How Boehner’s Crazy Method Is Letting Obama’s Agenda Move

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Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Obama’s second-term agenda is actually chugging along at what by current standards counts as a brisk pace. Senators in both parties have struck deals on background checks for gun purchases and on immigration reform. The gun deal looked, until recently, to die a likely death in the House, but it has attained a sudden momentum. Paul Ryan, a party bellwether on all things, cryptically hinted yesterday that he might support it.

Things are happening. But they are happening in the characteristically and necessarily odd way that has come to be seen as normal in the Washington of Barack Obama and John Boehner.

The path to passage for both of these reforms involves first cobbling together a bipartisan coalition in the Senate. House Republicans will not in any way participate in the crafting of the bills, though they may vote for bills of their own that go nowhere. Then Boehner decides if the Senate bill lives or dies, by either bringing it up to a vote or not. If he brings it up to a vote, it passes, with most Republicans voting against it and perhaps denouncing it vociferously.

Political scientists Sarah Binder and Jonathan Bernstein have praised Boehner’s new method for passing bills. Indeed, as a way of coping with the extremism of the House Republican caucus, it’s not too bad. You get to pass some laws. Yet the weirdness of the process, and the need for a workaround at all, testifies to the sheer pathology of the Republican base.

The purpose of this convoluted method is to spare House Republicans any contact with negotiation or the legislative process. Polls have shown that Republican voters, unlike Democratic voters, do not want their leaders to compromise. In the wake of the fiscal-cliff bargaining, Republicans came away having to promise their base they would not bargain with Democrats. They have presented this as a kind of clean-government promise to avoid (their catchphrase) “backroom deals.”

Obviously, though, a “backroom deal” is the only way to make a deal. There’s no front-room deal.

So the way around this problem is for other parties — moderates in the Senate — to cut the deal. Then if Boehner decides the party can’t withstand the damage of blocking the bill, he’ll let it pass with Democratic votes. This happened with the Bush tax-cut expiration and Hurricane Sandy relief. If the background-check bill and immigration reform pass, it will be the same way. The process was demanded by the angry Republican base. But its effect is to let House Republicans fool the angry Republican base. Republicans will be voting against the dastardly compromise but letting it pass anyway.

What makes this process especially perverse is that it not only removes House Republicans from the negotiations — it eliminates all transparency. All the decision-making power rests on Boehner’s control of the voting schedule.

Boehner’s comments on the background-check compromise were typical: "Any bill that passes the Senate, we're going to review it." Well, that’s nice! Will he let it come to a vote or let it die? Nobody knows. There’s no backroom negotiating here, just the mysterious inner workings of Boehner’s mind.