The House speaker, center, in 1987 with Minority Leader Robert Michel.

Photographer: Barry Thumma/AP Photo

Where the Esteemed Jim Wright Went Wrong

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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With the death of Jim Wright, the 92-year-old former speaker of the House, there have been a lot of colorful anecdotes about him and comment on the so-called scandals he was caught up in.

But we should not let the moment pass with out noting the link between Wright and Congress as it exists today. He was the second speaker after the conclusion of a long cycle of reforms within the House of Representatives that began after the Democratic landslide of 1958 and ended after a similar Democratic victory in 1974.

Before the reforms, committees -- and their chairmen -- ran the House. The new rules pushed influence down to the subcommittee level, but also upward to the party and its leadership. People still wax nostalgic about the power of Sam Rayburn, but the truth is that all speakers from Tip O’Neill (1977-1986) on had far more ability to affect results in the House than midcentury leaders did.

O’Neill, a gifted politician, was good at balancing the speaker's new authority with respect for individual members, expressed mainly through the committee system (which is designed to serve the interests of House members). Wright tried to use the speaker's powers to run the place personally.

While he had some early successes, it didn’t work.  Wright was a better member of the House overall than Newt Gingrich, but the two had a lot in common in the way they did their jobs as speaker:

Like Gingrich, Wright took office after a major electoral victory (in Wright's case, the 1986 return of the Senate to Democratic control).  Like Gingrich, Wright centralized power in the hands of the Speaker.  Like Gingrich, Wright initially appeared to be very successful.  And like Gingrich, Wright was quickly dumped.  Both Speakers were accused by the minority party of ethical violations, but neither was found guilty of anything substantial; instead, it certainly appears to me that in both cases the majority party was eager to use whatever excuse it could to move on to a Speaker who would allow the committees to have more meaningful roles.

The question is whether Wright (or at least his position) was the winner in the long run. Since the 1980s, the committees have become weaker, and power in the House continues to be centralized in the party leadership, backed up by the support of majority-party members.

The last two speakers, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, have done a much better job of balancing the centralizing and decentralizing tendencies of the House -- but perhaps their jobs were and are easier because committee chairmen no longer expect much authority in the first place.

Whatever his shortcomings as speaker, however, Wright deserves to be remembered as a patriot who worked hard to make his nation better as he saw it. U.S. political culture, alas, undervalues Congress in general and important congressional leaders in particular.

Wright was an excellent member of the House for many years. That's a big deal and worth celebrating.

  1. Boehner's troubles have been mostly caused by dysfunction within the Republican conference based on factors beyond the influence of the speaker. That's something Wright and the other modern speakers didn't have to deal with, for the most part.

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