The era of Speaker John Boehner begins
John Boehner has had two decades to think about how Congress works — and how it doesn’t. Now, as he takes the speaker’s gavel from Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Wednesday afternoon, he finally gets a chance to refashion the House to match his vision.
The Ohio Republican’s blueprint, articulated through years of public comments and a new set of rules for the chamber, promises a House restructured to make it easier to cut rather than boost spending, to empower committee chairmen and rank-and-file lawmakers in the legislative process, to increase transparency, and to rebuild public trust in the institution by using those changes to make a more coherent connection between what people want and what their elected leaders do.
“John is the right person at the right time,” Sen.-elect Rob Portman, who represented a neighboring chunk of the Cincinnati area for a dozen years, told POLITICO. “I think he understands the seriousness that our country faces on the fiscal front and on the economic front as you’ve seen in his approach to the swearing in this week. … He’s not triumphant, but he’s sober about it.”
If he is successful, Boehner hopes someday to be compared to his model, fellow Ohio Republican Nicholas Longworth, as a speaker of historic consequence.
But his skills as a manager and consensus builder will be tested at every turn — by conservatives impatient for faster action, by independents distrustful of ideological governance, by Democrats hungry for a return to power and by a press corps more than willing to point out when he fails to hit his lofty goals.
In contrast to Longworth, who gathered so much power in the office of the speaker by the mid-1920s that he threw recalcitrants off committees and was accused of “gagging” colleagues, Boehner has promised to open the process by giving more time for legislation to sit out in public and allowing members of both parties to offer amendments and participate in crafting legislation at the committee level.
It’s a promise born of Boehner’s own view of how the House should run and the necessity of appeasing tea party activists whose mantra “Read the Bill!” rang through the air outside the Capitol during debate on the massive new health care law last year.
Those close to Boehner believe he can tackle the twin challenges of addressing the nation’s problems while showing that Republicans can be trusted again to govern a few short years since the GOP was thrown out of power in 2006 amid accusations of abusing their power.
“I think John truly believed that we lost a lot of credibility of being a party of reform,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, who worked for Boehner when the GOP was last in the majority. “And he’s looking to restore that and maintain it and emphasize it,”
Madden said Boehner will be a success if he can position the Republican Party “once again as the party of smaller, more efficient government, fiscal conservatism, and the party of ideas and reform.”
But the rhetoric of would-be speakers during their rise to power have often been undermined by the reality of governing — especially in the highly charged, constantly scrutinized, 24/7 news cycle of modern Washington.
Pelosi, herself, rose to power on promises of reforming Washington’s ways for the public good. Yet, voters threw many members of her party out of the House after just four years in the majority. Newt Gingrich ascended to power on the Contract With America in 1995, yet stepped aside just four years later. Democrats have been quick to jump on any perceived wavering on GOP promises to open up House rules and to cut spending.
“As the 112th Congress begins, the ‘new’ House Republicans are starting off by returning to their old ways,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s staff charged in a Tuesday release. “Their rules package shows that while they made promises to the American people that they would govern differently and cut the deficit, they are already failing to live up to their pledge.”
Democrats say Republicans will add trillions of dollars to the debt with plans to repeal the health care law and to push tax cuts without requiring that their cost to the Treasury be offset.
Indeed, it will be difficult to keep the many promises he’s made and to implement all of the changes he’s envisioned — many of which were laid out in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute last September, entitled, “Congressional Reform and ‘The People’s House’” and in the GOP’s highly vaunted Pledge to America.
“The House, more than any other part of our government, is the most direct voice of the people — and therefore should be afforded the most care in protecting its ability to reflect the people’s will,” he said at AEI. “From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas — the very lifeblood of the House — is virtually nonexistent. Leaders overreach because the rules allow them to. Legislators duck their responsibilities because the rules help them to. And when the rules don’t suit the majority’s purposes, they are just ignored.”
In the Pledge, Boehner’s House Republicans promised to freeze most federal government hiring, cut congressional budgets, place hard caps on domestic spending accounts and “repeal and replace” the new health care law.
Already, they have gotten off to a quick — if sometimes symbolic — start. The House will vote later this week on a plan that slashes the accounts of leadership offices, committees and individual members’ allowances by 5 percent each — with an exception for the Appropriations Committee, which will take a 9 percent hit. By next week, the House will vote on legislation that would repeal the health care law — a measure that seems certain to die in the Senate or in a presidential veto.
Boehner has slashed the sizes of committees, meaning each member will have a more narrow focus for oversight and legislation. And he has promised to keep track of and publicize the names of members who show up to do their legislative work and those who don’t.
Fellow Ohio Rep. Steve C. LaTourette, one of Boehner’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, acknowledges that there will be “some challenges” in keeping members of the 242-seat majority happy, particularly with numbers that favor the conservative activist wing of the party and a political need to hang onto the independents who threw Republicans out of power in 2006 and knocked the Democrats out in 2010.
But LaTourette and other allies say Boehner is uniquely positioned to understand the perspectives of all members: Republican and Democrat alike, as well as voters who aren’t governed by ideology.
Like many of his freshmen members, Boehner came to Congress as a Constitution-minded reformer, clamoring for implementation of the amendment that prohibits lawmakers from giving themselves an immediate pay raise. As a member of the “Gang of Seven,” he helped build the 1994 House Republican Revolution, worked his way into leadership, lost out in a power tussle with Majority Leader Tom DeLay, mastered the mechanics of the legislative process as a chairman, then clawed his way back to power as the No. 2 Republican just in time to watch his party lose control of the House.
It took just four years for Boehner and the Republican party to win back the House majority.
LaTourette likens Boehner to “the CEO who started in the mailroom,” noting that “he’s had every job — he’s worked his way up.”