The Boehner Rule, the do-nothing House, and the want-nothing GOP

House Speaker John Boehner

Speaker of the House John Boehner (AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite)

Sarah Binder has a great post up showing that legislative activity in the House this year has fallen off sharply, which she attributes, quite correctly, to what she’s coined as “the Boehner Rule”: Make the Senate go first. Why would Speaker John Boehner like that?

[L]etting the Senate go first may offer political dividends to the House leadership.  The Senate might no longer be the world’s greatest deliberative body, but it’s still the most sluggish.  The House leadership likely benefits from legislative delay, particularly on the big issues of the day that create electoral dilemmas for the GOP’s brand name (for starters, immigration reform and gun control).  Delay offers opponents time to mobilize, allows public support to wane, and lets House Republicans blame Senate Democrats for congressional inaction.   Win, win, win (at least for now) for a party leadership unable or reluctant to build a legislative majority for reform.

All true! But the rule is only worthwhile if it’s the case that House Republicans don’t really care about policy outcomes. That is, by letting the Senate go first, House Republicans are basically losing their opportunity to affect the content of legislation. They still retain a veto on what the Senate proposes, but if the Boehner Rule is rigorously applied, that’s about it; as was the case with the Violence Against Women Act and the fiscal cliff bill, they’re left with just a final vote on the policy.

This is yet another way of saying that Republicans just don’t seem very interested in actually making changes in public policy. Oh, they’re very interested in the rhetoric of radical change, but that’s about it. They’re perfectly happy to register symbolic protests and leave it at that, rather than cutting the best deal they can for substantive priorities.

Rachel Maddow and Steve Benen are using the phrase “post-policy” politics for this shocking lack of interest, and I think that fits it well. And just to drive home the point: This isn’t a case of a conservative party being naturally, somehow, less interested in passing laws — because it extends to laws which would repeal government programs. So, yes, it’s happening, and yes, it works well for the leadership. But only because neither House Republican leaders or House Republican Members seem to care about substance.  If they did, you can bet that the Boehner Rule wouldn’t last long.

Also on PostPartisan

PostScript: George Will and learning offense