MOST PEOPLE who saw House Speaker John Boehner’s fiery speech to the nation on Monday night assumed he had capitulated to his party’s far-right fringe. But not even that sufficed; Boehner spent much of yesterday scrambling to convince ultra-conservative House Republicans that his debt-reduction proposal goes far enough. It turns out many Tea Party adherents can’t even bring themselves to accept the speaker’s plan for $1.2 billion in cuts to discretionary spending alone, a gutting of the programs that constitute the ordinary business of government - education, transportation, energy, environmental protection - without any tax increase at all. It would also force another debt-ceiling vote in six months, in the midst of the 2012 campaign, which would give the Tea Party a whole new chance to make its demands.
Boehner’s plan would be bad for the country, but the fact that he had to delay the vote in an 11th-hour attempt to win over extremists who insist on even steeper cuts illustrates the extent to which a small faction of House members are holding the nation hostage. Whatever the outcome of the current debate - and the best to hope for now is a House-Senate compromise that at least extends the debt ceiling for two years - this Tea Party-led putsch cannot again be allowed to thwart the more balanced agenda favored by most Americans.
The far right is seeking to dominate the nation’s agenda by controlling the GOP caucus in the House. Though newly elected Tea Party supporters do not even constitute a majority of Republican House members, they can recruit enough other conservatives - some naturally aligned with the Tea Party, others fearful of right-wing primary challenges - to force Boehner to adhere to their wishes. But allowing the most extreme faction of one party in one branch of government to call the shots for the rest of the nation is not democracy in action; it’s not what was envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. Someone should alert Michele Bachmann and others who worship the Founding Fathers that those wise old souls envisioned the House as a real debating society, in which representatives worked together to find common ground, and not as a place where a minority could manipulate the rules to impose its will.
In recent decades, under the leadership of both parties, the controlling party has increasingly tightened the reins to give its leaders more leverage over the agenda. What it means, in practice, is that the legislation coming out of the House doesn’t represent the broad consensus of its membership, but rather the majority of the controlling party alone. In the current situation, a coalition of some Democrats and some Republicans could cobble together a bipartisan majority for a plan like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s. But Boehner won’t let it come before the floor for a vote. Like most other recent speakers from Newt Gingrich to Nancy Pelosi, he wants to put forward only bills geared toward his own caucus.
In Boehner’s mind, his speakership depends on his ability to push through a plan that appeals to most of his own Republican rank and file. In some ways, this has rendered him a tragic figure, struggling to persuade the extremists that a debt default would be a disaster for the country while negotiating with President Obama on a broader deal. All indications were that he and Obama, if left to themselves, could have achieved agreement on a deal that would cut discretionary spending, adjust entitlement benefits, and raise revenue by closing unfair tax loopholes. But while Obama’s Democrats were mostly open to a compromise, as were many Republicans in the Senate, the House Republicans were not. That fact, more than any substantive issue, forced the breakdown of the White House talks. Boehner had to choose: reach a broader deal with Obama, or prevent a Tea Party revolt in the House.
Now, he’s doing what most speakers would do in his position - try to appease his own troops. But this is not an ordinary moment. In this time of crisis, he has to understand that the American people want a compromise, and that he has the bipartisan votes in the House to support one. In his Monday speech, he noted that he was speaker of the entire House, not just the Republican caucus. He should keep that in mind as he tries, over the next 72 hours, to avoid a financial disaster that would be entirely self-inflicted.