The majesty of the office of speaker of the House of Representatives is sanctified by the U.S. Constitution, where it’s the first position named, even before the presidency. The speaker is second in line to the White House, after the vice president. Historical giants have occupied the chair, including some who have been both revered and resented as dictators. Now Washington is confronting what happens when a speaker is neither exalted nor feared nor able even to command his own party. The struggle by today’s Speaker, John A. Boehner, to control the conservative wing of his House Republican caucus will shape showdowns coming over issues from the federal budget and debt ceiling to the farm bill and immigration. Beyond that, the question is whether the office has been permanently shrunken by forces beyond Boehner’s control.
Boehner, an Ohio Republican, was weakened by the failure of the government shutdown he led in October — a showdown that, like several before it, was forced on him by restive Tea Party members in the House. Boehner’s majority is so slim that it takes only 15 Republicans to join Democrats to block any bill. This makes the speaker vulnerable to pressure from a determined minority, especially one as detached from normal party discipline as the Tea Party caucus. They ran on pledges to buck the party establishment and are more likely to get their campaign funds from outside conservative groups than the Republican apparatus. Many are in districts so conservative that challenges on the right are the only threat they face. In December, Boehner angrily hit back, saying groups that opposed a bipartisan budget deal “lacked all credibility” and that they favored conflict to enhance their fundraising. Boehner broke with hardliners in his caucus and won passage of the budget deal, the farm bill and an increase in the federal debt ceiling, which was passed almost entirely with Democratic votes. What remained to be seen was whether the victories will translate into more power for Boehner, or into revenge at primary time by conservative groups who denounced the debt vote.
The power of the speakership can be seen rising and falling in one long arc. Speakers were unimportant figures until Henry Clay of Kentucky used the post to lay out a national agenda, raising the stature of the office and the House. As the party system strengthened, the speaker took on an ever-larger role. It reached a peak under Joseph Cannon of Illinois, known to friends as “Uncle Joe” and to others as “Czar Cannon,” whose authoritarian rule prompted a bipartisan revolt in 1910. The longest-serving speaker was Sam Rayburn, a Texas Democrat who described himself as relying on “persuasion and kindness,” but who also had plenty of pork to hand out — or withhold. The House voted in 2010 to swear off such earmarks, as they were known. Boehner encouraged the move as the Tea Party surged before the 2010 elections, and became speaker with the support of the House’s hard-line new members. But with so many of the office’s traditional tools gone, even his effort to rebuke some obstreperous members by bouncing them from choice committee assignments backfired, leading to an embarrassing effort to block his re-election as speaker in January.
Many in Washington say Boehner is to blame for his woes. Others say the fractious nature of the current Republican caucus might have undermined any speaker. Newt Gingrich, who held the post in the mid-1990s, says that Democrats’ control of the Senate and the White House has made Boehner’s job “10 times harder than mine was.” Boehner still plays a key role in Congress, but primarily by refusing to allow votes on measures supported by the Senate, like its immigration reform bill, which Democrats say would pass if it came to the floor. In fact, in a strange twist on bipartisanship, most of the must-pass measures adopted by Congress recently have gotten through the House only when Boehner has defied the wishes of a majority of his caucus and relied on Democrats. Those votes have been widely described as a sign of weakness. If that is so, that may be evidence that the problem isn’t purely Boehner’s own. His Democratic predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, turned to Republicans seven times for votes she couldn’t get from her own side.
The Reference Shelf
- A website of the U.K. Parliament traces the role of the speaker back to the appointment of Sir Thomas Hungerford in 1377. (Seven of his successors were beheaded.)
- A New York Times Magazine article on the death of the 2011 debt deal between Boehner and U.S. President Barack Obama.
- Portrait of Speaker Joe Cannon adorning the first issue of Time magazine, dated March 3, 1923.
- A defense of Boehner by Washington Monthly writer Jonathan Bernstein.