Boehner: Democrats offer Americans "a free lunch"

The House minority leader tells reporters he's sure the GOP can make a comeback, though he's not entirely sure how.

By Mike Madden

Published February 25, 2009 11:16PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- John Boehner is not concerned about things like "polls" or "whether voters like Republicans."

At a lunch with reporters this afternoon sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, the House Republican leader acknowledged President Obama's popularity, but essentially tried to write it off. "He's only been president for five weeks," Boehner said twice. He insisted the stimulus bill Obama signed into law a couple of weeks ago was deeply unpopular, even though polling shows voters approve of the job Obama's doing on the economy far more than they approve of the job Republicans in Congress are doing, period.

Asked about that discrepancy, Boehner shrugged. "Listen, there's a lot of polls out there," he said. "Obama's popular, people want him to succeed. Frankly, I want him to succeed. America needs him to succeed. But when you get into the stimulus bill itself and what was done, it's not anywhere near as popular." That attitude probably goes a long way toward explaining why the GOP is still so pleased that all its members -- twice -- voted against the stimulus bill, but it may also explain why the party finds itself in the minority.

Boehner complained that House Democrats were cutting the GOP out of the legislative process, but he said that just freed Republicans up to put out their ideas, which he said would be better. (As evidence, he pointed to the GOP's all-tax cut, all the time, alternative to the stimulus bill.) He acknowledged that selling conservative policies may not be that easy given the political environment. "The challenge for us is, how do we take the principles that we believe in and make them relevant to the issues that everyday Americans have?" Boehner asked. "We have a tougher job than our friends across the aisle. They've been offering Americans a free lunch for the last 80 years, rather successfully. And you know, those of us who believe in a smaller, more accountable government, we have a tougher time making our policies relevant to the American people. But it's our challenge, and we've got to do it." In other words, don't expect the GOP to change the course it's been on this Congress so far.

The GOP leader did show he's got a sense of humor, though. At one point, he was talking about the need for education reform, especially merit pay for teachers:

We all know there are good teachers, and there are probably teachers that aren't as good. (We might even know some reporters that are very good, and others that are just damn lazy.) What we do is, we pay 'em all the same. Now this is crazy! In teaching, we pay 'em all the same, regardless. Now, this doesn't happen anywhere else that's successful, and it sure as hell shouldn't happen in education.

Sitting across the table from him, I called out, "Congress." (The House did vote later that afternoon not to take a pay raise this year, but all rank-and-file lawmakers make the same $174,000 salary, whether they're good at their job or not.) The other reporters laughed, but not as hard as Boehner.

"Good point," he said. "That's another good reason" why merit pay makes sense. But it did make me wonder. How much would you pay members of Congress if they had to live by merit pay rules? And which ones would you pay more than others? Leave your salary ideas below.

Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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