There’s nothing wrong with gestures, symbolic though they may be, and the day of House Speaker John Boehner’s swearing-in was full of them.
The fanfare was fit for the common man. His morning began with a prayer service at St. Peter’s, a small Catholic church a few blocks from the Capitol. After, 10 of his 11 brothers and sisters joined friends in the Cannon House Office Building to eat Cincinnati chili.
In addition to his ceremonial swearing-in, Boehner had Chief Justice John Roberts swear in his staff members, a nice touch. Had more solemnity accompanied the rise to power of Tom DeLay and his crew, there might have been fewer indictments.
Today, the U.S. Constitution will be read on the House floor. Tomorrow, Boehner will hold the first procedural vote to repeal President Barack Obama’s health-care reform, an utterly meaningless gesture, since neither the Senate nor the president would sign off on repeal.
Theatrics are what Boehner has while the Old Party piece of the Grand Old Party absorbs its 87 new members. In his first speech, he said we could no longer “kick the can down the road,” despite punting it all through the campaign.
For months, when asked what Republicans would cut, Boehner said he was awaiting the bipartisan commission on the deficit. When the commission’s report stunk up the joint with proposed (and inevitable) cuts to Social Security, Medicare and defense, Boehner retreated to his old standby that it’s time to have an “adult conversation.”
His other redoubt is to reference Representative Paul Ryan, the party’s all-purpose fiscal guru. Boehner’s press spokesman, Michael Steel, told me that Ryan’s free-market Roadmap for America’s Future, which would reduce the deficit by altering Social Security and Medicare beyond recognition, is a “vision of conservative reform” that Boehner “appreciates.” As to the plan’s specifics? “He’s not totally on board with them.”
Since the election, the most Republicans have done is add to the deficit by insisting that tax cuts be extended for all, even the wealthiest Americans. To call the vote on health care, Boehner had to pull out a special exception to House budget rules to get around the inconvenient fact that repeal would widen the deficit as well.
What’s the big hurry, anyway? The Tea Partiers will have to learn the wheels of Washington grind slowly.
Boehner is still learning Tea-Party talk as a second language. A recovering resident of the hostile universe the Tea Party decries, he’s rested, ready, tanned and ever-ready to squeeze in 18 holes, smoking breaks and a few drinks with his good buddies on K Street.
Capitol Hill Dorms
He’s not nearly as conservative or confrontational as the bumptious crop of new members that made possible the final stage of his rise from bar mopper to House speaker. Offended by the ways of Washington, many of the newcomers aren’t even moving to the seat of evil and high rents, preferring to turn the congressional office buildings into smelly dorms rather than find apartments.
Offices have private toilets, yes, but not private showers, little closet place and no washers and dryers. In the old days, offices with quick access to the House floor were highly desired. Now proximity to the showers in the House gym defines prized real estate.
Welcome to Animal House.
Nor are the newcomers clamoring for the powerful appropriations committees. They are to pork as a microwave is to metal.
The House leadership quickly gave Tea Partiers one of their cherished goals -- a moratorium on earmarks, the budgetary set- asides for pet projects of dubious merit. That avatar of the Old Party, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, had to be chloroformed to go along, in an off-message speech announcing the ban, nostalgically noting earmarks past that had made Kentucky great.
McConnell knows an empty gesture when he makes one. Passing up grants to study pig odor or to build a National Cowgirl Museum is not going to get us out of hock to China. Ditto for the $35 million Boehner promised to trim from the House leadership budget. “You have to start somewhere,” he told CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
He left out getting somewhere. When the first big vote to raise the debt ceiling comes up, Boehner will have to herd cats, and I’m not talking Democrats. To his new members, warnings about jeopardizing our credit internationally and shutting it down internally are just so many elites talking. James Lankford, a new Republican representative from Oklahoma, told Politico that the freshmen class discusses the government’s debt ceiling every time it meets.
“The consensus has been that we did not come to raise the debt,” he said. “We came to get it under control.”
By the time the meaningless vote to repeal health care is over, Boehner will have run out of empty gestures. The promise to cut $100 billion from the current federal budget of $3.5 trillion is already being walked back, on the grounds that the fiscal year already has begun. But that’s always been the case.
So many promises, so few spending cuts that won’t cause real pain.
When Obama promised transformation and it didn’t come, liberals got furious -- which in their case meant venting for a while on the Huffington Post, then falling back in love and back in line. He’s not likely to be challenged from within for the 2012 nomination.
Not so for the new members. If they don’t deliver on their signature promise to slash government, they’re out. Patience doesn’t seem to be a virtue among the Tea Party set.
Victory is often bittersweet. For Boehner, yesterday was the sweet part. The bitter is coming.
Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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