Boehner's defeat is no big deal

The House Speaker couldn't deliver the votes of his own caucus. But in a perverse way, that's good news for fixing the fiscal cliff.

By Jim J. Jubak Dec 21, 2012 12:45PM
Image: Washington, D.C. (Corbis)Surely you didn't expect global financial markets to react positively to Thursday night's debacle in the House of Representatives?

Overnight, after a revolt among conservative Republican members forced House Speaker John Boehner to pull his solution to the U.S. fiscal cliff, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index dropped 0.68% and Tokyo’ Nikkei 225 index fell 0.99%. 

As morning rolled across the world, the Germany DAX index declined by 0.74% and the French CAC 40 index moved 0.46% lower. In the United States, the Dow Jones industrials ($INDU) was down 1.23% and the Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX) was down 1.33% in late-morning trading.

From a cynical U.S. perspective (and is there any other appropriate perspective on U.S. politics these days?), it’s hard to see what all the hoo-hah is about.

Boehner’s Plan B -- a proposal to raise the marginal tax rates for taxpayers making more than $1 million and to extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone else -- was never a real proposal with a chance to pass into law in the first place. It would have been dead on arrival in the Senate and President Barack Obama had promised to veto it.

It was a political stunt designed to embarrass Democrats -- and not a particularly well-designed one to begin with.

And to even get the bill to a chance of passage in the theoretically Republican-controlled House, Boehner had to load it up with all kinds of spending cuts -- to Food Stamps, for example -- designed to appeal to the most conservative Republicans. But those additions made the bill even more repugnant to Democrats in the House and even less likely to pass the Senate.

So what’s the big deal? If it had passed would we be closer to a deal on the fiscal cliff? I think there’s a strong argument to be made that we’d be further away. This morning we’d be watching Boehner push a bill that stood no chance of passage. Granted Republicans packed their bags last night and went home for Christmas and so there are no negotiations Friday, but if Plan B had passed nobody would be engaged in serious talks today anyway.

In having to pull Plan B before it came to a vote, Boehner has actually delivered a strong dose of reality -- always in short supply in Washington. Last night demonstrated Boehner’s inability to deliver the votes of his own caucus for a proposal that he crafted. And that testifies to the reality that the Speaker can’t deliver a majority of Republican votes in the House if he were to strike a deal with the Democratic President and Senate.

That’s only a big deal if you thought Boehner had any real control over the Republican caucus in the House to begin with. If you didn’t -- and frankly I don’t see how anyone watching the post-election Republican party can think its leaders have any control over the conservative rank and file members of the House -- then last night’s events aren’t especially surprising.

Before last night, the odds were that Congress was going to send the country off the fiscal cliff at the end of December. And that’s still the case.

Before last night, the only deal with a chance to pass the House and the Senate and get signed by the President would have had to be a bipartisan agreement able to attract a majority of Democratic votes and a sufficient minority of Republican votes. And that’s still the case.

In a perverse way, last night’s debacle -- because it was so profoundly humiliating for Boehner and because it so clearly demonstrates Boehner's inability to deliver his caucus on any deal with a chance of passing the Senate -- clears the way for action in January. It’s one less piece of political grandstanding in the way of a solution. And it’s one big demonstration of how a coalition to fix the fiscal cliff will have to be assembled.

The big test -- the one the markets should be focused on -- is not whether Washington could get its act together to pass a fiscal cliff solution before the end of December. That was always extremely unlikely. The big test is whether Washington can act relatively quickly in January so that the economy can avoid real damage from the higher tax rates and lower spending targets that go into effect on Jan. 1.

A little bit of a fall off the fiscal cliff isn’t going to send the economy into recession. But if our politicians are still staging political stunts at the end of January, then the economy is in real danger.

