Ask John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi if they are eyeing the door, and they will deny it. It’s a question they get with some regularity, and both the speaker and the minority leader insist they are running for reelection and expect to keep their jobs.
But consider this: Even if one or the other were contemplating retirement, they would not likely say it out loud—at least not anytime soon.
While there’s no doubt that Boehner, 64, and Pelosi, 73, will have lucrative opportunities after Congress—books, lectures, consulting, or other well-paid jobs—there are a bevy of reasons why savvy legislative leaders will keep their plans secret until after November’s midterm elections.
From the ability to raise money to the chance to help name a successor, life is easier in Congress for those not haunted by major questions about their future plans, especially if those plans involve leaving the chamber.
As one Republican lawmaker put it, “Who’s going to go out of their way to put their neck out for somebody who is not going to be around next year?”
For all the criticism that she polarizes voters, Pelosi has been the “golden handcuffs” for House Democrats for years. She is a master fundraiser.
This cycle, Pelosi has raised $35.5 million as of Jan. 1, including $26.7 million directly for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
House Democratic Caucus members recognize that much of this success comes because of the Bay Area lawmaker’s special ties to a broad liberal base—ties that are not easily replicated.
Boehner is no fundraising slouch, either. Aides say he raised more than $54 million as of Jan. 1, a figure that includes funds raised directly to Boehner’s committees, Republican candidates, and state and federal party committees.
But donors give to people who are in control. Any hint of retirement could impact the flow of money—and that’s not something either would do 10 months before an election.
The same could largely be said for political power. It is wielded by those in office—not those on their way out—and politicians who announce their departure early can put themselves at a disadvantage. Lame ducks in leadership are asking for trouble.
While Pelosi has had problems wrestling with a highly diverse caucus over time, Boehner may have it worse. The conservative wing of his conference has forcefully exerted its will on occasion, making it tough for Boehner to call difficult votes or negotiate with Senate Democrats.
A retirement announcement by Boehner or Pelosi would make huge waves in either party. But that may be particularly true for Pelosi, whose departure could unleash a whirlwind of internal upheaval in the Democratic Caucus as lawmakers jockey to fill her leadership post and other jobs down the ladder.
A too-early announcement could also diminish Pelosi’s ability to influence who takes over.
Pelosi’s second in command, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, has long toiled in her shadow. But the party could pass the baton to a new generation (especially given the young bench on the Republican side). Future party leaders include DCCC Chairman Steve Israel of New York; Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida; Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the Budget Committee’s ranking member; Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, the caucus chairman; and Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, the caucus vice chairman.
On the Republican side, Boehner allies say he fully expects that his second in command, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, will succeed him. But what Boehner and Cantor fully expect may not necessarily be what the vociferous GOP conference wants. There are younger young guns in the GOP nowadays, and they may want to be heard.
As for their House seats, Boehner is not widely known to favor a potential successor. But one Democratic lawmaker says there continues to be talk within the caucus that Pelosi wants to pave the way for her daughter, Christine Pelosi, to take over her House seat.
Of course, there’s always the desire to go out on top.
The notion that Democrats can take back the House majority this fall is a long shot. But if they did, that would hand Pelosi the speaker’s gavel once again.
For Boehner, the question might be what his speakership would look like if the GOP also controlled the Senate, which is a far more realistic prospect. Of course, the White House would still be occupied by a Democrat. But some colleagues say Boehner relishes the prospect of working with a Republican Senate.
And then there’s the question of what the chamber can actually do. Landmark legislation doesn’t appear to be on the horizon this year. But there are many things that the speaker and the minority leader can do to burnish or add to their historical legacies before they go.
The clock may be ticking.
This article appears in the February 5, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as One Word Boehner and Pelosi Won’t Utter.