Forbes: John Boehner’s House is Nothing like Tip O’Neill’s House

The most tired refrain in political punditry is “if only Obama and Boehner would sit down and work this out the way Reagan and Tip O’Neill did.” I got a chuckle watching Newt Gingrich on television last week, bragging about how successful his late night negotiating sessions with President Clinton were.
Oh for the good old days when leaders were leaders, right? I beg to differ. I was working in the Senate during both the Reagan and Clinton administrations and I know for a fact that there was one all-important difference between then and now. When Speaker O’Neill or Speaker Gingrich negotiated a deal on a bill with their Presidents, you could be certain their majority caucuses in the House of Representatives would pass it.
The very first rule in negotiating a deal is you have to know that the person you shake hands with when agreement is reached can then deliver the votes for it. Since he became Speaker in 2010, it has become increasingly obvious that John Boehner cannot do that. Not because he can’t lead, but because his fractured caucus simply won’t follow.
During the fiscal cliff negotiations earlier this year, President Obama and Vice President Biden reached agreements with Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor on a number of deals. But the handshake agreements were meaningless, because the majority of Republicans in their caucus would not back their leaders. Remember Plan B? It was Boehner’s fallback position at one time and would have marked a small shift in the GOP’s absolute opposition to tax increases of any kind. But his caucus refused to follow his leadership, and he was humiliated when he had to pull the bill after trumpeting it for a week.
We averted a catastrophe and kicked the can down the road last week, and President Obama is justifiably getting credit for his refusal to negotiate. The truth is, he had no alternative to that position. Given Speaker Boehner’s insistence until the very last minute that he would honor the so-called Hastert rule, the President had no one to negotiate with.
I listened to what Senate Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell said on the floor last Monday night. Reading between the lines, I went to bed 99 percent certain that the Senate would pass a bill that would end the stalemate.
I awoke Tuesday to learn that Senate Republicans had decided they wanted a pause in negotiations in order to allow House Republicans a chance to salvage something from the disaster they had created rather than pass a Senate bill. Even then, Boehner could not get a majority of Republicans to agree on a bill of their own.
Their backs were against the wall, and they still couldn’t agree on what they wanted. It was absolute proof that there had never been a chance that Boehner could have made a deal with the President earlier in the process, when the impossible goal of defunding Obamacare was the stated objective of the House Republican majority.
The reality is that Congressional leaders no longer have the tools to impose the kind of top-down decision making that was the norm until very recently. You can tick off a lot of reasons for this, including the end of earmarks that kept members in line, a primary system that replaced hand-picked candidates by political bosses, and gerrymandered districts like that of Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA), who just produced my nomination for the quote of the week: “We are a body of independent contractors, each with his own constituency.”
That attitude may reflect a trend throughout our society to take control out of the hands of leaders. A recent Zogby poll revealed that Millennials, the generation aged 19 to 34, are “more unattached to a top-down decision-making process than Americans who came before them.”
It is hard to argue with those who want a more open political system, where all voices are heard and respected. But taken to extremes, the inevitable result must be the loss of power by those in leadership roles and the real threat of continuing government paralysis.
Trust me, an independent contractor would not last long under Tip O’Neill or Newt Gingrich.