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December 26, 2011

The World’s Worst Job

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner might have the world’s worst job. Sure, he gets driven around in an armored SUV, and it’s a little hard to be sympathetic to a guy who makes close to $200K per year for a job that only requires you to be at work about a third of the time (or less).


He does have a pretty cool office, too. And who can ignore the constitutional line of succession thing? That would be an awesome perk of any job. When you’re second in line to the most powerful job in the world that would have to put a certain bounce in your step.


So, why is Speaker Boehner’s job the world’s worst?


He presides over the Republican members of the House of Representatives in what could be their best years. They have a solid majority, a number of very bright thinkers in their caucus; and they’re going into an election year against a Democratic president who has utterly and completely failed to address the systemic problems in our national economy.


So, why aren’t they literally dancing in the aisles?


The simple answer is that they can’t get out of their own way.


The recent fall out over the payroll tax holiday extension gives us the best example of the “gang who couldn’t legislate.” Early in this fight, President Barack Obama’s team saw an opportunity and seized it. They knew that if they could make this about protecting the middle class from a tax increase, they would prevail no matter what tactical political maneuvering would follow.


This has always been a very confusing debate. If Americans typically don’t pay much attention, then our political leaders can throw a lot at them without much fear of voter reprisal. This whole tax reduction nonsense is a good example. We’re arguing over a relatively insignificant amount per person, but a fairly substantial reduction in federal revenue overall.


The revenue is presumably going into the Social Security system, if you accept the premise that dollars raised for our federal retirement supplement program actually get used there. Hint: they don’t.


Details notwithstanding, when you tell most Americans that one side of a political debate will give them a tax reduction and the other side will not, they want the guys who promise the tax cut.


Set aside the warnings about future consequences, economic liability and the fact that this particular reduction will do nothing to spur job creation; when President Obama can fly into town on the fancy big blue jet and claim he wants to give people more money in their paychecks, they listen to him. Besides, he has a nice smile and an attractive young family. Surely he wouldn’t intentionally mislead us, would he?


On the other hand, you have Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R., TX), Rep. Paul Ryan (R., WI), and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., VA). All three are young, smart and no-nonsense. What they lack in feel-good communication skills they make up in knowledge of economic issues.


Unfortunately, all the smarts in the world pale in comparison to a tax cut promise.


Add to that the idea that Republicans want to protect America’s job creators from tax increases to spur economic growth. It’s not a fantasy; many years of history prove this theory. Even Democratic Party presidents like John F. Kennedy and William J. Clinton agreed.


It’s just hard to explain that when the national unemployment level is over 9%. People who are out of work don’t really give a damn about economic recovery theory. Citizens like this care even less about the plight of the millionaire job creators, unless, of course, one of those job creators has a job for them!


So, Speaker Boehner is left with an unwinnable argument for the majority of Americans. He’s also left with the Tea Party, a subset of America that actually pays attention to these arcane economic debates.


Tea Party members have decided that they don’t believe anything President Obama says (and he’s surely armed them with enough evidence to be skeptical). They also believe that compromise equates to weakness. Finally, they were very politically active in the 2010 elections and sent a bunch of like-minded legislators to Congress.


Those Tea Party-backed congressmen represent one of the worst aspects of Representative Boehner’s job as Speaker of the House. In a legislative body, compromise on policy is not important, it is essential. Our Constitution makes clear that compromise within and between the houses of Congress would be a critical component of our federal law making process.


Anyone in their 30’s and 40’s will remember ABC’s Schoolhouse Rocks and the episode on how a bill becomes law. It’s always been about good people of different ideologies getting together to find common ground based on the interests of the people, or – at least – it used to be.


Today’s political model is now based on the interests of the Republican and Democratic parties. A well-designed public relations campaign and message rollout gets more effort than a roll-up-the-sleeves, back room debate does.


If the Founding Fathers had been completely intractable and unwilling to listen to the merits of opposing arguments, we’d likely be a very different government today.


This experiment in government by and for the people depends on the good will, logic and commitment to fairness by all of our national political leaders. A president is only as good as his willingness to work with the majorities in the House and Senate, whether or not they share his party affiliation. A congressional majority can only succeed if it has the ability to separate the possible from the impossible and share credit for actually passing the possible.


The only way that Speaker Boehner can make his job more enjoyable is to learn a lesson from former president and Senate majority leader Lyndon Baines Johnson. When he ran the Senate (and he ran the Senate), Mr. Johnson understood the subtleties of power. He knew when to sacrifice and when to stand firm. His members got the message, whether delivered to their campaign accounts or upside their heads.


If the Republicans wants to succeed in their quest to limit Barack Obama to one term in the Oval Office, they’ll need to learn a simple yet immutable political history lesson: If the other guy can make a simple and appealing promise (even if he can’t possibly keep it), and your argument is complicated and takes a college degree to sort out, you lose.


If he doesn’t get this across to his members soon, not only will John Boehner’s job be difficult, he may not be able to keep it in 2012.


And that would be a tragedy.


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