Boehner: 'We're Legislating; He's Campaigning'

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House Speaker John Boehner accused President Obama of giving up on governing the country at a dangerous economic time to focus on campaigning for re-election.

Interviewed by Major Garrett of National Journal on the second day of the Washington Ideas Forum, Boehner said he hoped someone would ask Obama at his news conference Thursday, "Mr. President, why have you given up on the country and decided to campaign full time?"

"Nothing has disappointed me more than what has happened in the last five weeks," Boehner returned to this point later in the interview. "To watch the president of the United States give up on governing, give up on leading and just spend time campaigning."

"We're legislating. He's campaigning. It's very disappointing," he said.

While Boehner said he continued to be ready to "sit down with the president any day, at any time," he also expressed disappointment about how relations with the president deteriorated during the debt-ceiling limit fight.

"I put every ounce of effort that I can into coming to some agreement," Boehner said of the July negotiations. "I told the president I would be willing to do revenues, but only if the president were willing to look at fundamental reforms of our entitlement programs."

"I put revenues on the table even though the president never said yes" to the entitlement reforms, he said, blaming the president for asking for $400 million more in revenues before committing to the reforms Boehner sought.

"I had myself out as far on a limb as I could possibly walk," he said. "But it takes two to tango and the president never said yes."

Of course, Boehner noted, his own caucus could be fractious as well. "When I don't have 218 frogs in the wheelbarrow at one time, I don't have the strongest hand that I can have," he said. And it wasn't just freshman members hopping out either, he said. "More senior members" were behind demands for more in negotiations as well -- a story the press kept getting wrong, he said.

Pressed repeatedly on what he expected from the 12-member congressional super committee that he helped create to seek $1.5 trillion in deficit-reduction measures over 10 years, Boehner declined to get into specifics. "I am committed to the super committee coming to a successful outcome," he said.

"I made it clear to the Republican members of the super committee that I expect that there will be an outcome. There has to be an outcome," he said, adding, "I don't underestimate how hard it is going to be to come to an agreement."

Boehner reiterated his strong opposition efforts in Congress to use legislation to address China's currency valuation strategies, warning that such bills could lead to a trade war: "For the Congress of the United States to pass legislation to force the Chinese to do what is arguably very difficult to do is wrong, is dangerous and you could start a trade war. And a trade war given the economic uncertainty here and around the world is just very dangerous. And we shouldn't be engaged with this."

And he again called out President Obama for not taking a leadership role, asking why he has not been out front against such legislation: "Is he too busy campaigning?"

As for the campaign itself, Boehner said former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who last night finally put to rest speculation she might run for the GOP presidential nomination, was someone he knew and liked. "I think she made the right decision for herself," he said, welcoming her presence on the Republican trail as a surrogate.

Boehner did have one area in which he praised Obama: national security. "There's clearly more been done under President Obama than under President Bush" to prosecute the war on terror in Pakistan tribal areas, he observed.

"I think our number one responsibility as the federal government is to ensure the safety and security of the American people."

Full transcript of the Boehner session:

REP. JOHN A. BOEHNER, R-OHIO, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE, 

PARTICIPATES IN A DISCUSSION AT THE NEWSEUM, THE ATLANTIC, 

AND THE ASPEN INSTITUTE 2011 WASHINGTON IDEAS FORUM


OCTOBER 6, 2011

SPEAKERS:  REP. JOHN A. BOEHNER, R-OHIO, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE


MAJOR GARRETT, 

NATIONAL JOURNAL


[*]


By happy coincidence, the President of the United States is going to have a press conference in about 10 minutes.  And as you know, sir, I have some vague familiarity with the cable news industry.  


So I'm going to give you an opportunity you don't often have, which is to look into those cameras and ask the President of the United States a question, which might be translated at the press conference 10 minutes hence.


BOEHNER:  Well, Mr. President, why have you given up on the country and decided to campaign full time instead of doing what the American people sent us all here to do and that's to find common ground to deal with the big challenges that face our economy and our country.

GARRETT:  There you go, cable news, have at it.


Mr. Speaker...


(LAUGHTER)



(LAUGHTER)


GARRETT:  Mr. Speaker, the vice president was just on this stage and a moment ago he said roughly the following, that there was a rough agreement between yourself, Eric Cantor, the vice president, and the president on the debt ceiling.


And but for the inability of either you or Mr. Cantor to control your rank and file House Republicans that deal would have gone through.

And he implied that the Republican Party is divided and weak and that's what's holding the country back and prevented that deal.


Would you like to address that assessment from the vice president?


BOEHNER:  I sure would.  



BOEHNER:  You know, all year I talked to the president about the need to do what I call the big deal.


