The Crying Shame of John Boehner

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For obvious reasons, this is a real problem for the Republican Party establishment, which would forfeit any ability to squeeze the Goldmans and Citigroups of the world for golf vacations the instant they stop being able to deliver the votes for cushy spending bills and deregulatory goodies — votes that are now, at least in part, controlled by people like Littleton. This is why in some states the Republican Party fought so fiercely against the Tea Party; in Ohio, the party spent nearly $1 million campaigning to stop Tea Party candidates from assuming jobs at the state level. "They hate us more than they hate the left," says Littleton. "The left's just an enemy. We present a legitimate threat to them."

How do you get rid of a threat like that? Littleton recounts some of the ways the party has tried. One tack was dazzling the hayseeds with splendor and bullshit. During a visit to Washington, for instance, Littleton was meeting with Republican officials to go over "nitty-gritty" stuff like monetary policy, when an aide suddenly stopped the session. He was surprised, he told Littleton, that they were bothering with all this serious stuff — he thought the Tea Partiers just wanted to meet famous politicians. The aide's attitude, Littleton recalls, was: "I thought we could just throw you a bone, and bring in my rock star, and you're just really so impressed by him that you're going to smile and hug him and go out and do whatever we need you to do." Another time, when the Tea Party was making noise about a farm subsidy, a staffer for a prominent Republican congressman simply called Littleton up and asked him to be quiet. "Hey, would you mind leaving that issue alone?" the staffer said. "The congressman would really appreciate it — we work with a lot of farmers." Littleton was amazed that Republican leaders seemed to think the Tea Party was engaged in a collaborative effort to keep Republicans in office, but this is just the way things are done inside the Beltway. Everything's negotiable, everyone's pals with everyone else, and the only thing that matters is keeping the right people in office.

Littleton has also been approached with offers of corporate funding from the energy interests as well as FreedomWorks, the much-publicized national umbrella organization led by Dick Armey. While many Tea Parties across the country have been happy to accept such largesse, Littleton was unimpressed. When FreedomWorks offered to set up a rally in Ohio during the heat of the election season, it turned out that Armey only wanted to get a crowd together to hawk his new book, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. "We're here in trench warfare," Littleton says, laughing, "and they're on a book tour."

This is where Boehner comes in: He represents the last stand of the Bush Republicans against this rising tide of public anger. The GOP establishment want the energy of the Tea Party, but they don't want to have to work for it. They're hoping — and they have plenty of reasons to have this hope — that the vast majority of Tea Partiers will be dazzled by their new status in Congress, or be willing to be bought off with corporate money, or be just plain dumb enough to fall for whatever pulled-out-of-the-ass phony reform rhetoric that guys like Boehner come up with, instead of making real changes to the way Congress does business. In a hilarious example of the former, Boehner with a straight face recently announced that he would push to cut committee budgets and member allowances by five percent, for an anticipated savings of — cue the clueless Dr. Evil laugh — $30 million. "It likely would be one of the first votes we cast," Boehner declared proudly, failing to recognize that paying for trillion-dollar bailouts and $900 billion tax breaks by cutting $30 million at a time is a little like planning a hostile takeover of IBM with a stack of Rite Aid coupons. That's not government; it's stand-up comedy. As for the sweeping changes that the Tea Party is looking for — Littleton's personal litmus test is deep cuts in both defense spending and Social Security — it's virtually unimaginable that Boehner will push for such a radical agenda. When Littleton met with party leaders after the election and asked what programs they are willing to cut, he was brushed aside. "We're going to be discussing that in April," he was told.

"I thought to myself, 'You campaigned on an entire platform of cutting government spending, and you don't know what you're going to be cutting until April?'" Littleton pauses. "I don't trust these guys — whether it's Boehner or anybody else."

It was good times in America for a while. A man could wait for his local congressman to get caught diddling a 16-year-old, make a run for his seat, and then spend the next 20 years getting hustled around the world on golf junkets and showered with campaign checks and apartments and corporate-jet flights, and nobody would utter so much as a peep of protest. Congress was an easy job for any man with a nice fairway stroke, a limited moral compass and a keen sense of bureaucratic loyalty; it was half an acting job and half clerical work, taking orders from industry captains and selling the resultant giveaway bills to your voters as principled blows for Adam Smith, the flag and the free-enterprise system. Back when America was still a feared international bully that was flush with borrowed Saudi and Chinese cash and could stand to blow a few hundred extra billion in public funds every year on budget-padding deals — back in the Bush years — John Boehner was the perfect candidate for congressional leadership, a lifetime company man who didn't give a shit about most Americans but could shed tears on national television on behalf of Jamie Dimon's bottom line.

Things are different now. America is so broke, there's no longer really any money in the Treasury to give away — the job of overseeing corporate handouts that used to belong to the leaders of Congress has now moved to the Federal Reserve, which itself is so broke that it has to invent dollars out of thin air before it can give them away to influential billionaires. This leaves congressional leaders with nothing to do but their ostensible jobs — i.e., fixing the country's actual problems — and few of the current leaders have any experience with that, Boehner being a prime example. The new speaker represents an increasingly endangered class of Beltway jobholders who know how to raise money and get elected, but not much beyond that. He now finds himself the party's last line of defense against millions of angry voters who, for the first time in recent memory, are at least attempting to watch what Congress is up to. The tee times are over.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.