By Salena Zito
WASHINGTON – The sweeping office of the Speaker of the House once
housed the Library of Congress – more than 6,000 leather-bound tomes
owned and beloved by Thomas Jefferson.
A Christmas Day fire in 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of them.
The House speaker then was southern Democrat Linn Boyd, who was
critical in shepherding the passage of the 1850 Compromise that defused
a showdown between slave states and free states and calmed sectional
conflict for a decade.
Imagine anyone trying to craft a compromise in today’s political
minefield. Right- and left-wingers, bloggers and cable news go
apoplectic just over the use of the phrase, even though compromise is
at the root of a functioning democracy.
When Ohio Republican congressman John Boehner became House speaker this
year, the line out of Washington was that Republicans were back in
People do not understand that, when it comes to power in Washington,
Republicans remain in the minority despite their historical gains in
House seats in last year’s midterm election.
The 2011 budget agreement, while far from perfect, reflects Boehner’s
relentless effort to promote job creation through reduced federal
spending and reduced federal regulation of private-sector job-creators.
And, yes, it involved compromise.
“This is a testament to Boehner’s leadership and interpersonal skills
in keeping this difficult caucus situation in check,” said Keystone
College political scientist Jeff Brauer. “The same could not be said of
(Nancy) Pelosi, who had a comparable circumstance with ‘blue dog’
As the previous House speaker, Pelosi, D-Calif., rarely if ever
compromised with House Republicans; the Democrats’ majority was so
large that GOP votes were not needed.
Pelosi did, however, arm-twist many House Democrats to vote her way on
health care, financial regulation, the stimulus package and other
legislation. Forced to vote for their party rather than for the will of
their districts, most of those members who she arm-twisted lost their
seats last year.
Most House speakers are impressive politicians, says presidential
historian Dr. Lara Brown: “They have ascended the leadership ladder
within their political party and the House chamber.”
They have bested a group of equals – for all House members represent
the same number of Americans – by convincing their peers of their
strategic vision and tactical competence.
History’s most celebrated speakers – Henry Clay, who presided over the
Missouri Compromise; James K. Polk, who helped Andrew Jackson dismantle
the National Bank; Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving speaker starting in
World War II – knew their members and understood the political
pressures they face.
“They are able to cobble together winning coalitions because they
understand what each member, specifically what each member in their
party, can vote for and cannot vote for,” explains Brown.
In short, they are master horse-traders and vote-counters.
The speakers who fell from grace or suffered revolts, such as Pelosi
and Republican Newt Gingrich, typically asked too much of their peers
and expected them to sacrifice too often for the good of their parties.
“That said, it is important to understand that both the size of the
majority and the level of partisan polarization play a role in how
speakers behave,” says Brown.
Boehner has an opportunity to be a great speaker and a brilliant
compromiser (which, by the way, is what Americans ultimately want, and
why they revolted against Pelosi) because he lacks a large majority.
Pelosi and Gingrich ran their much-larger House majorities with an
iron-fist because both dealt with ideologically cohesive partisans
fiercely opposed to the other side’s minority. “They would have been
branded ‘sell-outs’ had they included too many members of the opposite
party in their coalitions,” says Brown.
On the eve of the budget deal, a Gallup poll found more Americans want
government leaders who share their views on the budget to back a
compromise to avert a shutdown, rather than to hold out for a budget
they agree with.
The key here is compromise: Most Americans understand it. They have to
navigate every day in the real world, where no one ever gets everything
A great speaker, Brauer says, is one who can guide legislation that
ultimately proves to work. At the moment, the nation’s great concerns
are jobs and the deficit.
“Ultimately,” he says, “Boehner’s speakership will be judged on whether
the policies he guides through truly create jobs and lessen the
country’s debt load.”
Read it at Townhall