Being Speaker Of The House Isn’t What It Used To Be

Being Speaker of the House has become much more of a difficult job than 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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Facebones says:

    I have absolutely zero sympathy for Boehner. He was quite happy to ride the Tea Party to victory in 2010. Now he can have the distinct pleasure of trying to appease them with an idiotic shut down and debt crisis.

  2. legion says:

    For some time now – I’d guess around the days of Gingrich – the Republican party has been increasingly dominated by shallow, venal greedheads with no marketable talents or redeeming qualities beyond getting gullible hicks to give them money. And when considering a position of power an authority, they would, to a one, much rather “be” than “do”. People like Boehner, Cruz, Paul, and Ryan are simply the culmination of that trend.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    Trying to herd cats comes to mind. I don’t even think Cantor want’s the job anymore. Boehner needs to work with the Democrats to end this insanity and I suspect in the end he will.

  4. Jeremy R says:

    OK, this sounds like a pretty big poison pill:

    The House Republican plan to extend the debt ceiling for six weeks would permanently ban the Treasury Department from using extraordinary measures to avoid default, congressional aides said.

    The provision would ban practices, used by Democratic and Republican administrations for decades, which have effectively allowed the Treasury to limit investments in pensions and other funds when the government bumps up against its borrowing limit. These steps have extended the time that Treasury can continue borrowing and paying the nation’s bills while Congress debates terms for raising the debt ceiling.

    So briefly avoiding default in exchange for permanently making debt ceiling standoffs more dicey in perpetuity…?

  5. Rob in CT says:

    @Jeremy R:

    Also, too: how do you “permanently” do anything? Surely it could later be repealed. But that’s secondary.

    The whole point of increasing the debt ceiling is to buy time. But if you remove a tool Treasury has been using to buy time, you’re…

    What the… I don’t even…

  6. al-Ameda says:

    Yes, it is a challenging job, however Boehner not up to it. He is smaller than he looks on television.

    John Boehner lacks the courage to make what should be an easy decision – that is, do what’s right for the country and seriously attempt to put and end to the Republican-instigated idiocy that may lead to a default and ongoing instability in both domestic and world financial markets. At the very least, he can call for a straight up vote on a clean CR. He apparently cannot do that without approval the approval of de facto House leadership.

    He’s afraid to lose his job. It’s that simple.

  7. David M says:

    The GOP doesn’t do policy. They can’t come up with coherent policies to reach their own goals. How is Boehner supposed to lead a group of people wholly unqualified for public office? As near as I can tell, the best comparison to the GOP right now is the underpants gnomes. Look at their plan to reform health care:

    1. Reduce insurance regulations and enact tort reform
    2. ???
    3. Health care nirvana

    They have a lot of platitudes they repeat, but no policies to go with them.

  8. Moosebreath says:

    “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.”

    And you think Cannon, Rayburn, O’Neill, etc. did not need to twist arms to be effective because…?

  9. Boehner’s problem is that he’s not willing to use the tools available to the Speaker to enforce party discipline. The Tea Party reps disobey him because it’s become obvious there’s no cost in doing so.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    I think this is the time to break out the tiniest violin ever.

    If Boehner doesn’t have the balls to ride herd on his caucus of cats, he should quit his job and turn it over to someone who knows how to walk softly and carry a big flamethrower.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:


    though it would often require more than just a little arm-twisting on their parts.”

    You missed the words “more than”, Moose.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    He’s a weak little man who sold his soul for power, and continues to do so.

    Yes, earmarks would be helpful, and it may be we need to walk that ban back. But that’s not the core of the problem. The core of the problem isn’t even Congress, it’s Republican voters. They’ve been fed a steady diet of bullsh!t by Fox News and talk radio and now they find themselves marooned, lost on Delusion Isle, separated from reality itself.

    If the voters are brainwashed by demagogues whose only real interest is in accumulating wealth by lying to suckers — and that is the definition of the Republican voter nowadays — then this is the representation they get. People who believe in nonsense will get nonsense from their representatives.

    And make no mistake: Republican ideology is nonsense. The year is 2013. It’s not 1955 or 1962 or whatever mythological good old days stand as templates for these cretins. Gays are not going back in the closet, women are not giving up their equality, black people will not move to the back of the bus, Latinos will not conveniently appear to mow lawns and then disappear, Muslim-Americans will not convert to Southern Baptist, secularists are not going to be cowed, we will not worship at the altars of greedy creeps like the Kochs and the Trumps, we will have a safety net, we will have a mixed economy, we will still pay taxes because we know we require a civilization, and we will move forward in time not backward.

    Ronald Jesus Reagan could not herd these people because all of their goals are absolute nonsense. Their brains are full of rice pudding. They have crawled all the way up their own rear ends. And if the GOP hopes to have a future they need to recognize that they’re going to have to do it without these people, because these people have no future.

