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Congress / CONGRESS

A Return to Regular Order

Minority Leader John Boehner, in an e-mail exchange with National Journal, talks about how he will run the House if Republicans take the majority.

Rep. John Boehner is interviewed in his Capitol Hill office March 10, 2010.(Liz Lynch)

photo of Major Garrett
October 25, 2010

NJ About three weeks before the 1994 election, I asked you if House Republicans were ready to win the majority and ready to govern the House. You said then that sometimes the wave takes you into power whether you are ready or not. It did then. It may now. What is similar to you about the ’94 cycle and, more important, are you ready to lead now and how will you lead differently if you win?


Boehner Well, all kinds of things have changed, and there are a lot of differences.  But maybe the biggest thing that’s different now is near 10 percent unemployment. I mean, we’re going to have to start making tough choices on spending to give our economy a chance to start moving and creating jobs again.  As for me personally, you know, I had a front-row seat to what worked and what didn’t in 1994–and I like to think I learned a thing or two.



NJ If you become speaker, you will be the first since Tom Foley to have previously chaired a committee (Foley chaired the Agriculture Committee). How will your past as a chairman and legislator–with many bills, No Child Left Behind chief among them–influence your approach to allowing committees to set the agenda and give signals to instead of receive them from Leadership?


Boehner We need to stop writing bills in the speaker’s office and let members of Congress be legislators again. Too often in the House right now we don’t have legislators; we just have voters.  Under Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, 430 out of the 435 members are just here to vote and raise money. That’s it. That’s not right.  We were each elected to uphold the Constitution and represent 600,000-odd people in our districts.  We need to open this place up, let some air in.  We have nothing to fear from letting the House work its will–nothing to fear from the battle of ideas. That starts with the committees. The result will be more scrutiny and better legislation.


NJ Related to this, it’s often been said by those closest to you that you respect and admire and believe in regular order. What does that mean to you and how much institutional value do you place on placing regular order at the center of House procedures and House reforms?


Boehner Yeah, I do, absolutely.  The House is the body closest to people. That’s by design. We’re the … the crucible, the testing ground for new ideas and new policies. And the institutions of the House that have grown up over 200 years of trial and error are the best way to test those ideas and policies. We don’t need five members sitting behind a closed door writing a bill, like they did with the "stimulus" or "Obamacare." It’s nuts. 


NJ If you are speaker, will you ever bring a bill to the floor that hasn’t been true to the three-day rule?


Boehner No. 


NJ That’s it, just "no"?


Boehner Right. Can I see a scenario–like right after 9/11–when we’d have to act immediately in a true national emergency?  I guess…. Maybe, but this is a serious commitment.  I know it’s going to be a pain in the neck, but we’re going to do it. 


NJ Enough about procedure; how worried are you about facing a government shutdown fight with President Obama over cutting spending as much as the "Pledge to America" promises?


Boehner Look, Major, our goal is to cut the size of the government, not to shut it down. If we take the majority, the president is going to have to realize that he can’t keep ignoring the American people. They’re out there looking at what the president and Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid are doing and they’re shouting "stop" at the top of their lungs.  We’re going to listen to them, and the president better, too. 


NJ Deputy Whip Eric Cantor has virtually ruled out a government shutdown. Do you rule it out as a negotiating tactic or a possible outcome of a budget disagreement?


Boehner I’ve said the same thing as Eric. Our goal is to make government smaller, not to shut it down. [Republican] Jeb Hensarling [of Texas] has a bill that would prevent a government shutdown in the event of a budget standoff.  We’re going to stay focused on doing what the American people want, and what they want is less spending.


NJ Do you anticipate a resolution of the Bush tax-cut issue or a lengthy congressional resolution in the lame-duck session, or are you girding your members to deal with both issues as soon as the 111th Congress convenes?


Boehner Hell, I don’t think we need to wait until after the election.  Let’s come back, right now, and stop this tax hike and cut spending. That’s what we put in the pledge that we want to do right now.   


NJ A reauthorization of the highway bill is due in the next Congress. Will you as or the GOP leadership support any increase in the federal gasoline tax to finance additional road, bridge or highway construction?


Boehner I’ve never supported a tax increase of any kind.


NJ Will you extend into the 111th Congress the current House GOP moratorium on earmarks? Related to that, if you win the majority, will you seek any change to the Appropriations Committee’s professional staff or other reforms to signal that, in your words, “business as usual”  is over when it comes to discretionary spending?


Boehner Look, I’ve always had a "no earmarks" policy.  I helped get the conference into a place where we have the current moratorium. And I think it’s perfectly clear that going back to "business as usual" is not an option.  That’s the case with earmarking specifically, and with spending in general.  Change is never easy, but change is necessary.  It’s what the American people are demanding of us.   


NJ You’ve said you are open to having spending-cut legislation come to the House floor each week or, at minimum, regularly. How do you intend for this to work?


Boehner Well, I think a model for that particular proposal may be the "YouCut" project that Eric and the other members of our economic recovery solutions group have been doing all year.  They’ve got a ton of specific cuts, chosen by the American people in an online poll.  I also said in my speech in September at AEI that I think we need to look at breaking up all these massive spending bills–break them into smaller bills that are more conducive to scrutiny and debate. We said in the pledge that we need to set up a process that makes it easier to cut spending.  In my mind that means, among other things, if a member has an amendment that would cut spending, it should get a vote.  Period. 


NJ Will House Republicans, should they win the majority, move the pending free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia to the floor in the first six months of the 111th Congress?


Boehner I believe we need to boost our exports to create American jobs.  I think these should be done as soon as possible.  But let’s be clear: The holdup isn’t among House Republicans. The president needs to show leadership on this issue and make it a priority if it’s going to happen. 


NJ Will Republicans back President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan? And will it require as part of the appropriations process greater clarity and perhaps even assurances that the July 2011 troop withdrawal deadline will be softened or withdrawn?


Boehner We will make sure our troops in the field have the tools they need. I don’t want to look too far ahead other than that. 


NJ House Democrats left Washington frustrated with the inability to move their bills. How do you intend to work with GOP leader Mitch McConnell to move your House bills; … related to this, how would you contrast your relationship with McConnell with former Speaker [Newt] Gingrich’s relationship with Sen. Bob Dole?


Boehner Oh, I don’t really want to get into comparisons, but Mitch and I–and our staffs–have a terrific working relationship. One of the reasons for that is that neither of us is interested in running for president. We’re right where we want to be.  


NJ It was not a priority of the Contract with America Congress to make its agenda match or compliment the campaign message of the 1996 GOP presidential nominee. How much will you and McConnell attempt to match your agenda with the message of the eventual GOP 2012 nominee, whoever it might be?


Boehner Well, that’s a ways down the line.  And it will obviously depend on who the nominee is.


NJ How much longer do you envision staying in Congress and, related to that, did you learn anything valuable from the speakership of Nancy Pelosi?


Boehner Hell, I’ve already stayed here a lot longer than I ever thought I would. We’ll see. I think the current majority has reinforced what I already knew: You can’t run this place, at least not well, by shutting out the American people, shutting out the other party, and even shutting out your own members. You can twist arms and crack heads and cut deals for a while, but it just won’t work in the long term. Let me add, though, that while we obviously have much different views of the world, I have no ill will toward the speaker. She and her staff have been gracious and professional when it comes to our direct dealings. Our differences are significant, but they’re philosophical and operational differences, not personal. 


NJ If elected speaker, will you return smoking privileges to the speaker’s lobby?


Boehner No.


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