That I thought it was critically important for our country to deal with the -- the debt problem that we had and that the best way to get there would have been for he and I to come to some agreement.


I gotta tell you that I put every ounce of effort that I can and could into trying to come to some agreement.   


President said that he needed revenues.  I told the president I was willing -- I'd be willing to do revenues but only if the president were willing to really look at fundamental reform of our entitlement programs, which is a big driver of our deficit and our debt.


And -- and so I put revenues on the table even though the president never said, not one time, ever said yes to any meaningful reform of our entitlement programs.


When the president called me and -- and asked for $400 billion of more revenue, before he ever agreed to any changes in the entitlement programs, is when I decided we were never going to get there.


Could never get the president to the point where he would say yes to real changes in our entitlement programs.


I had myself out, as far out on a limb as I could -- as I could possibly walk trying to come to some agreement.  But it takes two to tango and the president would never say yes.


GARRETT:  Let's look at the legislative record, though, for your first year in Congress.  


You have had votes where your own Republicans have defied your request to vote with them.  That indicates, both to the White House and to the larger audience, that there are times on significant votes either where you need House Democrats to support you or you can't keep your own side together.


Does this not weaken your hand legislatively and in high stakes negotiations with the White House?


BOEHNER:  Well, there's no question that it does.  And I made it clear to my colleagues when I don't have 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow at one time, I -- I don't have the strongest hand that I could have.


But having said that, when you look at my colleagues and they're not -- and there's not -- these are not freshman members by and large.  No, these would be more senior members.


I think it's a story that's been misunderstood most of the year but our -- some of our members just want more.  Listen, I'd -- I want more, too.


GARRETT:  Want more what?


BOEHNER:  They want more change.  They may want it faster.  And I don't disagree with them.


But when you've got Senate control by the Democrats, you've got Democrats in the White House, my job is to move the ball down the field, get things done on behalf of the American people and -- and I try to get as much as I can.  But I want to be able to move the ball down the field on behalf of the American people.


GARRETT:  Getting things done, moving the ball down the field, will you correlate those desires with what is a historic and perpetually low assessment of congressional performance in polls dating to July of this year?


The lowest ratings and I -- Mr. Speaker, you and I have known each other a long time.  I've been around Capitol Hill since 1990.  I've never seen consistently a disparity of 70 percent or more of approval/disapproval.


How much of that is your fault?  How much of it is a fault of being unable to get things done and move the ball down the field?


BOEHNER:  Well, listen, the Congress of the United States has been America's favorite whipping boy for 200 years.  I understand that.


GARRETT:  Not to this magnitude, though, you concede that?


BOEHNER:  And -- and -- and the American people have -- they're concerned about our country.  The concern that I've seen over the last year, frankly, is turning to what I would describe as fear.


And when -- and when they watch Washington, they -- they don't see the kind of answers that they expect.  It's a -- a -- we've got a unique system and right now we've got divided government.


And so when we're having principled arguments in opposition with each other, the American people don't like to watch it, don't like to see it.  I understand that.


But my job, and our job everyday, is to listen to the American people, to express their will as we -- we try to address the big challenges that face our country.


GARRETT:  You helped create the Super Committee.  What should the public expect out of the Super Committee?


And do you have any sense that it will not make its stated goal of putting a proposal before Congress by November 23rd and that it might fudge its way through or get the deadline extended, that this all could come for not?


BOEHNER:  Well, based on my experience with the president and my long conversations with the president and the vice president over the course of this year, I believe that the Congress and the administration -- our government has to act.


We've got a big deficit problem.  We've got a big debt problem.  The problems in Europe continue to loom.  Their -- their problems are larger than ours.


And it's incumbent upon us to show the American people that we can do the right thing.  And, frankly, I think it's also incumbent upon us to show the rest of the world that they can address their big challenges as well.


And so as a result I am firmly committed to ensuring that the so-called Super Committee come to an outcome and a successful outcome.


GARRETT:  That will include some form of tax revenue?


BOEHNER:  I'd -- I'm not gonna predict what they will or won't do but there has to be an outcome.


The reason that the...


GARRETT:  Does your willingness in the conversations with the president to entertain increases in revenue send a signal that you would like the Super Committee to hear and act upon?


BOEHNER:  I made it clear to the Republican members of the Super Committee that I expect there will be an outcome; that there has to be an outcome. 


The sequester that was built behind this is ugly.  And it was meant to be ugly so that no one would go there.


I don't underestimate how hard it's going to be to come to an agreement by the so-called Super Committee but we have to get to one.  


We cannot let these challenges continue to -- you just can't keep kicking the can down the road.  And it's happened here in Washington for far too long.


