Blog No. 14 John Boehner: Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

Watching John Boehner’s interview with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday’s This Week program brought back sad and uncomfortable memories of Pete Seeger’s stinging ballad of 1967. For younger followers of this site, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy told the story of a platoon led into a treacherous stream by a stubborn Captain who does not survive the effort. (“We were — knee deep in the Big Muddy / But the big fool said to push on.”) It was widely understood at the time to be a metaphor for Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War.

Throughout the Sunday interview, Boehner clung to the mantra that all he wanted was to “have a conversation” with the President and the Democratic leadership of the Senate (invoking that phrase nearly two dozen times). It was clear, however, that “having a conversation” was so much eyewash—a banal euphemism for negotiations that would yield concessions from the Democrats sufficient to satisfy the Tea Party wing of his caucus. What remained unclear—Boehner’s Big Muddy—was just what concessions Boehner was demanding and why the Democrats should provide them. The most recent Continuing Resolutions passed by the House had various combinations of three ingredients: deferring for one year the individual mandate under Obamacare, eliminating government contributions for health care premiums paid by Congressional staffers, and repealing the tax on medical devices. Those elements were predictably rejected by the Senate, which continued to insist on a “clean” (i.e., unconditional) CR. Moreover, there is little immediate pressure on the Senate to change its position since polling indicates the public, by a significant margin, holds the Republicans responsible for the shutdown. 

With respect to a debt increase, the waters got only muddier. Here Boehner seemed to pivot away from the House Republicans’ obsession with Obamacare. Mercifully, he also omitted any mention of the wish list of proposals (e.g., the Keystone pipeline) that some of his colleagues had urged for inclusion in any agreement to increase the debt ceiling. Rather, he made the ostensibly reasonable request for “a serious conversation about dealing with the problems that are driving the debt up.” Getting a bit more specific, he continued:

“Let’s look at what’s driving the problem. 10,000 baby-boomers like me retiring,          every single day. 70,000 this week. 3.5 million this year. And it’s not like there’s money in Social Security or Medicare. The government, over the last 30 years, have spent it all. And so now, we’re in this whipsaw effect. This is only year three. This is going to go on for another 22 years as baby-boomers retire. We know these programs are important to tens of millions of Americans. But if we don’t address the underlying problems, they are not sustainable.” 

The problems Boehner identified are real and the failure of the President to address them is both disappointing and a fair subject for political criticism. But what is missing is any coherent proposal from the Republicans as to how they would resolved those problems. Even more important in the immediate context—is that those “underlying problems” are far too complicated and far too difficult to be resolved between now and October 17, when the Treasury has said that it will have insufficient funds to meet our obligations. 

Nevertheless, Boehner was repeatedly at pains to make clear his determination to push on, ignoring the fact that the muddy waters were getting deeper and deeper. (“It is time for us to stand and fight.” ) With respect to the shutdown, he rejected the claim by the President that Boehner could end it simply by allowing a vote on a clean CR: “There are not the votes in the House to pass a clean CR.” Boehner’s assertion was challenged a few minutes later by Senator Schumer (on the same program but in Boehner’s absence). It also appeared to be rebutted by an article in The Washington Post that published a list of Republican House Members who would reportedly support a clean CR. In either case, there seems to be no good reason not to have a vote. If a clean CR passed, it would end the shutdown, and if Boehner is correct, and it failed, the failure would presumably strengthen his hand in negotiating with President Obama and Senator Reid.

Boehner, of course, purports to be acting on behalf of the American public to protect them from the dire burdens of Obamacare: “Obamacare is a law that’s going to raise the cost of health insurance premiums and make it almost impossible for employers to hire new people. It’s a law the American people do not want and cannot afford.” There may be much to be said for Boehner’s assessment, but even if he is correct, it may suggest a different course. 

One possible path out of the impasse would be for Boehner to agree to a clean CR but to exact in exchange one or possibly two commitments. The first commitment would be from Senator Reid to permit votes by the Senate on each of the matters that the Republicans sought to make a condition of the CR, including the one year delay of the individual mandate. The second and more difficult commitment would be an agreement by the President not to veto any such measure passed by both Houses. The President would ordinarily refuse to make any such a commitment, but might do so to end the shutdown if he believed that Harry Reid could protect him. Then, if the measure then did pass the Senate despite Reid’s best efforts, and the one-year delay (or other Republican proposal) became effective, Boehner and the Republicans could declare victory. On the other hand, If the measure failed in the Senate, but if the individual mandate proves to be as unpopular a burden as Republicans believe, they would have a very strong issue for the 2014 elections. In contrast, however, if Boehner and the House Republicans continue simply to push blindly on, damage from the shutdown may be the lifeline that allows Democrats to avoid being held accountable for the various failings and burdens of Obamacare. 

