The stories about Republicans criticizing House Speaker John A. Boehner for his comments about immigration reform reminded me of one of my favorite anecdotes from the days when Democrat Tom Foley was speaker.
For those who aren't regular readers of Ohio's newspapers (and I know there are several of you out there), the Cincinnati Enquirer reported last week that Boehner had "mocked" his GOP colleagues for their reluctance to tackle the thorny issue of immigration. From the Enquirer:
"Here's the attitude. 'Ohhhh. Don't make me do this. Ohhhh. This is too hard,' " Boehner whined before a luncheon crowd at Brown's Run County Club in Madison Township. "We get elected to make choices. We get elected to solve problems, and it's remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don't want to.... They'll take the path of least resistance."
Some members of the House Republican caucus took offense, prompting Boehner to say he was just engaging in a little friendly banter. As he put it, "You only tease the ones you love."
Which brings me to the aforementioned anecdote, which a Democratic congressman from a swing state told me 11 years ago. It was off the record, so I'm not going to name the principals involved.
The 1992 elections had put a Democrat (Bill Clinton) in the White House for the first time in 12 years and a huge number of freshmen Democrats (63) in the House of Representatives. Taking advantage of single-party control, liberals moved quickly on a series of pent-up legislative priorities. This led to a steady stream of ideologically polarized debates in the first few months on bills to mandate family and medical leave, make it easier to register to vote, extend emergency unemployment compensation, allow agencies that receive federal family planning grants to provide referrals for abortions and authorize the administration to send troops to Somalia.
The fiscal policy issues that came up were no less divided along partisan lines. The federal government was saddled with what seemed at the time like a sizable budget deficit -- about $300 billion, or roughly 20% of that year's spending -- and the economy seemed to be stuck in low gear. So in addition to proposing a budget heavy on borrowing, Democrats brought up supplemental spending bills aimed at boosting economic growth and then a budget reconciliation bill that raised taxes on upper-income Americans.
For Democratic freshmen from moderate and right-leaning districts, this was baptism by fire. It was one tough vote after another, with a lot of pressure from the leadership to stay with the program. So at a Democrats-only gathering, they let the leadership have it. Clinton, they noted, had won only 43% of the vote. He had no mandate, and what little goodwill he might have started with was evaporating fast. And yet the leadership was pushing them to support the president's legislative agenda, along with a number of other proposals that rankled their constituents. They worried that the party was racking up legislative wins at the expense of their own prospects for reelection.
To which a veteran Democratic congresswoman replied, "Welcome to the NBA."
Boehner apparently didn't say anything of the sort to quell his grumbling colleagues. Instead, he blamed President Obama for the House's inability to pass an immigration reform bill like the one the Senate passed, in bipartisan fashion, with the White House's support. It's a recurring GOP theme: By deciding to not enforce laws it doesn't favor, the administration has shown that it can't be trusted to honor the concessions it makes to Republicans in a legislative compromise.
Never mind that many of the unilateral acts that have irked Republicans were taken by Obama to get around GOP intransigence. But I digress.
To avoid putting his members in the position of having to choose between their own agenda and the party's, Boehner rarely bring bills to the floor that have more than token opposition from House Republicans. But federal immigration law clearly needs an overhaul, and that can't be done without addressing such thorny issues as what to do about the millions of residents who are in the country illegally and how to accommodate the agriculture industry's need for temporary workers. If Boehner really wants the House to act on immigration, as he says he does, he'll have to force his members to take some tough votes.
Welcome to the NBA.
(As a historical footnote, those freshmen Democrats were right to be nervous in 1993. Many of them were tossed out by voters the following year, when the Newt Gingrich-led GOP surge swept Democrats out of power in the House for the first time in 40 years. They regained the majority in 2007, only to lose it again after the 2010 elections.)