At the end of last week, House Speaker John Boehner announced that he would leave Congress within a month, and of course give up the Speakership.
In a September 25 article by Jennifer Steinhauer, the New York Times spins the story as evidence of the divisions and disfunction among House Republicans.
Mr. Boehner struggled almost from the moment he became speaker in 2011 to manage the challenges of divided government while holding together his fractious and increasingly conservative Republican members.
Steinhauer also quotes Nancy Pelosi calling the Boehner resignation evidence of the "disarray" in the Republican caucus. Perhaps. Certainly, Boehner has been under increasing pressure from small-government types frustrated with the lack of progress in cutting back on federal spending. But that frustration has been not so much with Boehner personally as with the insufficient clout held by Republicans in Congress who (1) face a President who wants to increase spending and to bust previsouly-enacted spending caps, (2) even after the big gains in the 2014 election, do not have enough votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster, and (3) even if they could overcome a filibuster in the Senate, still would not have enough votes in either house to override a Presidential veto.
But measured against those challenges, how has Boehner done? Here's something I'll bet you don't know even if you follow the news closely: since Boehner became Speaker in January 2011, federal spending has actually declined, at least in so-called "real" (inflation-adjusted) terms. (And there hasn't been much inflation to speak of.) That's real year-over-year declines, four years running, in the face of a President who wants exactly the opposite.
According to federal budget and spending summaries prepared by the Heritage Foundation, federal spending hit a peak of $3.792 trillion in fiscal 2009 (at the time of the so-called "stimulus"), and remained very slightly below that level at $3.777 trillion in 2011, when Boehner took over as Speaker. Annual federal spending then proceeded to decline to $3.644 trillion in 2012, $3.506 trillion in 2013, and $3.504 trillion in 2014. Final 2015 numbers are not yet available (the 2015 fiscal year just ended yesterday).
Meanwhile, over that period now approaching five years, U.S. GDP has grown from about $15 trillion to almost $18 trillion per year. That means that during Boehner's Speakership federal spending as a percent of GDP has declined from about 24% to only about 20%. That is not a small change.
The decline in federal spending as a percent of GDP has been accompanied by many loud complaints from recipients of the spending and from the bureaucracy about "severe" and "harsh" cuts. But here's my question for Manhattan Contrarian readers: Can you name any example or instance where some negative change in federal spending has risen to something you can actually notice in your own life? I sure can't.
I'll count myself among those who would like to have seen much bigger cuts in government spending than we have had. And going forward, holding the line on government spending is quickly going to become more difficult given (1) the pressures on entitlement spending (unless reformed) from the aging and retiring baby-boom generation, and (2) the coming explosion in Obamacare spending. And then there are the Democrats, who have multi-trillions of annual spending waiting in the wings as soon as they get a chance -- from universal single-payer healthcare, to increased Social Security benefits, to vastly increased education spending, and that's just for starters.
So while I have my disagreements with the Congressional leadership, and Boehner was certainly not "my guy," I do think that he deserves some credit for holding the line on federal spending for a substantial period of time under difficult circumstances.