John Boehner is sighing. It’s one of those days, or maybe epochs. He’s just spoken to the House GOP conference. Some members are feeling fractious, disheartened. Time for a St. Crispin’s Day speech. What did he tell them? “I told them they have ocular rectitis. That’s when your eyes get confused with your butt, and it develops into [an unnecessarily fecal] outlook on life.”
It’s late Wednesday morning and the speaker of the House is seated in his Capitol office smoking and sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup. What the conference is feeling is “the normal state of affairs for a majority that’s frustrated by a president who doesn’t want to work with us and a Senate that doesn’t do the bills we send over. And then the frustration builds and they get to nipping at each other. And so it was one of those mornings where you had to kind of re-set the table.”
He told them the historical moment is more promising than it looks: “Instead of looking at what we can do with it, we’re busy gnawing at each other over small differences that we might have.”
He sighs. A really big sigh.
“There’s a much bigger prize here. You can’t get the bigger prize without action. And we need to be united in order to have action.”
The prize is winning the White House and the Senate. “They all understand there’s big limits on what we can do only having one house. And while we’ve been able to stop all the real craziness of what’s going on, trying to peel this back . . . is gonna be difficult.” By “this,” he means the size, cost and power of the federal government. “It took the other side 80 years to build this monstrosity . . . and our guys want to get rid of it tomorrow.” Congress, he says, doesn’t work that way. The Founders designed it not to work that way.
What of the charge the tea party has made the House ungovernable? “False,” he says, it’s a media creation. “Virtually every Republican in the House was supported by the tea party in the last election. My problem is not with our 89 freshmen, my problem is with a few senior members who—they always want more. They always want more than what you can produce.” His predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, “went through the same problem with her side.”
But it gets on his nerves. “With modern communications, a handful of them who feel differently will go out there and make their case on why we oughta go further, why we oughta do more. And there’ll be a couple of outside organizations who come along and gin it up, and then all of a sudden [some] members are getting heat, and you know they really want to be with us but they don’t want to put up with the heat at home. But it’s not the freshmen, that’s the amazing part of this.”
His relationship with Majority Leader Eric Cantor? “Eric and I have never disagreed on strategy, ever. From time to time there’s been some disagreement on tactics, not usually between Eric and I, usually on the staff level.” The speaker, the leader and their staffs met in the speaker’s office after the House retreat. “Eric and I . . . both knew that we can’t be divided, and he and I had some conversation with our staffs that we’re all going to be on the same page.”
As for the president, “he and I get along fine. But boy do we have big differences.”
Mr. Boehner turns to the debt ceiling struggle of six months ago: “We had a little rough spot last summer. I would argue he moved the goal posts, and blew up negotiations about the debt deal.”
Congress needs “to show . . . that in spite of our differences we can find common ground to do the work of the American people. But I’ll just say this. There’s nobody who tried harder last year with the president to do the right thing. There’s nobody who walked further out on a limb than I did to try to get him to do the right thing. And one of my greatest disappointments was not getting an agreement.”
The drama was a trauma. “Oh, it really was. And we were pretty close to doing something nobody would have ever believed—real changes, real cuts. I put revenues on the table.” He says he put forward $800 billion in spending cuts and tax reforms—closing loopholes while lowering corporate and personal rates. “A lot of my guys would have choked to death on it.” But the deal, he says, was doable.
What happened? The White House “spun this thing that I walked away from this.” Actually, he says, the president did: “He lost his courage. . . . He just couldn’t bring himself to do what he had to do.”
Mr. Boehner says his staff felt some anxiety about what he’d offered. “I looked at them all because they were all getting nervous. I said, ‘Listen, if this means the end of my Speakership, fine.’” The famously emotional Boehner’s eyes filled with tears, and he paused: “I can walk out of here knowing I did the right thing. . . . If we don’t deal with it we’ll be like Greece and the rest of them.”
On the question of Congress’s low approval ratings, the speaker names the usual reasons: The economy is bad, Americans are frustrated, they look to Washington “and all they see is chaos.” Also Congress has been America’s “favorite whipping boy for 200 years.” So the low numbers are “not surprising.”
What about corruption? You’re the speaker of the whole House. Is corruption part of Congress’s DNA? Is it the No. 1 thing that’s bipartisan? “All members,” he says, “should be held to the highest ethical standards.” In the past six years, since becoming majority leader, he’s had many conversations with members about “allegations that were out there, public and not public.”
“People think I’ve got this job as a leader. They don’t realize that I have about 200 responsibilities and roles. I’ve gotta be the big brother, the father, I gotta be the disciplinarian, the dean of students, the principal, the spouse—you can’t believe all the roles that I have to play! But one of them is, you know, some problems you can nip early. I had three guys in here a few years ago, I said ‘Boys, you’re cruising down the wrong path.’ Two of them listened, one of them didn’t. He’s no longer here.”
“We got 435 members. It’s just a slice of America, it really is. We got some of the smartest people in the country who serve here, and some of the dumbest. We got some of the best people you’d ever meet, and some of the raunchiest. We’ve got ‘em all.”
How does word reach him that a scandal may be brewing? “Oh, it gets to me a lot of ways. The press, I hear about it from friends, I hear about it from colleagues. I’m out and about, I do what I do, I hear everything. There are no secrets in this town.”
In his time, has congressional misbehavior, publicly known or not, tended to go under the broadly defined category of “romance” or of “finance”?
A long sigh.
“Rarely is money an issue.”