  13. Moosebreath says:


    Not really. I am sure all Speakers did their share of it, either directly or through Whips. It’s just that it was not in public view as much then.

  14. john personna says:

    It’s as simple as the Hastert Rule, isn’t it?

    That one feature dictates that Boehner must please the populists. And it means that he can’t bring them in line to support a bill supported by at least some Democratic votes.

    Or put differently, with only one (Hastert Rule or Tea Party) Boehner might have power, but with a minority USING the rule …

  15. gVOR08 says:

    …Dennis Hastert and Nancy Pelosi, were both what I supposed could be called moderately successful…

    This would seem to narrow the problem down to Boehner, the Republican caucus, or both. The Tea Party contingent seems to be variously reported as 20 to 50 representatives. Why can’t the other 3/4 of the caucus and the Speaker keep a lid on the TP guys? Is it the willingness of the TP guys to trigger the suicide vest? Is it that leadership are cowed by Koch, Norquist, Club for Growth (sic), etc. money? Are those people taking control of the party?

  16. jib10 says:

    This is bunk. The office has not changed. Through out history it has always been hard to be speaker. The different speakers have used various tools to keep everyone in line. Over the years, those tools have changed. The problem is that Boehner is a bad speaker, weak and incompetent. So when it was his time to develop new tools to whip his caucus for votes, he failed. That does not mean the office is broken. It just means Boehner should be fired.

    The real question is what has happened to the repub party? The incompetence shown in all branches of govt during the Bush years, actually starting in the house during the late Clinton years, continues in the house today. I am not talking about ideology, I am talking about governing. Blowing up balanced budgets, starting a war to chase phantom weapons., wrecking he global financial system and now holding the economy hostage. We are 15 years into a major national party (of only 2!) being unable to govern without f#$%ing everything up.

    As a nation we need a better repub party.

  17. James Pearce says:

    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.

    And the one thing we’ve learned during his Speakership is that Boehner just isn’t very good at it.

  18. Ron Beasley says:

    @michael reynolds: Bravo Michael, you got to the heart of the issue. The Republican party is largely a bunch of really scared old white people who see their world changing before their eyes. I know, my late mother was one of those people. I really thought she would not survive the election of Obama in 2008. She did almost die when her younger brother – a life long Republican – told her he voted for Obama. She surprised me me and lasted until his reelection in 2012.

  19. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Congress has ceded too much of its power away to the other branches, particularly the executive. There was a time when the words “congressional subpoena” would turn the blood cold. Not anymore and not this century.

    Congress can take these powers back. Just not this one.

    And what Reynolds said, preferably on billboards across the South.

  20. Bob @ Youngstown says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Michael wins the prize for this thread. Well spoken Michael!

  21. becca says:

    @michael reynolds: I need a cigarette after that.

  22. C. Clavin says:

    The job hasn’t gotten harder…the collective IQ of the Republican Caucus has dropped 50 points.
    Everyone says Cruz is smart… But starting down this road without a workable strategy was stupid.
    Believing what Hannity and Limbaugh and Erikson and Hewitt say is stupid.
    Michelle Bachmann is stupid.
    Death Panels are stupid.
    Small government is stupid.
    Austerity in a recession is stupid.
    Denying science is stupid.
    And oh, yeah…benghaziiiiiii!!!!!!!

  23. john personna says:

    And … they still don’t know what they are asking for:

    At the meeting, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) described the Republicans’ process as being two steps: passing the debt ceiling bill, and then opening a broad budget conference before the government can be reopened.

    A “broad budget conference” never takes long, right?

    Suck it, furloughed workers, and US economy.

  24. Grewgills says:


    Why can’t the other 3/4 of the caucus and the Speaker keep a lid on the TP guys?

    Because the TP caucus is the cover for the agreed upon GOP strategy. Not all of the representatives can get reelected if they turn bomb thrower, but they can enable the bomb throwers and keep their seats safe.

  25. Jeremy R says:

    @john personna:

    Yup, if the beltway media wasn’t terrible at their jobs they’d be constantly asking the GOP to account for potentially a month of shutdown hardship visited on the country, with all the damage to the recovery that entails. If what they’re pretending now is that all they’re after is simply a budget conference, they obviously had that for free the 21 times the Dems tried to go to Conference Committee to reconcile the House / Senate budgets, so they should clearly be asked to answer for the pain they’ve subjected (and will continue to subject) their constituents to for no apparent reason.

  26. anjin-san says:

    When small men cast long shadows, it’s a sure sign the sun is setting…

  27. john personna says:

    @SwedishCanary on twitter:

    Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords as a basis for a system of government is starting to sound better every minute.

  28. Kari Q says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The year is 2013. It’s not 1955 or 1962 or whatever mythological good old days stand as templates for these cretins….

