One year after Republicans seized the House majority in the landslide midterm elections, Speaker John Boehner held a rare on-the-record roundtable discussion with members of the Capitol Hill press corps Thursday afternoon, creating an uncommon opportunity to gain his perspective on running the People’s House as he laid out the Republicans’ agenda for the rest of the year.
In a progress report that critiqued his performance as speaker, the Ohio Republican fielded about 35 questions on an array of topics from the Super Committee and tax reform to new infrastructure legislation tied to fresh revenues created through energy reform.
DEFICIT SUPER COMMITTEE PROPOSAL ‘HAS TO PASS’
As Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction’s November 23 deadline quickly approaches, the speaker said he will continue to work with Republicans on the exclusive panel to assemble a package that can pass with bipartisan support by the of the year.
“It has to pass,” Boehner urged. “If they come up with a recommendation I think it’s important for the Congress to respect the work of the committee.”
“I didn’t agree to set this thing up with any idea that it wouldn’t succeed, and I’ve been clear with everyone all the way through this process [that] I thought that we had to meet the goal,” he continued. I’d like to exceed the goal, but meet the goal and I’m going to put every ounce of effort in to make sure that we do.”
The speaker said he believed that the super committee could achieve a big deal totaling about $4 trillion in deficit reduction, similar to the so-called Grand Bargain he and the president nearly pulled off last summer.
“I pushed the president for months to even venture down the path of trying to do a big debt deal. Why? Because I thought it was in the best interest of the country and we’re going to continue…to deal with this issue,” he said. “If this was easy, it would have been done decades ago, or it would have been done earlier this year. This is hard stuff. We’re talking about stuff that the Congress and our government has never ever done. Ever.”
Boehner said he believes that the current tax code creates uncertainty and “makes America less competitive” so he hopes the committee begins the process of flattening the tax system to make it fairer to individuals and corporations.
“That means you clean out all the garbage,” Boehner said. “It’s very important that it gets done. I don’t want to prejudge what the super committee will or won’t do, but I think there can be a real effort over the next year to ensure that this project is completed successfully.”
Asked how much room there is for new tax revenues in the committee’s proposal, Boehner said that “raising taxes hurts our economy and hurts the ability to create jobs,” because “you can’t tax the very people that we expect to reinvest in their business, reinvest in our economy to create jobs.” “There’s room for revenues, but there clearly is a limit to the revenues that may be available,” he vaguely hinted. “There are a lot of options that are out there. I’m not going to endorse one, or lean towards one, or wink at one.”
Still, Boehner said that Republicans won’t support new revenue without real reforms to entitlements – a point of contention that ultimately brought down the Grand Bargain negotiations with President Obama.
“I made this clear to the president: He wanted revenue. I said, ‘I’ll put revenue on the table but there has to be real reform to entitlement programs,” Boehner said. “You have three big entitlement programs that are driving the deficit because we’ve got 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day, so you can look at Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and there are changes in each of them that need to be made if the programs are going to exist tomorrow.”
ONE YEAR OF GOP RULE Boehner said that despite divided power in Congress, Republicans “changed the debates here in Washington and the direction of our government” turning the debate from spending more money to spending less.
“Reforms to entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid – once thought to be impossible, are now actually being openly discussed by members of both parties. Pro-growth job proposals like tax reform, reducing the regulatory burdens are being discussed as much as President Obama’s stimulus measures, and instead of just talking about the importance of trade, we’ve actually passed three free trade agreements,” Boehner said. “As an institution it’s clear that it’s been more open and transparent than under previous majorities – both Democrat and Republican.”
Boehner said that while he “knew it was going to be hard” there “really haven’t been any surprises” during his time at the helm of the House. “I’ve been through this drama before,” he continued. “The thing that I feel most good about is my relationship with my colleagues, Democrat and Republican…and I’ve tried to make sure I keep my ears open all the time.”
Boehner reiterated that his greatest regret so far is that he and the president failed to strike a deal on the Grand Bargain, but he maintained optimism that the super committee will be able to pick up where he and the president left off.
“The president and I weren’t able to come to an agreement on solving our short, midterm deficit and debt problems,” he lamented. “The members are in a different place than they used to be. I think they understand the gravity of the situation that we face and I’m talking about Democrats and Republicans. I think they understand the gravity of the situation we face. I think a lot of them are ready to deal with it, and while it’ll be painful, I think members both sides of the aisle come here to do the right thing for the American people.”
‘WE CAN CERTAINLY MAINTAIN OUR MAJORITY’
Earlier Thursday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that she believes the “House is in play” for Democrats to win back the majority in 2012. Asked whether he agreed with the Democratic leader’s assessment of the next election, the speaker deadpanned: “It may not surprise you, but no I do not.”
“I feel confident that we can certainly maintain our majority,” Boehner asserted. “We’ve got a lot more work to do, but I think our members deserve credit for the hard work that they’ve put into bringing our fiscal house in order, and helping Americans get back to work and frankly I also believe that members on both sides of the aisle have been very appreciative of how we’ve run the House and the fact that everyone’s been allowed to participate.”
“The American people understand that the two parties have competing visions for what the role of government is, but…the American people still expect us to find common ground and the president should be engaged helping us find common ground. Now, we’ve done this on our own,” he said. “There’s some common ground out there that we’ve found, but they’re all stuck over there in the Senate.”
NEW INFRASTRUCTURE BILL TIED TO ENERGY REFORM REVENUE
The speaker opened the discussion by touting legislation coming to the floor soon to enact energy reform and link new revenues to pay for new infrastructure projects.
“I said in September that if we really wanted to do an infrastructure bill that will support long-term job growth we should do one that’s going to be a permanent expansion of American-made energy production.” Boehner said. “It would remove barriers to American energy production and it would use the revenue from that new production to help pay for initiatives to repair and improve infrastructure around the country. It removes government barriers in both energy and infrastructure, allowing the expansion of domestic energy production and making reforms in the way infrastructure spends – infrastructure funds are spent.”
Boehner added that he expected an earmark-free bill while would include “reforms to ensure that infrastructure money is spent on real projects instead of being spent on frivolous projects that where that money has sometimes been diverted over the decades for all kinds of purposes,” citing baseball parks and parking garages as two examples that he had seen funding during his tenure in Congress.
He said the measure would be “the opposite of stimulus by linking infrastructure to energy reform and permanently removing barriers to job growth instead of just spending the money on short-term fixes.”
“The president says he wants more money for infrastructure, and he’s said he’s supportive for more American-made energy, so I hope he’ll work with us on this,” he added. “This is a new devoted revenue stream. As American-made energy production increases so too does the revenue for infrastructure projects. Now, for those of you who have watched over the last 20 years, I’ve never voted for an infrastructure bill primarily because they were always full of earmarks and what I thought was an awful lot of frivolous spending. I think there’s a better way to do that, and I think this represents a better way.”
Boehner said he hoped the package would “prompt the president to get more engaged in the legislative process” and inspire the Senate “to act on the growing slate of jobs bills that are piling up over there.”