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What John Boehner Is Thinking in Suing Obama

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

House Republicans are still silent on the question of whether Speaker John Boehner will try to void the Obama administration's directive protecting immigrants brought to the U.S. as children when he sues the president in the coming weeks. But in response to this article, Boehner's spokesman Michael Steel notes that the speaker did not cite immigration policy when he sent a memo to House Republicans last month in anticipation of the lawsuit. To wit, Boehner's memo laments that "[o]n matters ranging from health care and energy to foreign policy and education, President Obama has repeatedly run an end-around on the American people and their elected legislators, straining the boundaries of the solemn oath he took on Inauguration Day."

Obviously that list is less than definitive. It's, as Boehner himself writes, a range. If a reporter notes his job requires him to cover matters ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, he probably doesn't have just two things in mind. Likewise, somewhere on his march from ransacking health care and energy policy to foreign policy and education, Obama quite possibly ran afoul of an immigration law or two.

The question, obviously, is whether Boehner will ultimately decide to omit immigration reform from his lawsuit, either for political reasons, or because his legal team determines that Obama isn't actually exceeding his authority, or both. We still don't know, and I don't claim to. Steel's caveat is just one data point. But I do know that the GOP's short-term and medium-term political considerations come into tension here. I fully understand the political case against fighting Obama's deferred action program. Republicans are already doing a terrible job trying to escape their image as a party hostile to immigrants. It would be really tough to shake the Etch-a-Sketch clean after suing Obama to make him deport "Dreamers." But that's mainly a 2016 problem. The main objective of the lawsuit, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, is to find a sweet spot between railing impotently against Obama's executive actions and heeding the right's growing appetite for impeachment or picking a budget fight, ahead of the 2014 elections. To marshal the right's anti-Obama enthusiasm without necessarily indulging its politically disastrous instincts.

The problem with Boehner's strategy is that political reason doesn't always (or even usually) persuade Republican base voters. They're well aware that the powers of impeachment and the purse both reside squarely with the Congress, even if they don't appreciate how poorly the public would receive an actual impeachment vote or a government shutdown fight ahead of the election. And the risk is that a safer option like Boehner's will leave them totally unimpressed, or slavering for further action.

As Red State's Erick Erickson ably demonstrates:

227 years ago, when the founders of the nation set about drafting the constitution, they gave the House of Representatives the exclusive power to initiate revenue bills and impeach the Executive….

I realize John Boehner and the House Republicans may lack the testicular fortitude to fight President Obama, but I would kindly ask that he save the taxpayers further money on a political stunt solely designed to incite Republican voters who might otherwise stay home given the establishment’s bungling of Mississippi and abandonment of their constitutionally derived powers.

John Boehner’s lawsuit is nothing more than political theater and a further Republican waste of taxpayer dollars. If the Republican leaders in the House are too chicken to use their constitutional powers to rein in the President, they should just call it a day and go home.

Erickson obviously doesn't speak for everyone on the right. But I think it's safe to say that conservative activists aren't unanimously atingle over the "sue Obama" option. And from that perspective, suing Obama, while giving him a free pass on the deferred action directive is actually worse. To further acknowledge that Obama's immigration policy is actually kosher would be even worse still, because it would create cognitive dissonance on the right and expose the hollowness of the GOP's excuse for inaction on immigration reform to everyone else.

The irony is that this time around, Boehner's attempt to run an end around of his own on Republican activists isn't entirely about avoiding a political mistake like the October government shutdown. Maybe he'll get laughed out of court for lack of standing. But if he gets heard and wins, his victory—even a partial one; even one decided at the end of or after Obama's presidency—would be binding on the next president, too. And should she be a Democrat, the precedent would hang over her head like the sword of Damocles. A constant reminder that a Republican majority in either the House or the Senate would have an entirely new ability to limit her ability to govern in absence of legislative compromise.

That would be a pretty big legacy for Boehner. But first he has some decisions to make.