"I'm listening."

John Boehner Welcomes Your Ideas

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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Republican House Speaker John Boehner has five ideas to reinvigorate the U.S. economy. And if you don't like them, he's willing to entertain others.

In a speech yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute, Boehner laid out five steps for rebuilding the American economy: tax reform, lower spending, tort reform, fewer regulations and more charter schools. "If we were to do these five things," he said, "you can reset the economic foundation in America for the next two or three generations and beyond."

The singular importance of those five ideas lasted about two minutes, until a questioner asked Boehner if it wasn't perhaps important to address immigration reform. And while he was at it, would he like to talk about how to fix the housing market? Some changes to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, perhaps?

"There are a lot of things you could add to this," Boehner said, conceding that immigration reform could indeed help the economy, without saying what it might consist of. As for housing, "I don't know what's going to happen to Fannie and Freddie, but I don't think it's going to have any sizable impact on what happens in the housing market." If Boehner has other ideas for fixing the housing market, he didn't mention what they were.

The next questioner diplomatically mentioned Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp's tax reform proposal -- which does exactly what Boehner said tax reform had to do but didn't go anywhere, not least for lack of Republican support. Does the speaker support Camp's proposal? "I think it's a good starting point," Boehner said.

Another questioner asked whether the speaker had a strategy for health care. Boehner, under whose tenure the House has largely been reduced to a forum for voting against the Affordable Care Act, offered that Medicare was unsustainable, hinted at some vague cuts and left it at that. Somebody else asked what Boehner thought of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's proposal to increase the earned income tax credit. Boehner allowed that the idea "has an awful lot of merit."

Of course, there's nothing unique about a party leader evading specific commitments. A few hours earlier and a few blocks away, Hillary Clinton sat down with some of the Democratic Party's fieriest advocates for paid family leave, universal child care and a higher minimum wage, and she managed to leave an hour later without having committed herself to much of anything.

But then, Clinton isn't trying to prove that she has ideas and goals that extend beyond stymieing the president's agenda. (Although maybe she should.) Democrats' problem isn't that they ignore the average voter's problems; it's that they sometimes try too hard to fix them.

There are Republicans with interesting policy ideas, though you could debate how useful those ideas are. John Boehner, trying to keep control of a fractious conference on the eve of an election that is the Republican Party's to lose, doesn't appear willing to risk being one of them. Unless you believe that rebuilding the economy means cracking down on trial lawyers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net