Moving on from the shutdown to the debt ceiling, Boehner was equally unyielding:

BOEHNER: We’re not going to pass a clean debt limit increase.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Under no circumstances?

BOEHNER: I told the president, there’s no way we’re going to pass one. The votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit. And the president is risking default by not having a conversation with us. 

The consequences of the shutdown thus far have been significant but not calamitous, owing in part to the fact that the shutdown has been partial rather than full. (The arcanae of what gets shutdown and what does not may be the subject of another blog if ever figures it out.) But it is generally recognized that a default would be far more harmful. For the moment, Wall Street has stood by in what appears to be a form of sullen denial as the financial markets have declined noticeably but not cratered. Financial gurus, it seems, believe that the politicians who cannot find a way out of the shutdown trap will sober up in time to avoid the calamity of a default.

Then again, the same gurus didn’t believe there could be a serious problem with those mortgage-backed securities. As Andrew Ross Sorkin, one of the savviest of the Wall Street commentators observed today in The New York Times,“Here’s the perversity of Wall Street’s psychology: The more Wall Street is convinced that Washington will act rationally and raise the debt ceiling, most likely at the 11th hour, the less pressure there will be on lawmakers to reach an agreement. That will make it more likely a deal isn’t reached. “

For his part, Boehner did not question the severity of the risk posed by a potential default. Indeed, he agreed with a grim scenario posited by Stephanopoulos:

STEPHANOPOULOS: The deficit, as you know, has been coming down this year, but I want to press you on this issue of the risks of not passing a clean debt limit. The Treasury Department put out a report just the other day, where they said it would be unprecedented and catastrophic, that would be the impact of failing to pass a debt limit. They’re going to say, credit markets could freeze. The value of the dollar could plummet. U.S. interest rates could skyrocket. The negative spillovers could reverberate around the world, and there might be a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse.

After expressly agreeing with that assessment, Boehner simply retreated to his mantra to claim that it was all the President’s fault for his “refusal to sit down and have a conversation.”

It has been noted by various observers that there have been shutdowns before that did little or only limited damage to the economy and that increases to the debt ceiling have often been accompanied by conditions of one kind or another. As pointed out in previous blogs, however, the circumstances of prior shutdowns were quite different and, despite some negotiations over debt ceilings, Congress has never failed to raise the ceiling. The closest it came was in 2011 and that exercise in brinksmanship resulted in a downgrade of U.S securities by Standard & Poor’s. Wall Street may be correct in assuming that there is a relatively slight risk, but if they are wrong on this one, we will again all pay for it.

It once appeared that John Boehner was intent on avoiding the kind of deadlock in which we now find ourselves. It is widely assumed that his shifting positions are attributable to a keen desire not to lose his position as Speaker. But as a writer for the BBC asked:

Why he is so attached to sticking with such a bruising job is another question. His caucus is balkanised and unruly. This Congress is held in the lowest public esteem since the invention of public opinion polls. And the Republicans are more disliked than the Democrats.

Surely there must be days when the pastoral pleasures of Ohio, the emoluments of K Street, and the challenge of golf courses around the world must call. One can only think of the old story about the fellow who worked at the circus and had the job of following the elephants around with a bucket and a shovel cleaning up after them. He was always complaining about his job: low pay, dirty, and no appreciation. Finally a friend asked him why he didn’t just quit. “What,” came the response, “and give up show business?”

5 thoughts on “Blog No. 14 John Boehner: Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

  • Excellent analogy, insight, and commentary!
    Can please plain why we have a debt ceiling and go through this insane dance of whether we’ll pay our debt obligations? Shouldn’t it be assumed we’ll pay our debts from the time they are incurred?

    • You have a point, but a debt ceiling in some form has been around since 1917 and, as a political matter, would probably be impossible to get rid of. We will have more to say in a future blog.

  • The “knee deep in the big muddy” is an absolutely great analogy for what is going on in Washington DC now, a national calamity that could have lingering effects for years to come. Both sides are clearly stuck in the rising waters, Boehner not able to back off from his initial stonewalling, Obama lacking the leadership skills and energy to forge a breakthrough. As the commentary lays out, there are possible ways for a way out of the dilemma, but the prospects don’t look good. RINOs are needed more than ever!

  • Outstanding commentary, Doug. But one thing that continues to dismay is the ease with which both Obamacare opponents and commentators refer to a simple “one-year delay” in the implementation of the “individual mandate,” as if it were simply a matter of timing — when in fact it is critical to the ability of the program/law to abolish the pernicious status quo practice of excluding “pre-existing conditions” from coverage. Without the “mandate,” the program becomes economically unviable or exchange premiums would skyrocket — either or both of which would no doubt please the anti-Obamacare saboteurs.

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