Editorials

Martin Schram: This House-cleaning begins with a well-shoveled barn

On Tuesday morning, outgoing House Speaker John Boehner surprisingly made good on his promise to “clean out the barn” before handing the key to his successor.

“This is a good deal,” Boehner said after putting down his shovel and announcing a bipartisan pact that means the new speaker won’t have to face the peril of debt limits, sequesters and vengeful threats of government shutdowns. At least not for two years.

On Tuesday afternoon, Boehner’s presumptive successor and the Grand Old Party’s presumptive savior, Paul Ryan, walked in front of the news cameras and began performing a political vaudeville act known as looking his gift horse in the mouth.

“I think this process stinks,” Ryan said (perhaps working with our metaphor). Then he really dug a spur into his gift horse’s flank: “Under new management, we are not going to run the House this way.” Then he turned right and exited.

But even after Ryan left, another image remained: Picture a pro wrestler pounding the mat in feigned pain — and maybe winking at his tag team partner. His performance was targeted at the small minority of the House Republican majority who are allied with the tea party and are members of the House Freedom Caucus. Yes, the relentlessly recalcitrant gang of 40 that hounded Boehner out of office.

But before agreeing to be speaker, Ryan, who never really wanted nor sought the speakership, had promised the Freedom Caucus he wouldn’t tolerate things like the backroom deal that just happened.

On Tuesday, Ryan made clear he hadn’t read the deal and couldn’t say whether he’d even vote for it. (I don’t know of a single Republican who believes Ryan was really in the dark about the deal that was being negotiated by others.) The deal turned out to be remarkably like the 2013 Bipartisan Budget Act, a deal Ryan, as House Budget Committee chair, had negotiated with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

On Wednesday, Ryan announced that he will vote for the deal. (I don’t know of a single Republican who was surprised by his decision.) But by performing his new version of the old Washington two-step, Ryan may have given enough of his fellow House conservatives an opening that will allow them to suspend hostilities long enough to give responsible governance at least a chance.

But we may not have yet reached that Mary Poppins political moment — a truth that we were also reminded of, quite abruptly, on Tuesday. For even as the hopeful bipartisan budget deal was being announced by Boehner, another prominent House conservative was demonstrating that Washington is still consumed by its recycling culture of hateful political payback.

We saw this in two statements made just hours apart by two prominent conservative Republicans from Utah, one a House member who is politically inexperienced and clearly angry, the other a respected senator who knows democracy works only when compromise exists.

On Tuesday afternoon, in a rare and harsh action, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, announced that he and 18 fellow Republicans just filed a resolution to impeach the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, John Koskinen. Chaffetz’s complaint grew out of a matter that began before Koskinen arrived at the IRS — whether IRS official Lois Lerner, who has since left the agency, improperly targeted conservative groups for reviews of their tax exemption applications. A Justice Department inquiry found no evidence of criminal conduct.

“Commissioner Koskinen violated the public trust,” Chaffetz, 48, who has served just three and a half terms in Congress, alleged. “He failed to comply with a congressionally issued subpoena, documents were destroyed on his watch.”

But just hours earlier, the senior senator from Chaffetz’ home state, Senate Finance Chair Orrin Hatch, also a conservative Republican, chaired a hearing where Koskinen testified about reforms he was implementing. And Hatch told the IRS commissioner:

“I’ll get in trouble with the House by saying this, but I have a high opinion of you and basically think that you’re trying to put things in order and I’m going to count on you doing that.”

So that was Tuesday in Washington — a day in which we saw, in full frontal display, the looping cycle of mean-spiritedness that still entraps our nation’s capital in gridlocked governance.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at

martin.schram@gmail.com.

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