    Though I think it would be good for us to return to the Union membership and something close to the tax rates for those years. Then we can cut the top tax rate to 70% or so and claim the mantle of conservative stalwarts, while still putting the country on a firmer economic foundation than it’s had in 30 years.

  29. says:

    While I pretty much agree with what everyone’s said about Republican party in general, the problem with Speaker’s job right now is the current holder. No more, no less. Boehner has no integrity and no spine; he is willing to tell anyone what they want to hear and his word is only as good as his next conversation. He sees what he wants to see and will change his position and parse words so no one really knows where he stands on much of anything. There is no incentive for anyone, republicans or democrats, to trust him therefore no one does, so he has no chance of being effective.

    He also does not put the nation before himself and I’m not sure he is capable of doing so. That might have been alright for a Speaker if there were a Republican President or even Senate Majority Leader, but in the leader of the opposing party it is a fatal flaw. The only thing that he has “going” for him is that the rest of the republican leadership is pretty much cut from the same cloth, so they might as well keep him around.

  30. crysalis says:

    I’ve got news for all of you libs commenting above. The Tea Party is not going to get anything but stronger, no matter how much you fantasize and (frankly) lie about its motives and objectives. The only thing keeping you in the game is a lack of light shining on the facts related to [name the issue]. That is not going to last. The new media is getting stronger every day. The only way you can stop it is to;

    1) criminalize free speech and assembly
    2) grossly exaggerate your fears about the Tea Party and justify that by making up shit that didn’t happen
    3) shut down the internet and / or persecute those that disagree with you ( like using the IRS to oppress your political “enemies”).

    Guess what? Your side is currently trying all three and it isn’t working…

    See you in the funny papers.


  31. anjin-san says:

    @ crysalis

    Forget to take your meds?

  32. Anonne says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Cruz is a smart man. However, he is wicked and cynical and has elevated political grandstanding to performance art, all to get that wingnut welfare. The right wing gravy train pays big bucks – just ask Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and all the freshman kooks in office. Cruz has just schooled them all on how it’s done. Maybe he does believe the prolefeed but I don’t think so – my sense is that dude just wants to get paid.

  33. grumpy realist says:

    @crysalis: are you fourteen?

    The Tea Party has demonstrated absolutely no knowledge of finance, history, or politics. You people are the equivalent of a toddler throwing a tantrum in a store. Plus you’re stamping your feet demanding the right to light matches while playing in gasoline.

    Have you heard about this thing called the Great Depression? I suggest you read up on it, because that’s what’s going to happen, Round Two, if we go over the debt cliff.

  34. grumpy realist says:

    @Anonne: I’m not exactly certain he’s all that smart. He’s got the facile sort of argumentation that impresses the rubes, but if he actually had to try to run any commercial business based on the savvy he’s shown this far, I predict he would be bankrupt within six months.

    That “oh, we’ve compromised because we’re allowing Obamacare to exist; we’re just not funding it” is the sort of smarmy smart-alec argument which only sounds good if you don’t realize that most interactions with the world are not a one-step processes. By Cruz’s using it (and thinking it an effective argument), what keeps the opposite side from using the exact same argument back at him in Round Two? He’s down the equivalent of pulling the pin on a grenade and throwing at a rubber wall.

  35. C. Clavin says:

    @ Anonne…
    I do not buy that he’s all that smart.
    Grifters only need to be clever…not smart. Especially a grifter who has spent his adult life at the Government trough.

  36. Anonne says:

    The guy has the chops – he is not a dummy at all. He knows that facile argumentation works, and his business IS in impressing the rubes. This is all about putting himself in the pole position for 2016 ahead of those yokels like Rand Paul or Paul Ryan. Or if he’s not really serious about it, he’s serious about getting paid to do it and pull out, like Sarah Palin.

    He’s the maestro of playing the base like a fiddle. He is a dangerous, dangerous man.

  37. al-Ameda says:

    @grumpy realist:
    @C. Clavin:
    As I recall, back in the mid-1990s, Representative John Boehner was seen passing out Tobacco Lobby checks to his colleagues on the House floor. So, Boehner is accustomed to serving those who have real power or strong influence.

    That he let guys like Ted Cruz and Eric Cantor run with this ploy is very revealing. Boehner has power however, and he ceded whatever power he had to about 30 Tea Party type representatives.

  38. Anonne says:

    It’s entirely too easy to dismiss some of these people as being dumb. They’re not dumb – they’re extremely self-interested. The people they are scaring into pouring out their money, they are often dumb, but mostly self-interested. It’s how Limbaugh and his crew survive – by playing on the ignorance and innumeracy of the base.

    I have far too many smart, educated classmates who are Republicans. Some are a little dumb, sure – but most are self-interested, and playing into the tribal politics.