Yesterday afternoon, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a memo to lawmakers, outlining his plans to sue President Obama for having “circumvented the Congress through executive action.” The 831-word document included exactly zero specific examples of presidential actions Boehner considers offensive and/or impermissible.
Around the same time, the Republican leader held a press conference to justify his plan. After plenty of overheated rhetoric about executive overreach and the importance of separation of powers and adherence to constitutional law, Boehner fielded a question about U.S. policy in Iraq. The Speaker replied:
“I called for more increased U.S. activity a year ago. In January, when the ISIS forces came across the Iraq border and began to gather territory, I called on the administration to act. And it’s not my job to outline for the president what tools he should use or not use. It’s not my job to outline the strategy for the president when it comes to the overall fight against terrorism. I don’t have as many tools at my disposal as the president does.“And so this is the president’s responsibility. He’s elected president. He’s elected to lead.”
Is that so.
Let’s be clear about this. Boehner held a press conference to talk up a lawsuit challenging the White House for going too far in its use of executive power – including, according to the Speaker, in the area of “foreign policy” – insisting that litigation is absolutely necessary because he’s committed to “defending the institution” in which he serves. That rascally Obama, the Republican leader said, has tried to “erode the power of the legislative branch.”
In literally the same press conference, Boehner also demanded that the president has the authority to act in Iraq, with or without congressional authorization, whether or not lawmakers approve, Constitution be damned.
It’s almost as if the Speaker’s entire argument is a complete sham that Boehner neither understands nor cares deeply about.
Kevin Drum, whose judgment I hold in the highest regard, wrote an item yesterday about Boehner’s litigation plans that approached this from a very different perspective.
Good for Boehner. If he truly believes that Obama has overstepped his authority, this is exactly what he should do: stop whining, and instead step up to the plate and take his cases to court. […]Let’s find out what he’s really serious about, and then see what the Supreme Court thinks about it. That’s how this stuff should be resolved.
There’s certainly something to this. If a Speaker genuinely believes a White House has exceeded its authority through executive actions, he or she has a responsibility to act. Pursue impeachment, take it to court, something.
But Kevin seems willing to give Boehner’s sincerity the benefit of the doubt. I disagree.
Boehner said the president “is not faithfully executing the laws.” Which ones? “I’ll let you know,” the Speaker said.
Boehner said Obama is “creating laws of his own.” How does that even make sense? The Speaker didn’t say.
What we’re left with is a partisan gimmick from a House Speaker who long ago gave up on governing and simply doesn’t have anything else to do.
If Boehner had pointed to even one specific executive action worthy of challenge, I might take this more seriously. If Boehner hadn’t already endorsed executive authority on this scale during the Bush/Cheney era, I might take this more seriously. If Boehner hadn’t encouraged Obama to circumvent Congress on Iraq during the press conference in which Boehner was complaining about Obama circumventing Congress, I might take this more seriously.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Speaker stuck to vacuous talking points, raising the specter of a vague lawsuit challenging unspecified actions. Boehner not only couldn’t talk about the presidential overreach he claims to find outrageous, he couldn’t even say when this lawsuit might be filed. Apparently the plan is to generate headlines, then figure out what he’s talking about, and then head to court.
This isn’t a debate over the proper role of separation of powers; this is an election-year joke. Even Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, hardly a progressive media voice, dismissed the very idea of House Republicans suing Obama as “silly” and “an enormous waste of effort.”
So why is Boehner doing this? I obviously can’t read the Speaker’s mind, so we can only speculate. But it’s hardly a stretch to think he’s motivated by a series of related concerns: his restless right-wing caucus is pushing him to pursue nonsense like this; his party needs a new fundraising gimmick; the GOP’s far-right base is constantly in need of election-year motivating; he’s ideologically opposed to many of the actions the president has taken in pursuit of progressive priorities; and Republicans are entirely too invested in the ridiculous notion that Obama is an out-of-control tyrant hell bent on creating a socialistic dictatorship in which the president is the supreme leader.
For a couple of centuries, there’s been an institutional tension between the executive and the legislative branches over power and authority. It’s a healthy competition and the pendulum has swung back and forth over the generations. If House Republicans are ready for a mature conversation about where the pendulum currently stands, the debate is always welcome.
But there’s nothing to suggest that’s what Boehner has in mind. The Speaker is eyeing a public-relations stunt custom made for election-year posturing, and little more.