GARRETT:  Let me ask you about an issue that's very live in the Senate today and could be live in your chamber in the very near future. 


There's a currency bill on the floor of the Senate.  It had a 79-19 Motion to Proceed vote.  There's 61 co-sponsors of identical legislation in the House.  Allen West, yesterday, said you ought to bring it to the floor.


Rob Portman, from Ohio, Senator who you know very well is supportive of this legislation.  You are not.


Why are you not supportive?  Why is it dangerous?  And are you gonna reassess your assessment of that if it passes the Senate?


BOEHNER:  Well, there's been concern from -- on my part and, frankly, from a lot of quarters here in America about how the Chinese have manipulated their currency.


There's been every effort that you can imagine out of our Treasury Department over the last seven or eight years addressing this with the Chinese.  There's been a significant improvement in -- in the valuation of China's currency as a result of those conversations.


But for the Congress of the United States to pass legislation to force the Chinese to do what is arguably very difficult to do, I think is wrong.  


It's dangerous.  You could start a trade war.  And a trade war, given the economic uncertainty here and all around the world is -- is -- it's just very dangerous and we should not be engaged in this.


And I've made it clear where my position is.  I frankly think that the president agrees with me.  But why isn't the president speaking up?  Is he too busy campaigning?


Why isn't he out there making it clear that this is ill conceived?  I believe that he agrees with me but he won't say it.


GARRETT:  To your point about exports and imports, if Charles Schumer were here, and I don't want to speak for him, he would say, look, we send about $100 billion of imports.  China sends anywhere from $300-$325 billion in exports to us.


They're not gonna engage in a trade war because it would harm them economically.  Charles Schumer describes, as does Lindsey Graham and other members of the Republican Party, China as a currency bully.  Is it not?


BOEHNER:  They -- they -- they have a lot of challenges in China.  I've always believed an engagement with them was the right thing for our country and the right thing for the world.


Building a commercial relationship between the -- the Chinese and the United States is in both of our interest.  Should be aware that they're probably the largest buyer of United States agricultural products.


There -- there's -- there's a -- there is a balance here that I think for the long-term good of our country and for the future, for our kids and grandkids, maintaining this solid relationship is good.


But any relationship is not gonna be perfect.  And there would be -- you can find a lot of imperfections in -- in this relationship.


The administration continues -- needs to continue to work with the Chinese to get their -- their valuation of their currency correct.  But this is not, in my opinion, an appropriate role for the Congress of the United States.


GARRETT:  You mentioned campaigning.  I'd like to know if -- to what degree you were either relieved or alarmed that Sarah Palin is not running for president?


(LAUGHTER)


BOEHNER:  I like Sarah Palin.  I know Sarah Palin.  Spent a couple of days in Alaska with her before she ended up in this odyssey of the last few years and I think she made the -- the right decision for herself.


I think she can play a role in -- in the upcoming elections and I wish her well.


GARRETT:  Do you want her on the campaign trail with House Republicans who are either seeking seats they don't currently possess or ones they're trying -- trying to defend?


BOEHNER:  I think it'd be very helpful.


GARRETT:  You mentioned the president is spending, you suggested, an inordinate amount of time campaigning. 


Are you saying that is complicating your efforts to achieve results for the American people?


BOEHNER:  Well, Major, let me put it this way.  I, you know, I've had my share of disappointments this year.  Disappointed that the president and I couldn't come to an agreement on the big deal, disappointed that we couldn't pass some stronger legislation in the House from some of my own colleagues.


But I -- I -- nothing has disappointed me more than what's happened over the last five weeks.  To watch the President of the United States give up on governing, give up on leading and spend full time campaigning.


I mean, we're on the Hill legislating.  We've moved dozens of bills over to the United States Senate that are just sitting there that would help create jobs in America.


No leadership from the president and I can't tell you how dangerous our situation, our economy's in and -- and how dangerous the situation in Europe is.


And yet the president, some 14 months before the election, throws in the towel and decides he's gonna spend all of his time out campaigning.


We're legislating.  He's campaigning.  It's -- it's very disappointing.


GARRETT:  The vice president, a few moments ago, said he believes you're a partner of his and the president's.  If I hear you correctly, you are declaring, here and now, the president is no longer a partner of yours.


BOEHNER:  I'll sit down with the president on any day, at any time, which I already have all year, but I'll continue to do that to seek common ground.


Yes, we have different ideas about what the appropriate role of the federal government should be in our country and in our society, in our economy.  


But just because we have very different views doesn't mean that we shouldn't be seeking to find, all right, where's the common ground?  Where's what we can agree on?


