has made Speaker Boehner and the GOP an offer on the budget, one much like Obama’s previous budget plan, and so far Obama is actually sticking to it rather than ‘negotiating with himself’ as Obama has done for the last four years. Instead of offering concession after concession for the GOP to pocket and demand more, Obama has asked Boehner’s caucus to please spell out their own demands. This, of course, the GOP is unable to do for a number of reasons: politically, it would require them to own the pain caused by the radical cuts they claim to want; logistically it would require them to assemble a budget proposal that adds up (which would be a first in recent memory); logically, it requires either consistency with the budget they campaigned on — thus either causing extreme pain or not adding up — or it requires violating their recent campaign pledges. (Best line on that: “I’m old enough to remember when Republicans insisted that anyone who said they wanted to cut Medicare was a demagogue, because I’m more than three weeks old.“) Lurking in the background is the pledge that matters more than anything said to the voters on the campaign trail, the one to Grover Norquist.
Today’s paper quotes Speaker Boehner as saying this:
“We’ve put a serious offer on the table by putting revenues up there to try to get this question resolved,” Mr. Boehner said on “Fox News Sunday.” “But the White House has responded with virtually nothing. They have actually asked for more revenue than they’ve been asking for the whole entire time.”
In fact however there is no Republican “offer” on the table at all — nothing with numbers attached that could be turned in to legislation. Rather, Shopper Boehner’s idea of an “offer” is to say that were Obama to come up with something that actually closed a tax loophole, Boehner might accept it.
The Administration spent the weekend trying to explain this GOP tactic to pundits and to the people, but I’m not sure how good a job they did of it.
It may take a while for Shopper Boehner to grasp that the budget negotiation task requires Speaker Boehner. Right now I imagine Shopper Boehner thinks he is at the tailors. Someone brings out a suit. Shopper Boehner shakes his head, doesn’t even try it on, says he wants something nicer but he won’t pay much more for it. If you’re a customer and times are tough, maybe you can talk like that. If you are are a national leader trying to hammer out a budget while the economy is still on life support, not so much. You have to make a counter-proposal, and it actually has to have some substance. Even so, given the past four years, it is understandable why Shopper Boehner might think that if he continues being imperious then that nice tailor fellow will be right back out with fabrics drawn from the private stash.
Underlining the kabuki nature of the whole budget ‘negotiation’ are three other aspects: (1) The GOP has no intention of resolving the debt ceiling on a long-term basis: that’s it’s best hostage and the more it can extort for it more often, the better; (2) both sides have boxed taken the Pentagon’s budget off the table even though that is where most cuts should be coming from; (3) political momentum suggests strongly that at least a partial deal will be easier after January 1. Come the new year, the Bush tax cuts expire on their own. At that point, if the GOP wants to pass Obama’s versions of ‘tax cuts for the 98%’ it will no longer, as a formalist matter, involve ‘raising’ taxes for the top 2% since those will have gone up by themselves. While this might not please the GOP’s paymasters, it will at least allow the Republicans to claim with a straight face that their Norquist purity remains.
PS. Can someone explain to me how it can be that the Obama tax bill originated in the Senate? Art. I, sec. 7 of the US Constitution says,
All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.
Doesn’t that make the Senate tax bill invalid? Or is it that tax cuts are immune from the rule since they lower, not raise, revenue? Or is the plan to re-pass the no doubt amended version in the Senate after the House votes?