Boehner Retiring Doesn’t Necessarily Help President Obama

Jonathan Chait posted an article today that outlines the optimistic scenario if Speaker Boehner retires after the 2014 elections. The midterm elections are far off still so we won’t know for a while if Boehner is sticking around or not, but Chait hypothesizes that if Boehner does decide that he’s done with political office, it could be a boon for the President’s second term:

The trouble in Washington is not so much Boehner himself, though he’s no prize, but Boehner’s desire to keep his job. A small minority of the most extreme Republicans in the House have managed to keep Boehner on a leash by threatening to depose him as Speaker if he displeases them. The Republicans hold a narrow enough majority that even an amateur-hour coup came within a handful of votes of deposing Boehner already. If Boehner wants to keep his job, he has to avoid displeasing his extremists, and his extremists are so detached from reality that they insist on wildly unrealistic demands on issues like the debt ceiling and Obamacare.

But if Boehner feels liberated to flee the House, then suddenly all sorts of governing possibilities open up. He can lift the debt ceiling and keep the government running. He could sign immigration reform, even cut a deal on the budget. There’s probably a majority in the House for all these things — it’s just a majority consisting mainly of Democrats along with a handful of Republicans. Boehner could use that majority and then ride off into the sunset to become a lobbyist, enjoy a huge raise, and play a lot more golf.

Everything Chait says there is true. If Boehner finally gets fed up with the extremists in his group and decides to govern, Congress could suddenly become quite productive (well, not that productive – there’s still the Senate filibuster). There are a couple of landmines here though.

First, Boehner probably wants to keep his speakership til the end of 2014. If he starts breaking the Hastert Rule frequently, his conference would likely revolt pretty quickly. Maybe the Speaker could make a deal with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi so that he’d keep his speakership with significant Democratic support. But that would effectively give Pelosi control over the House. If Boehner needs the Minority Leader to keep his position and to pass anything, he doesn’t actually have much power. I can’t see Boehner putting himself in that position right before his retirement.

Second, this puts the rest of the Republican leadership in limbo. Do they support Boehner even as he pisses off a number of House Republicans? Or do they ditch him as well and give up their current leadership position in hopes of taking the speakership in the next Congress? A lame-duck Boehner who chose to govern would split House Republicans. It could get very messy. Does Boehner want to leave that as part of his legacy.

Third, Chait’s analysis rests on the idea that Boehner can “ride off into the sunset to become a lobbyist” and make a bunch of money. If he ruins his relationship with most of his Republican colleagues though, how will that look? How may firms on K-street are looking to hire a former Speaker who passed legislation right before his retirement that most of his party opposed? I imagine he’d still have a number of suitors, but he’ll make a lot more money and have a lot more friends if he rides out Republican opposition until the very end.

Finally, and most importantly, even if Boehner’s retirement helps the President move some of his agenda in the short run, it could hurt him even worse in the long run. A new Republican Speaker (assuming the Democrats do not retake the House) will be in the same position that Boehner currently finds himself in, balancing the moderates in his party who are looking to govern with the many extremists who reflexively oppose the President on everything. Boehner has done an excellent job appeasing the extremists during times of non-crisis while ensuring that they do not cause too much damage during crises (see the debt limit fight earlier this year). A new speaker will have less experience striking that balance and may face greater suspicion from the Tea Party. Even worse, if a Tea Party member is elected, we could find ourselves with a speaker who wants to shut down the government or breach the debt ceiling. That would be a disaster for Obama’s last two years in office.

So, if Boehner retires, does it really help the President? It’s certainly not clear.


Do Obama’s Higher Ed Reforms Have a Chance in Congress?

Jonathan Chait is pessimistic:

But the comparison raises the question of whether his higher-education agenda will repel Republicans just as his health-care agenda did. Finding ways to get the government to spend less on education sounds pretty conservative.

If you put more weight on the ideological explanation [for Republican opposition to the ACA] , then Obama’s higher-education agenda stands a chance of attracting Republican support. Republicans might even take some visceral pleasure in making their cultural enemies in the academy squeal. If you put more weight on the political explanation, then Republicans will convince themselves that Obama’s plan is evil no matter what. Republicans will find themselves believing that free-market principles require that whatever money the government spends on college access must have absolutely no conditions attached.

Josh Barro is more optimistic:

I view scorched-earth Republican opposition to health care reform as having been driven mainly by neither ideology nor animus toward the president. I think the key was a desire to protect Republican constituencies who benefit from the health policy status quo: doctors and Medicare recipients.

In the case of higher education, the constituency getting its ox gored by cost control will be college professors and administrators, hardly a fixture of Republican fundraisers or Tea Party town halls. That bodes well for bipartisan compromise on this issue.

Hmm, I want to side with Barro here, but I can’t for one big reason: Republican rejection of the Medicaid expansion. A quick refresher: Obamacare expanded Medicaid to cover all individuals with income up to 133% of the federal poverty line. Since Medicaid is a state-run program, the government agreed to cover the full costs of the expansion until 2017. From 2017 to 2020, the federal government covers 95% of the costs and thereafter it’s 90%. It’s a great deal for states. But the Supreme Court ruling last summer allowed states to opt out of the expansion. This leaves a gaping hole in Obamacare. Individuals with incomes between 100 and 133 percent of the federal poverty line will still be eligible for tax subsidies, but those with incomes below 100% of the federal poverty line who aren’t eligible for Medicaid already will not receive coverage.

Why does this matter to whether Obama’s higher ed plan has a chance of passing in Congress? Because, as Barro and Chait write, it depends on whether Republicans will immediately reject the plan out of opposition to anything President proposes or whether they will be open to it. Barro’s optimism is based on the fact that Republican opposition to Obamacare was not just pure nihilism, but was also a play to protect their favored constituencies. Except Republican rejection of the Medicaid expansion shows that it was more nihilism than anything else.

That’s because rejecting the expansion will hurt one of Republicans favored constituencies: hospitals and doctors. Obamacare discontinues Disproportionate Share (DSH) payments, which were used to offset uncompensated health care costs of the uninsured pre-Obamacare. When Obamacare expanded Medicaid, those payments became unnecessary. Medicaid would now cover everyone up to 133% of the federal poverty line so uncompensated costs would basically disappear. Thus, there was no need for DSH payments to continue. Except hospitals in states that rejected the Medicaid expansion are still going to face significant costs of treating uninsured patients and now they receive no DSH payments to recoup those expenses. That’s why hospitals have been aggressively lobbying Republican states to expand Medicaid. There’s a lot of money on the line for doctors and hospitals.

But that lobbying has proved ineffective so far. Twenty one states have already rejected the expansion with six still debating it. It’s a great deal from the federal government that allows millions of poor Americans to receive health care coverage. Even more, hospitals are crying out for the expansion. Nope, Republicans are dead set against it. No matter how much hospitals and doctors favor them, Republicans aren’t budging. Republican opposition to Obamacare is less based on protecting Republican constituencies than rejecting anything the President proposes. I don’t see Republicans treating Obama’s education proposal any differently.