House Speaker John A. Boehner was left this week with the unenviable task of of explaining how a broken Congress couldn’t even muster the dysfunctionality to block a vote on raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
He did his best.
Even an unmanageable House of Representatives functions at least twice a year, Mr. Boehner said. And just because you don’t always do the same thing over and over again, it doesn’t mean you’re still not insane, he pointed out.
“We’re doing our best in what is a bad situation. You all know that our members are not crazy about doing something that doesn’t jeopardize the nation’s financial well-being,” Mr. Boehner told reporters, explaining that his conference was frustrated that it couldn’t find the votes to keep the country from making good on its debts.
“Maybe next year,” said Mr. Boehner. “But the fact is that as much as we hate being the good guy in this fight, it’s the hand we have been dealt and the hand we have to play.”
Before telling House Republicans that he would bring legislation to a vote that would raise the government’s borrowing authority with no strings attached, Mr. Boehner did his best to pick at least a small fight with Democrats and President Obama before dramatically giving in to a peaceful debt ceiling resolution.
“As I said before, this is a lost opportunity,” Mr. Boehner said. “We could have sat down, been at each other’s throats, and worked in an uncompromising and partisan way – perhaps toward an outright default or at least another sequestration. I am disappointed, to say the least.”
Some House members, still filled with pent-up rage in anticipation of a debt-ceiling battle, let loose this week after the speaker’s announcement.
“This is an astoundingly irresponsible way to govern,” Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina said, adding that a fully dysfunctioning Congress is the only way left to keep the U.S. solvent and prevent it from becoming a haven for healthy people who don’t want to work.
“If this continues, we will have a country that is governable, then what?” he added
Rep. Darrell Issa, a powerful Republican committee chairman who is close to the leadership, flashed anger when asked what would happen if the House continued on in this more cooperative vein, free from dramatic showdowns and gridlock-inducing legislative demands.
“How dare you presume a failure?” he snapped. “We continue to believe there’s an opportunity for sensible uncompromising, and I will not accept from anybody the assumption of failure.”
But the fight over who is failing whom will have to wait.
“After weeks of fruitful political games and ever more uncompromising demands we somehow find ourselves in the awkward position of not putting at risk the country’s finances, the business sector’s confidence, and the voting public’s support. This is completely uncharted territory for us,” Mr. Boehner said. “I never imagined it would come to this. But here we are.”
Page 2 of 2 - Over at the White House, administration members seemed unsure what to make of the House action. At a breakfast with reporters, Gene B. Sperling, the director of the White House National Economic Council, appeared on the verge of tears.
“I could hug John Boehner,” he said. “Or I could punch him if that would help improve his standing among his fellow House members. They just have to say the word.”
But conservative Republicans opposed the plan, hinting they had something much bolder in mind for Mr. Boehner than a punch or a hug, and Republican leaders worried that Democrats would not go along with either of Sperling’s suggestions.
The speaker tried to put a brave spin on both Mr. Sperling’s offer and the stinging rebuke to the disorderliness that has ruled his House, promising this week’s capitulation had nothing to do with a change of heart or an effort to do what is in the best interest of the public.
“I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea,” Mr. Boehner said. It’s the fact that we don’t have 218 votes and nothing more.”
While some of the House’s more argumentative members were still spoiling for a fight – any fight – threatening this week to shutdown the House gym unless lawmakers voted to ax Obamacare and build the Keystone XL pipeline – their demands barely registered notice, perhaps because most lawmakers were already scurrying to the airport, hoping to get out of town before an approaching snowstorm.
But it is also possible that stunned members are only now coming to grips with the idea that this time around there would be no gnashing of teeth and chest-thumping ultimatums as the country’s fate teetered in the balance, only a flight out of town.
“Maybe this is the new normal,” said one bewildered congressman. “Wouldn’t that be crazy?”
Philip Maddocks writes a weekly satirical column. He can be reached at email@example.com.