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Don’t blame Boehner for House dysfunction

Steve LaTourette, who represented Ohio’s 19th and 14th congressional districts in the U.S. House from 1995 to 2013, is president of Main Street Partnership, an organization of centrist Republicans.

There has been a lot of talk in both Democratic and Republican circles about whether House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) can lead his caucus. Incidents such as the defeat of the farm bill on the House floor have been cited to support this narrative.

But much of the blame for Washington failures has been mislaid.

Gallery

Gallery

The focus on Boehner has been more intense because House Democrats have abdicated any meaningful role in passing legislation. Few bills are able to garner Democratic support, often not because of policy differences but because House Democratic leaders have decided they would rather wash their hands of responsibility for governing and, instead, focus on winning back the majority.

The role of the minority party is to be the “loyal opposition,” and Democrats have gotten it half right — they are opposed to everything House Republicans do, but there is not much loyal about it.

Democrats frequently push back against this, arguing that Boehner isn’t willing to move legislation that isn’t supported by a majority of his caucus even if there would be 218 votes for passage. But the reality is that Boehner has been willing to waive the “Hastert rule” and bring important legislation to the floor. He did so this year with the “fiscal cliff” deal and with the Violence Against Women Act. He is, however, the leader of the GOP caucus, so he has to pick and choose the times he is willing to move forward without a majority of Republicans — or risk not being their leader much longer.

Boehner is a skilled politician who is more than able to lead his caucus — well, at least the 180 or so members interested in actively participating in the legislative process. Unfortunately for Boehner, for the House as an institution and for the country in general, these 180 public servants are not the problem.

Thirty to 40 other members of the House, however, believe their only responsibility as a member of Congress is to show up and vote “no.” Frankly, they take such a dim view of their job that a trained monkey could do what they do. And, sadly, the situation is becoming one in which the monkeys are running the zoo.

It is these members who are largely responsible for the dysfunction in Washington and the failure of the legislative process. They have gleefully ground to a halt the work of the people. Because of them, agreement cannot be reached on legislation once deemed too important not to pass, such as the farm bill or the transportation bill.

These members are cheered on by interest groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, organizations that have made a lucrative business out of Washington’s dysfunction.

The No On Everything caucus, exemplified by members such as Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Tim Huels­kamp (R-Kan.), has tapped into Americans’ unhappiness with Washington while deepening the dysfunction that has bred such widespread contempt among voters. It’s an admirable feat of political skill in the basest sense, but it is also everything that is wrong with politics today.

Our country faces some heady issues. There is a fight looming over funding the government that could lead to a government shutdown. That will be followed by debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling, with the specter of the United States defaulting on its debts as the backdrop. We have a limited window of time to deal with other important questions, such as fundamental tax reform and critical reforms to the U.S. immigration system.

It is time for Democrats and the No On Everything caucus to step up and become meaningful participants in the legislative process.

It is said that politics can make strange bedfellows. Progressives may say they bemoan the “radicalism” of the tea party, and tea party advocates may claim to despise the “tactics” of liberals, but the truth is that both sides have abdicated the most basic responsibilities of elected officials. Both sides are complicit in creating an environment in which nothing can be accomplished.

Running for office is not an obligation; one isn’t forced to do it. And those lucky enough to be entrusted with the faith of the voters they were elected to represent have obligations that come with the office. Our nation faces serious challenges. We need men and women in Congress who are willing to get to work finding solutions. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option.

 
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