Reality Check

Five Boehner Quotes—From One Interview—That Explain Everything

Wonder why the government is still shuttered? You may have missed this interview, writes Jamelle Bouie.


To watch John Boehner speak Sunday—in a segment with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos—was to watch him issue talking points from another dimension, where legislative hostage-taking is routine and the American public is eager to threaten the full faith and credit of the United States. The interview was rife with dishonesty, but there were five statements—in particular—that stood out for their recklessness and/or brazen disregard for the truth.

“[P]roviding—providing fairness to the American people, under Obamacare, is—all we’re asking for. My goodness. They give big businesses a waiver. They give all these unions a waiver. And yet they’re forcing the American people to buy a product, buy a product that they do not want and cannot afford.”

It’s hard to know where to start with this. The idea that the administration granted a blanket waiver to “big businesses” is absurd. The reality is that businesses with more than 50 employees now have until 2015 to comply with the employer mandate for health insurance. This affects a relatively small number of businesses, and is separate from the other employer-centered regulations in the Affordable Care Act.

Public opinion is ambivalent on the Speaker’s assertion that Obamacare is a product the “American people do not want”—disapproval is substantial, but few people want the law repealed—and most analyses contradict the claim that insurance under the Affordable Care Act is unaffordable; in many states, premiums are much cheaper than expected.

As for the union waivers decried by Boehner? They don’t exist. Just last month, in fact, the administration rejected a bid to extend subsidies to union members who receive employer-provided health insurance.

“The president is saying, I won’t negotiate. I won’t have a conversation. Even though, President Reagan negotiated with Democrats who controlled the Congress back then. Even though President George Herbert Walker Bush had a conversation about raising the debt limit. During the Clinton administration, there were three fights over the debt limit.”

It’s true that there have been times—under a Republican president and Democratic Congress—when the latter has been reluctant to give the former a debt limit increase. To wit, as Boehner notes, there was a moment when President Reagan negotiated with Democrats over lifting the ceiling. But, as Dave Weigel explains for Slate, this is far from comparable with the current situation. Republicans wanted to pass a debt limit increase attached to a tax cut, and Democrats balked; they wanted a clean extension, with no gimmicks. They made no demands, and the entire time, had the votes to pass a clean increase. Writes Weigel, “Most members of both parties voted for a debt limit increase with no extra riders.”

There were fights over the debt limit during the Clinton administration, but in each case, the GOP either caved or offered extremely modest policy changes as the price for an increase. Unlike the contemporary GOP, there was no point when the Republican Party of the 1990s held the economy hostage to a repeal or repudiation of the incumbent president’s domestic agenda.

“I told the president, there’s no way we’re going to pass one. The votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit. And the president is risking default by not having a conversation with us.”

This is demonstrably false. According to a “whip count” from the Washington Post, there are 20 Republicans—at least—who would vote for a “clean” continuing resolution, i.e., a bill that funds the government at the levels agreed to earlier this year. Almost all Democrats have signaled their support for a clean CR. Together, those lawmakers could end the shutdown if Boehner would put a gimmick-free continuing resolution to the floor.

Which, of course, is why it’s not going to happen.

“I don’t want the United States to default on its debt. But I’m not going to raise the debt limit without a serious conversation about dealing with problems that are driving the debt up. It would be irresponsible of me to do this.”

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The result of the government defaulting on its debt, notes Bloomberg, “will be an economic calamity like none the world has ever seen.” Which is to say that this is more irresponsible than it is dishonest. For as much as politicians use it to grandstand, the debt limit isn’t something to play games with. President Obama acknowledged this when asked about his own rhetoric when he was a senator, “As president, you start realizing, you know what, we, we can’t play around with this stuff. This is the full faith and credit of the United States. And so that was just an example of a new senator making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country.”

We know that the threat of default is enough to tank the nation’s economy. Talking like Boehner does in this interview is the political equivalent of playing with fire while standing next to oily rags and several barrels of gasoline. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

“Every president in modern history has negotiated over a debt limit. Debt limits have been used to force big policy changes in Washington. And guess what, George? They’re going to be used again.”

Not only is this not true—as we discussed earlier—but it’s a terrifying promise of future dysfunction, which explains President Obama’s decision to hold firm. If he bends to Republican demands, he guarantees a future where legislative minorities are free to threaten the economy and demand concessions from the majority. It’s a full assault on our Constitutional norms, and Obama is right to challenge it.