Cast blame or take credit? Boehner pressed to switch direction on economy

In a break with party leaders, some House Republicans want the GOP to take credit for the improvement in the economy that has occurred under their majority.

It’s an economic argument that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has thus far rejected, despite the fact that the unemployment rate has fallen by nearly a full percentage point in the nearly 15 months since Republicans took control of the House.

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“I don’t know why they don’t make it, but I believe it’s the truth,” said freshman Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.). “I believe that if anybody’s going to get a pat on the back for [lower] unemployment and the better economy, it’s House Republicans, and not the president and not the Senate.”

Landry last week sat on a panel of House conservatives at the Heritage Foundation, where a fellow freshman, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), held up charts highlighting the gains in the economy under the GOP majority.

“Under Republican control of the House, [the unemployment rate] has begun a gradual but steady decline, and now it’s still disappointing, but it’s at 8.3 percent, which is much better than under the Democrats,” Labrador said. “Things are getting better, and I think it’s because of the new Republican majority.”

The rift could portend a more significant messaging challenge for Republicans if the strong pace of job growth continues through the spring and summer. The U.S. economy has added more than 220,000 jobs in each of the last three months, lowering the unemployment rate from 9.1 percent in January 2011 to 8.3 percent.

GOP leaders have welcomed the job growth while blaming President Obama for a recovery that has been too tepid and too slow.

After a strong jobs report came out in early February, a reporter asked Boehner why Republicans weren’t taking credit for an improving economy after a year in power. 

“What I’m suggesting to you today is that we can do better,” the Speaker replied. “You know, the American people are still asking a question: Where are the jobs? And while the unemployment rate is down slightly and a few more Americans are at work, we still have millions of Americans that are looking for work.”

In interviews, Republican lawmakers and aides have pointed to a number of reasons why party leaders had not more actively sought to champion the positive economic data as a consequence of their actions.

First and foremost, Republicans say that despite the recent improvement, an unemployment rate above 8 percent is nothing to celebrate, and the economy remains vulnerable to instability in Europe and rising gas prices that could slow the recovery once again.

Boehner has repeatedly argued that the November election will be a referendum on Obama’s failed stewardship of the economy — and that message isn’t likely to change any time soon.

“This president has failed miserably on the economy and broken promise after promise to the American people,” a senior GOP aide said. “This election should be about him and his failed economic policies.”

Another Republican leadership aide said the economic message is “a fine line we have to walk.”

“Certainly things are better just in general now because we do have the majority,” the aide said. “At the same time, if you asked average Americans, ‘Is the economy getting better?’ I would bet you’d get a resounding ‘no’ from them.”

Labrador said he understood the leadership’s reluctance to trumpet the good news, given how far the economy remains from full employment. “It’s kind of hard to take credit for an economy that’s still suffering,” he said. 

Yet, Labrador said he and other Republicans were pushing party leaders to heed a lesson from the 1990s, when it was Democratic President Clinton — and not the GOP congressional majority — who largely benefited from the economic expansion that occurred while they shared power.

Republicans have a difficult policy argument to make, because few of the bills they have passed in the House have made it into law. The chief benefit they have made to the economy, lawmakers say, is to prevent Democrats from enacting more damaging policies. Since the outset of the Obama administration, the GOP has attacked Democratic policies such as the healthcare and financial regulatory overhauls for running up the national debt and creating obstacles to hiring and economic growth.

“In many ways our greatest success is the things we’ve stopped,” said freshman Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.).

Another freshman, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), went so far as to embrace the “do-nothing” label that Democrats have tried to affix to the GOP majority. 

“If you make the assumption the economy is improving, I would say yes, we have had an effect,” Duncan said. “Part of me says, thank god we’re a do-nothing Congress, because the last Congress did way too much in eroding our liberties and expansion of government. I would say we have had an effect.”

Republicans also face the political reality that an improving economy is likely to come to Obama’s benefit, just as an incumbent president typically gets the blame for a downturn.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist who heads the conservative American Action Forum, said Republicans have “a fair claim” that their victory in 2010 helped the economy. The GOP win, he said, forced the administration to drop its insistence on an immediate tax increase for wealthy Americans, and the new House majority’s push for budget cuts “stopped the spending spree” that was hampering economic growth.

“Both of those were important, and I think House Republicans can legitimately take credit for it,” said Holtz-Eakin, who served as a top economic adviser to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign in 2008. 

Still, he said, “presidents inevitably get the credit and blame for what happens on their watch.”

“Realistically, [House Republicans] are not going to get credit commensurate to what the president will get” for an improving economy, Holtz-Eakin said.

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a former chairman of the House GOP’s campaign arm, said the new majority had “a lot to be proud of,” but that taking credit for the economic recovery was not the best electoral message for the party. 

“It may be a valid argument, but politically it doesn’t cut a lot of mustard,” he said.

Cole said that while the president was likely to get the biggest boost if the recovery continues, House Republicans would also benefit because voters typically return incumbents to office if they are satisfied with the economy.