Coward of the House: John Boehner’s pathetic lawsuit reveals his weakness

Wimpy "leader" thinks suing the president will appease his party’s base. The good of the country is another story

Published July 11, 2014 2:12PM (EDT)

John Boehner                                   (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
John Boehner (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

Never underestimate the cynicism of House Speaker John Boehner. The day after he told reporters he opposed the impeachment of President Obama, he announced plans to go ahead with an unprecedented lawsuit, on grounds so puny as to be laughable. The speaker will sue the president, he says, for postponing the imposition of the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate for a year and waiving the fine it imposed.

So: After all of Boehner’s huffing and puffing about the president’s lawlessness, after an Op-Ed that claimed Obama had abused his power on “a range of issues, including his health care law, energy regulations, foreign policy and education,” he wants to sue him for not implementing a minor ACA provision Republicans are known to oppose, within a law they want to repeal entirely? And as NBC’s First Read notes, Boehner didn’t advocate suing President Bush in 2006 when he waived penalties for low-income seniors who missed the deadline to sign up for new Medicare prescription benefits.

Clearly Boehner’s silly lawsuit is a sop to his party’s right-wing base. But he’s throwing table scraps while the wingnuts want red meat. The GOP establishment, such as it is, has apparently decided impeachment is a bad political detour for the party. Yet few of the conservative voices now speaking out against impeaching the president have the courage to say: "It's because he hasn't done anything that would be grounds for impeachment.” Instead, they focus on the terrible politics for their party in a midterm election year when they're expected to do well.

Boehner merely said, “I disagree,” when asked about Sarah Palin’s Facebook rant demanding that the House GOP impeach Obama – and then he fleshed out his alternative legal plan. The man who gave us Sarah Palin, Sen. John McCain, said Thursday: “There are not the votes here in the United States Senate to impeach the president of the United States and I think that we should focus our attention on winning elections.”

A Wall Street Journal anti-impeachment editorial did acknowledge, though almost in an aside, that “while Mr. Obama's abuses of executive power are serious, they don't rise to that level.” But the bulk of “The Impeachment Delusion” was spent on the bad politics of such a move, calling it “inherently a political process that at the current moment would backfire on Republicans,” given they have a decent chance of retaking the Senate.

Meanwhile, the WSJ is hyping Boehner’s lawsuit as essential to rein in Obama’s wanton use of “imperial powers.” The worshipful editorial, with the unintentionally hilarious headline “Boehner stands up,” opened “All due credit to John Boehner.”

That ought to win over the party’s right-wing base. Then again, probably not.

The wimpiness of the GOP establishment just furthers the sense of the party’s implacable Obama haters that they have a claim against this illegitimate president, but the leadership is just too spineless and craven to drive him out of the White House. If he’s using “imperial powers,” as the Journal says, and he’s “changing and creating his own laws, and excusing himself from enforcing statutes he is sworn to uphold,” as Boehner claims, the House has a remedy, and it’s impeachment.

Establishment Republicans are praising Boehner’s lawsuit for finding a novel way to solve the problem that has stymied all other congressional attempts to sue the president: their utter lack of standing to bring such a suit, given that they can’t show they’ve been harmed by the action at issue. Backed by right-wing scholars David Rivkin and Elizabeth Foley, the speaker will make the case that since it’s not possible for any private individual to show harm in the case of the employer mandate, the courts should let Congress step in.

Few legal experts outside the confines of conservativism are convinced.

"I see this every day now, being covered as if it's real, as if it's somehow not a joke," Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar told "But can they name a single successful lawsuit in American history that is of close precedent to what they are proposing?" Amar doesn’t know of one. "At a certain point, I get to call Birther-ism. I get to call bullshit."

I’ve been thinking about birtherism a bit here, too. On the one hand, it’s great that Boehner quickly scotched Palin’s talk of impeachment. On the other, it would have been nice had he, and the rest of the party leadership, done the same when birtherism, and talk of the president as Kenyan Muslim Kenyan usurper, broke out on the right-wing fringe in 2009.

But Boehner refused to stand up to his party’s birthers and Obama-is-a-Muslim loons. "It's not my job to tell the American people what to think," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press" shortly after being elected speaker in 2011. Yet now he thinks it’s his job to tell the American people to think that the president is abusing his powers. Boehner’s stunt is impeachment-lite, or impeachment for cowards. Instead of quelling the fire burning in the party base, it is likely to stoke it.

By Joan Walsh