Boehner’s budget legacy

- The Washington Times

The House Freedom Caucus and conservative outsiders were ecstatic when House Speaker John Boehner decided to throw in the towel out of frustration and a very real fear that he had become, fairly or not, a symbol to millions of Republican voters of just how bad things are in Washington. Not only is Congress in continuing disrepute among all voters, but more than three-quarters of Republicans are, as most polls show, dissatisfied with leaders who they don’t think are doing much to make things better.

Mr. Boehner and his Senate counterpart are partially to blame for this frustration, of course, but both are just as frustrated as those who put them in office by their inability to move legislation in the face of the opposition of an ideologically committed foe in the White House and a determined minority in each house that is both united and willing to march off a cliff for their president. One gets the impression that Messrs. Boehner and McConnell believed that after the 2014 elections, President Obama would do as former President Bill Clinton did when faced with so massive a defeat; negotiate with the clear winners. He hasn’t done that and his party in the Senate has used the rules peculiar to that body to thwart every Republican attempt to make the changes the GOP promised voters during the 2014 campaign.

Those voters, wondering why they worked so hard to help the GOP win majorities in both Houses of Congress, blame Congressional Republican leaders for their failure to accomplish all they’d promised and assume that failure is traceable to a willingness to go along with the president and his party. There may be some truth in this, but to make Speaker Boehner the scapegoat is to misread what he and his colleagues have managed to do in spite of the position in which they find themselves.

John Boehner ran for Congress as an opponent of the earmark process and when he became speaker, abolished the practice. That alone is something that conservatives wanted for a long time, but only got from the man whose departure they now cheer. He also deserves credit from social conservatives for his steadfast commitment to life and for the way he has fought for school choice. In fact, even as he prepares to leave, he is today asking his colleagues to vote to save the voucher system that has allowed so many Washington, D.C. youngsters to escape this city’s failed school system over the last decade and which the president and his party are Hell-bent to destroy.

Mr. Boehner has weathered run-ins with many conservatives who tend too often to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good; to oppose the achievable because it doesn’t represent the ideal. This has been especially true in the battle to cut government spending. Under Mr. Boehner’s leadership, Congress has managed to pass the Budget Control Act in 2011. It wasn’t perfect, but its spending caps have garnered hundreds of billions in cuts so far and are on pace to rack up trillions over the next decade. Sure we still spend far more than we should, but the situation would have been markedly worse without the controls incorporated into law by Mr. Boehner’s Congress.

The problem with the BCA has been that conservatives aren’t overly fond of it’s across-the-board cuts because they want to spend more on defense, and liberals hate it because they want to spend more on everything else. Its impact on spending, however, has been dramatic and for that Mr. Boehner deserves credit.

The beast known as “entitlement spending” is a tougher nut to crack and is the engine that continues to drive deficits into the stratosphere. Reform of New Deal legacy programs has proven difficult to impossible even when everyone knows that without reform they will eventually collapse or bankrupt the nation. It takes compromise and sleight of hand to get much done in this all important arena, but with the deal reached on what is known in Washington as the “doc fix” Mr. Boehner has managed to bring some sanity to a program that was out of control. Mr. Boehner essentially traded 141 billion in additional spending on Medicare over the next decade for longer-term savings that will amount to as much as $2.9 trillion. Some condemned him for the short-term spending, but almost everyone failed to credit him for what he bought with that increase: namely, tangible long-term savings and entitlement reform minus the typical liberal demand of attendant tax increases. Keep in mind, two-thirds of federal spending is on autopilot, without yearly review. If long-term debt is to be solved, then the recent Medicare restructuring plan should not be overlooked.

Mr. Boehner’s problems stem from the inability of he and his compatriots to effectively explain to an increasingly skeptical public what is and isn’t possible in today’s Washington, or to take credit for getting all they could. As he leaves, there remains much more to be done, but it would be a mistake to forget that under his leadership Republicans managed to preserve 99 percent of the tax cuts enacted during the Bush years, eliminated earmarks, saved trillions of dollars and have thrown everything possible at the president’s signature plan to take over the health care system. Indeed, even as he was packing his bags to leave, the courts have ruled that the legal case Mr. Boehner filed on behalf of his colleagues could go forward, and as it works its way through the courts it could prove to be the bullet that proves fatal to Obamacare.

Not a bad legacy when you think about it.

David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.