Speaker of the House

Boehner Struggles as a Post Loses Power

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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 even able 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 to immigration. Beyond that, the question is whether the office has been permanently shrunken by forces beyond Boehner’s control.

The Situation

The new Congress in January 2015 will bring almost a dozen new Republican House members angry at Washington and determined to slice federal spending. They will join restive Tea Party members who were the driving forces behind a government shutdown in October 2013 — a showdown that, like several before it, was forced on Boehner, an Ohio Republican. Conservatives were angry that Boehner broke with his caucus to win passage in 2013 of a budget deal that hard-liners thought had too much spending and a farm bill with subsidies for agribusinesses and without big cuts to the food stamp program. Then came Boehner’s assent to an increase in the federal debt ceiling in 2014, which was passed almost entirely with Democratic votes. Some of the new Republicans headed to the House had, like their Tea Party predecessors, been running on pledges to buck the party establishment and were more likely to collect campaign funds from outside conservative groups than from the Republican Party. Yet Boehner was re-elected to his Republican leadership post on Nov. 13, 2014, in an overwhelming voice vote, suggesting his official re-election as speaker in January could be easier than 2013′s vote.

The Background

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 2013.

The Argument

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 relied on Democrats. Those votes have been widely described as a sign of weakness. If that’s so, it 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.)
  • Portrait of Speaker Joe Cannon adorning the first issue of Time magazine, dated March 3, 1923.
  • John Boehner’s profile on speaker.gov.
  • A New York Times Magazine article on the death of the 2011 debt deal between Boehner and President Barack Obama.
  • An article in The Hill: “Conservatives plot to oust Boehner.”

First Published on Dec. 6, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:

John O'Neil at joneil18@bloomberg.net

Anne Cronin at acronin14@bloomberg.net