At the time of this writing, Jim Jubak didn't own shares of any companies mentioned in this post in personal portfolios. The mutual fund he manages, Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX), may or may not own positions in any stock mentioned. The fund did not own the shares of any company mentioned in this post as of the end of September. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of the most recent quarter, see the fund's portfolio here. 
Dec 21, 2012 1:58PM
Jason    The only sky that is falling is on your clueless self !  GOD BLESS AMERICA LAND OF THE FREE ! HOME OF THE BRAVE !  FREEDOM IS NOT FREE !
Dec 21, 2012 1:51PM
"The real problem with the federal budget is spending.  Numerous studies have shown that government spending that exceeds 20% of the GDP retards growth.  Spending is out of control."

I keep reading this. Is it a Cable Channel? WE SPEND ON TWO THINGS... the Bush Wars and Bail-outs associated with the Gramm Leach Bliley Act and Federal Reserve adverse agenda.  The Bush Wars and Military Hokum has to go. Shut the Military Machine down and rebuild it like it was really meant to defend us and not be the Bottomless Honey Hole for GOP nut cases. Abolish GLBA today. A nation that legalizes financial collusion, sees it fail and bails it over and over won't last long. We are THERE. Arrest EVERY elected Official who transitioned to a financial role after his her term. Dis-ban every lobby that brings financial services and politicians together. Restore the Glass Steagall Act before leaving on vacation, Congress. DO SOMETHING RIGHT OR DON'T COME BACK.  
Dec 21, 2012 1:43PM

Boehner really doesn't care what happens on the hill now that most of his "talking pets" have run away - he knows he is set for life rather he is the speaker or not and that we, the American tax payer, will be paying his bills for as long as he lives... Boehner is the perfect example of the "Peter Principle". Stay drunk and have a happy holidays Boehner - with any luck we won't have to listen to you too much longer....... 

Dec 21, 2012 1:15PM
Fuzzy Details misses the point totally.  Cutting spending is a goal.  But proposing a strategy that does not have any base in reality - such as Plan B - is not going to get anyone anywhere, and that is exactly what happened.  All Boehner proved is that he can't lead.  His efforts should have been focused on those Republicans that are open to compromise instead of the "disgruntled, stubbornly ignorant and entrenched ideologues that are in the minority but apparently controlling Boehner and the rest of the Republican party.  Some leadership needs to surface among the Republicans. 
Dec 21, 2012 1:12PM
The real problem with the federal budget is spending.  Numerous studies have shown that government spending that exceeds 20% of the GDP retards growth.  Spending is out of control.  I don't know why the republicans are not all over that message at every opportunity.  They allowed the democrats to take control of this subject by making it all about tax rates for the rich.
Dec 21, 2012 1:11PM
"So cutting spending that is about 1/3 debt is now a 'political stunt'? And it's failure is cheered by the financial pundits? We really are finished."

Wall Street and cranks like this author are scared stiff. After YEARS of effort-less wealth grabbing, the pendulum swings. People who were unsuccessful at basic functionality in society found the alternative in financial corruption. No penalty is good enough as we undo them and attempt to be the strong nation we were before them.
Dec 21, 2012 1:08PM
"National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre defiantly blamed violent video games and movies, the media, gun-free zones in schools and other factors during the organization's first public statement following the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. last week.
LaPierre, who was interrupted by Code Pink protesters twice during a statement (during which he refused to answer questions), said that the students in Newtown might have been better protected had officials at Sandy Hook Elementary been armed. He said that putting a police officer in every single school in America might make schools safer."

We'd be even safer if we assigned an armed police officer to watch every move of every NRA member and at THEIR expense.

America to LaPierre... dis-ban your lunatic fringe association. Turn in every assault weapon in good faith.
Dec 21, 2012 1:06PM
535 Politicians in Washington control the United States!   All part of a criminal conspiracy to rob the American People of their FREEDOM ! We are doomed unless we all wake up to the reality of what is happening around us and the legacy that we are leaving our children  !!!
Dec 21, 2012 12:58PM
So cutting spending that is about 1/3 debt is now a 'political stunt'? And it's failure is cheered by the financial pundits? We really are finished.
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