Being Speaker Of The House Isn’t What It Used To Be
There was once a time when being Speaker of the House meant the accumulation of an significant amount of political power. Not only were you third in line to succeed the President, but you also controlled the largest and arguably most important chamber of the Legislative Branch. After all, without the House of Representatives the Federal Government cannot impose taxes or any other form of revenue collection, and the House’s role in the appropriations process is also arguably larger than that in the Senate. Additionally, the fact that entire House is elected every two years makes it very easy for the majority party of the moment to make the argument that they are the closest to the people, and argument that several Founders also made during the debates over the ratification of the Constitution. Because of that, in the past Speakers of the House were able to amass a great deal of political power thanks to their ability to control the votes of at least enough of their own caucus to guarantee the passage of bills they favored, and block the passage of bills that they didn’t favor.
One need only look to the careers of 20th Century Speakers such as Sam Rayburn, Joseph Cannon, John McCormack, Tip O’Neill, and Newt Gingrich to see this in operation. During their tenures in office, each of these men were to solidly deliver the votes they needed when they needed them and faced little if any internal opposition when it came to relatively routine matters such as passing a budget. Going even further back in history, you’ll find a similar situation although the careers of individual Speakers tended to be much shorter than those of the prominent speakers of the past 100 years or so. They didn’t get all of this done on their own, of course, and often depended on the assistance of the rest of their leadership team and party whips to keep the membership in line. And, of course, it also helped if they had a good relationship with others in Washington, including the President and the Majority Leader of the Senate. However they did it, though, the point is that previous Speakers were able to get things done, and that, to some extent, is one of the main parts of the job they were elected to.
Somewhere along the way, though, things seem to have changed.
While it’s easy to point to the Speakership of John Boehner and the difficulties he has had controlling his own caucus, in reality I think the changes started to occur while Newt Gingrich was in office. At some point after the legendary 1995/1996 shutdown, discontent with Gingrich as Speaker began to grow inside the GOP caucus, in no small part because many began to perceive that Newt’s ego was getting in the way of the GOP agenda. In 1997, that discontent led a small group of Congressmen to attempt to force Gingrich out in favor of Majority Leader Dick Armey. That group was apparently led by Tom DeLay and included, somewhat ironically, an Ohio Congressman named John Boehner. The entire effort failed spectacularly, and Boehner would spend the next several years in the political wilderness for his transgression, but the spell of Gingrich as the all-powerful leader of the GOP Caucus was broken and he was forced out of office by November of the following year, even before he could preside over the Impeachment of his arch political rival Bill Clinton. Things became more complicated when the man who was supposed to replace Gingrich ended up having to step aside after a sex scandal. The two Speakers who immediately followed Gingrich, Dennis Hastert and Nancy Pelosi, were both what I supposed could be called moderately successful in that they were able to get legislation through the House when necessary, though it would often require more than just a little arm-twisting on their parts.
With Boehner, though, the role of the Speaker seems to have changed significantly. Instead of the Speaker driving the Caucus, it seems as though its the Caucus that’s driving the Speaker. To put it more accurately, it appears as though it’s a minority of the Caucus, the portion whose primarily loyalty clearly lies with the Tea Party and related grassroots organizations, that seems to be driving the agenda, especially at times of real or manufactured crisis such as this. One important thing this means is that the Boehner is constrained in his negotiations with the President and Democrats by what his caucus will support to a far greater degree than previous Speakers have been. This means it becomes inevitable that negotiations get dragged out to the last possible minute, and that the leadership is required to be far more bellicose in their public statements than one assumes that they’d like to be. The fact that these factors often end with the GOP suffering political damage in the opinion polls because of this is no doubt frustrating to old hands like Boehner.
Another factor that has reduced the power of the Speaker since the 2010 elections is the ending of so-called “earmarking.” In the past, Speakers and other members of the leadership could count on being able to cajole reluctant party members to vote with the leadership by promising them support for some project or another in the home districts. At the insistence of the new Tea Party Caucus, though, one of the first actions that Republicans took when they gained control of the House was to ban earmarking. Fiscally, it was somewhat of a pointless action since it only touched an insignificant part of the total Federal Budget and because, in reality, earmarking didn’t really increase spending so much as it directed where spending that was already going to be authorized for, say, the Transportation Department, should go. Politically, though, taking the earmarking arrow out of the Speaker’s quiver helped to significantly reduce Boehner’s ability to influence recalcitrant members of the caucus who may think that they need to worry more about a challenge from the right than the wrath of their party’s political leadership. That’s a problem that Speakers will face as long as the earmark ban is in place.
There are other factors at place here, obviously. The increase in the number of “safe” districts, combined with high re-election rates for incumbents, likely makes members of the House less concerned about what leadership things, as does the rise of third party organizations that seem to be far more adept at grassroots organizations at the Congressional District level than the RNC or NRCC seem to be. Whatever the cause, though, the one thing John Boehner has learned over the past three years is that the job he’s been working toward for much of his Congressional career isn’t turning out to be all it was cracked up to be.