THE PUBLIC EYE: John Boehner’s Failure

By Bob Burnett
Friday December 28, 2012 - 08:20:00 AM

As Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner is second in line to be President. And since the defeat of Mitt Romney, the Speaker has been the titular head of the Republican Party. While Boehner has political status and power, his inept handling of the fiscal cliff negotiation shows he’s not a leader. He’s a failure. 

There are two explanations for Boehner’s shortcomings. The first is that he may not understand how to negotiate a big deal. 

The definitive book on negotiation is Roger Fischer and William Ury’s 1981 bestseller, Getting to Yes, which elaborates four principles of negotiation. Boehner’s actions regarding the fiscal cliff and the July 2011 debt ceiling crisis indicate he doesn’t honor these. 

1. Separate people and issues: Fischer and Ury noted, “Separating the people from the issues allows the parties to address the issues without damaging their relationship… Nor should one side blame the other for the problem.” Many Congressional Republicans demonize Obama and blame him for most national problems. “Each side should try to make proposals which would be appealing to the other side.” In the fiscal cliff negotiations Obama has tried to make proposals that are appealing to Republicans – for example, his proposal of a chained CPI for Social Security – but Boehner has not reciprocated. 

2. Focus on interests: Fischer and Ury explained, “Your position is something you have decided upon. Your interests are what caused you to so decide." No tax increases is the Republican position. It’s based upon the “interest” (belief) that low taxes grows the economy; it’s a fundamental tenet of Reaganomics, the trickle-down theory that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” 

However both Democrats and Republicans want a strong economy and agree that letting all the Bush tax cuts expire would be detrimental. While many Republicans want to continue all Bush tax cuts, Boehner proposed letting taxes rise on those making more than $1 million. But he is unwilling to let a Senate Bill, to let taxes rise on those making more than $250,000, be brought to a vote in the House. 

3. Generate Options: Fischer and Ury suggested several barriers to generating a set of policy options. One Party may prematurely lock in on an option and, therefore, not consider a wide range of alternatives. Many Republicans are unwilling to raise taxes under any circumstances. Another barrier is “the parties may define the problem in win-lose terms, assuming that the only options are for one side to win and the other to lose.” Some Republicans want to deny President Obama any victory, even if it means tanking the economy. 

4. Use Objective Criteria: Fischer and Ury noted, “When interests are directly opposed, the parties should use objective criteria to resolve their differences.” One example of objective criteria is the opinion of the Congressional Budget Office about the consequences of no agreement: 

“Taken together, CBO estimates, those policies will reduce the federal budget deficit by $607 billion, or 4.0 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), between fiscal years 2012 and 2013. The resulting weakening of the economy will lower taxable incomes and raise unemployment, generating a reduction in tax revenues and an increase in spending on such items as unemployment insurance… Such a contraction in output in the first half of 2013 would probably be judged to be a recession.”
Boehner appears to agree with this, but it hasn’t affected his negotiating style. 

While Boehner is a poor negotiator, his personality provides the best explanation for his weak performance. New York Times writer Matt Bai analyzed the failed July 2011 Debt Ceiling negotiation between Boehner and Obama. Bai observed: 

” Boehner had traveled an idiosyncratic path to the speakership, having never served as a House whip, the pivotal job of corralling and counting votes. He wasn’t much of a closer, either; the more aggressive tactics that “getting to yes” sometimes required didn’t come naturally to him. Boehner seemed to believe that his prestige as speaker would carry the day on key votes, but already that assumption had gotten him into trouble a few times, and other members of his leadership team had little faith in his predictions.”
In both the Debt Ceiling and Fiscal cliff negotiation Boehner precipitously dropped out and then blamed the President. In each case he cut a preliminary deal with Obama, presented it to the Republican members of the House, and saw them reject it. Then Boehner fabricated a story to cover his failure. 

The Speaker took the easy way out. In both instances, Boehner has had the option of presenting his agreement with the President to the entire House of Representatives and submitting it to an up or down vote. Boehner chose not to do this because he isn’t a leader. He’s content to save face and cover his ass. 

John Boehner is a failure. He is responsible for the US falling over the fiscal cliff. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at