You know he sent his jobs bill up.  And Mr. Cantor and I sent him a letter back last week outlining areas where we thought we could find common ground, whether it be the free trade proposals, whether it be the infrastructure ideas and a -- and a long-term highway bill, whether it be on one of the tax credits that he outlined.


So there -- but -- but that's our job.  Our job is to find common ground to help our country.  And while the American people know that we're not always going to agree, they do expect that we're gonna get something done.


But it takes two to tango.  And all year, you know, I've -- I've reached out to the president, reached out to the president, but you have to have a willing partner.


I mean, all year I've asked the president, send the trade agreements up.  Send the trade agreements up.  


And here we are on the eve of the -- of the visit by the president of South Korea and -- and -- and we're gonna have to move these trade bills with expeditious speed in -- in order to maintain our very good relationship with a very good ally.


GARRETT:  Two national security questions:  as the country is approaching the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, the country is, to put it mildly, conflicted about that ongoing war.


What has it achieved?  How much longer should it continue?  And secondarily, related to the war on terrorism, has President Obama been as effective, more effective, or equally effective as President Bush?


BOEHNER:  I think if you've watched over the course of the last three years, I've been very supportive of the president's decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  When I -- when there are questions or concerns I'll -- I'll raise them forthrightly.  


But by and large, the president has continued the effort to take on the Taliban, to take on al-Qaeda and -- and to help ensure that America stays secure.


Listen, I think our number one responsibility, as a federal government, is to ensure the safety and security of the American people.  


I think that making sure in Afghanistan that -- that the enemy doesn't have safe ground in which to plan, train and execute attacks on Americans here and abroad is -- is the goal.  There -- we need to have success there.


And I think so far the president's done -- done just fine.


GARRETT:  There would be those who support the president who would say Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, other drone strikes successful in Pakistan and elsewhere, have made him a more effective prosecutor of the war on terror than President Bush.  Would you disagree?


BOEHNER:  I think that when you look at the prosecution of the war effort against the enemy in the tribal areas, there's clearly more been done under President Obama than it was under President Bush, in terms of a more aggressive effort focused at them.


GARRETT:  Mr. Speaker, this is an ideas forum.  I want to broaden the conversation before we end.  We have about two-and-a-half more minutes.


America lost one of its great innovative minds last night, Steve Jobs.  He had a career that was innovative in the early stages of it.  Then he was fired, sort of sidelined in his company.  Then he came back.


Not to put too fine a point on it, sir, that is in some ways consistent with your trajectory here in Washington.


(LAUGHTER)


BOEHNER:  I'm starting to get the gist of the question there.


(LAUGHTER)


GARRETT:  Broadly speaking, Mr. Speaker, what has Steve Jobs taught you, taught America about the power of innovation?  And will you ever or have you ever worn blue jeans and a mock turtleneck in public?


(LAUGHTER)


BOEHNER:  Well, that would probably be no and no.


Listen, we live in the greatest country in the world.  And our forefathers gave us an economic system that produced opportunities for our citizens unlike any other country in the world.


I came here for one reason:  to make sure that those opportunities were available to our kids and grandkids.


I think a lot of Americans don't believe that the opportunities that we had, all of us in this room had, are gonna be available to our kids and grandkids because we're -- we're -- we're killing the goose that laid the golden egg.


It's America's free enterprise system, it's America's openness, it's American's diversity that has allowed us the -- the opportunities to succeed and, frankly, the opportunity to fail.  You can't have one or the other.  You're always gonna have both.  


And I just think that government's gotten too big.  It's gotten way too involved in our society.  It's become way too expensive.  And all of that gets in the way of what I would describe as the American dream.


But in America, listen, I tell audiences I was born with the glass half full.  I'm the optimist.  Hell, if I wasn't I sure wouldn't be here.


And -- and I want all Americans to believe and understand that they can do whatever they want to do.  They can -- they can succeed.  They can -- they can innovate.  This is -- this is America.


And I go to -- I used to go to a lot of schools.  I don't go to as many of them anymore because I -- I ended up in too many poor schools with great kids.  Most of them will never have a chance because they're in a rotten school.  And I get a little worked up over it, as you all know.  


But, you know, my mission -- my message to all of these kids in these schools is, listen, you grow up and be whatever you want to be.  


And I think that, you know, most of us have to work for a living.  Life -- work becomes life's central activity so go do something you like.  Go succeed at something that you want to succeed at, regardless of what it is.

GARRETT:  Mr. Speaker, on behalf the Atlantic, the Newseum, and the Washington Ideas Forum, thank you very much for your time.


BOEHNER:  Thank you.


(APPLAUSE)


END



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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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