Who's in charge?
The answer to that question in Washington is perhaps no one. And both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are taking the heat – unfairly – for that reality.
There's no doubt that Washington in general and Congress in particular are at an historic level of dysfunction. They can't agree on a budget, can't manage to do even the basic work of the legislative body, let alone put their heads together for big-idea proposals to address climate change, entitlements or education. But there's an unfortunate tendency in the chattering class to throw up one's collective hands and accuse Obama – and sometimes Boehner – of failing to show "leadership."
The problem with that accusation is that it assumes either the president or the speaker has the power to tell people what to do. They can fire their own staffs, but they can't fire elected members of Congress. And the old ways of cajoling and intimidating lawmakers – such as threatening to take away pet projects for their districts – don't work anymore. There's a solid group of House members (and some senators as well) who simply don't care if they don't get anything for the home front, and some who actively reject it.
On a broader scale, there are members who don't care if failing to raise the debt ceiling could throw the world into a global recession and permanently damage the nation's credit rating. It's like negotiating with terrorists: people who think they have nothing to lose won't stop until they get everything they want. There's simply no incentive to compromise.
When Congress is at a stalemate, Obama gets accused of being a "weak leader," as if he could somehow bring lawmakers to his side by sheer force of personality. Anyone who's baby-sat a two year old knows how silly this argument is. Someone who isn't concerned about the impact his or her own behavior has on the community at-large isn't going to be moved by strong words or a stern face.
Adding to Obama's particular challenge is that there is a group of congressmen who are so resentful (still) that Obama is president that they won't participate in anything that will keep Obama from being the "failure" they have deemed him since day one. If Obama tries to let Congress take some ownership of legislation by writing much of it themselves, he is called "weak." If he asserts his authority by nominating someone for his administration that Republicans don't like, he is called arrogant.
Boehner, too, is in a tough position. He's already angered his caucus by refusing to destroy the economy by allowing consideration of a measure to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff" last year. The measure was going to pass, but not under the so-called "Hastert rule," which dictates that no legislation be brought to the floor unless it has a majority of support from the majority party. Boehner is now saying he will operate under the Hastert rule when (and if) an immigration bill comes to the floor.
That's disappointing to immigration reform advocates, who worry that they will lose their best chance in years of getting some kind of immigration overhaul. And it may worry some of the more practical voices in the Republican party, those who see how dangerous it is for the party to keep alienating a growing Hispanic electorate.
But that's not Boehner's fault; it's the fault of voters who sent people to Congress who think they should always get their own way. There are hardline lawmakers who came to Washington not to shake it up, but to blow it up. They may end up destroying not Congress, but their own party.