On the eve of a potential government shutdown in April, a deal was finally on the table to avert the crisis. House Speaker John Boehner stared at President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and a retinue of White House and Hill aides knowing that his decision would be the most fateful of his young speakership. He understood that his handling of this first clash with Obama would reverberate for months—and quite possibly define his negotiating authority with the White House and with his 87-member freshman class. The tension was palpable. Boehner, reticent both publicly and privately to delve into the divine, did so now.
“Mr. President, I’d like to go home and pray.”
The moment bespoke Boehner’s complicated role in Washington’s new power structure. Obama can’t make big deals without Boehner—as the 2011 budget agreement made clear and as the summer swelter over raising the debt ceiling illustrates. But Boehner can’t deal without the backing of his 240-member Republican Conference—or, if he does, he can only shed so many votes and retain his credibility and clout. Boehner’s speakership is already a study in contrasts and seeming contradictions.
In day-to-day operations, he defers to committee chairmen to a degree not seen since Democratic Speaker Tom Foley (and Boehner is possibly even more accommodating). But on big-ticket items (passing the 2011 budget, raising the debt ceiling, reauthorizing the USA PATRIOT Act, and even negotiating the lame-duck compromise to extend unemployment benefits and the Bush tax cuts), Boehner centralizes power just as tightly as his predecessors have.
Forget the clichés about tightrope walking: Boehner doesn’t so much balance as barter—he trades at the highest levels on the biggest deals from a position of legislative strength as the leader of the House. But he must continuously earn and re-earn that position and the leverage that comes with it from his charges, especially the freshmen and those closest to Boehner who purport to speak and lobby on their behalf—Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California.
It is not by accident that Boehner put Cantor in the room with Vice President Joe Biden to negotiate a debt-ceiling increase and the budget cuts and process reforms necessary to win House passage. Boehner gave up some of his power to protect it. The debt deal must have Cantor’s fingerprints on it. Boehner’s bartering is not only interparty, it’s intraparty. And he has protected his power in surprising ways—for instance by letting his freshmen kill a multibillion-dollar defense project important to his Cincinnati district and favored by other top House Republicans. Boehner could have nullified a House vote to kill the F-35 second-engine project, and at times he was tempted. But he deferred to the House’s will and, in the process, gained respect and power that may serve as the glue for a debt-ceiling deal and possibly others down the road (tax reform comes instantly to mind). Boehner, in other words, is changing the speaker’s office in subtle and consequential ways.
Aranthan Jones, policy director for then-House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., and now a lobbyist and principal with the Podesta Group, said that K Street has begun to abandon its habit of burrowing into House leadership circles—Democratic or Republican—and is instead building more-layered operations that seek access to committee chairmen, subcommittee chairmen, and individual lawmakers who take the lead on certain issues.
“That change, I predict, is going to be with us in Washington for a long time,” Jones said.
Perhaps, but first Boehner will have to demonstrate that his style of leadership is effective. He’ll be judged not only by how far he advances the GOP agenda in this Congress but also by whether voters reward House Republicans in 2012 with another two-year majority or sack them as unceremoniously as they did the Democrats in 2010.
His approach is not without risks. If, for instance, Boehner’s willingness to allow House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to craft a controversial 2012 budget resolution that would transform Medicare proves a political liability for Republicans—as now seems to be the case—Boehner (or his successor) could well conclude that more-centralized power is necessary.
For now, though, the speaker seems intent on fulfilling his pledge to change the way the House operates. Three experiences from his short tenure provide a glimpse into Boehner’s bartering-for-power ways.
THE RYAN EXPRESS
Boehner’s model for running the House comes not from any of his recent predecessors, but from Democrat Sam Rayburn of Texas, who presided as speaker from 1940 to 1961 except for two two-year stretches when Republicans were in a majority.
Republicans, not surprisingly, considered Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s rule autocratic and dictatorial, and the GOP caucus’s antipathy to the Pelosi era knows no bounds. But the new House leadership also heaps scorn on Republican Speakers Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert for their top-down ways. “Under Hastert, there was an implementing of the idea of winning with a majority of the majority,” said Steve Stombres, Cantor’s chief of staff. “There was a premium for having to win every vote. Now, committees are told to legislate. They are not being told what the product is. The change is very much real.”
Pelosi, Hastert, and Gingrich all consolidated power in leadership circles, and that consolidation shaped the ways that lawmakers—and K Street lobbyists—functioned. Gingrich set the process in motion, tightening his power by ignoring seniority in appointing committee chairmen, term-limiting them to six years, and increasing the use of leadership-picked task forces to circumvent the committee process. Hastert and then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay demanded that legislation pass with GOP votes and almost never sought bipartisan support on big-ticket bills. They also blocked Democratic amendments to shield Republicans from votes that carried high political risk. That generated deep animosity among Democrats during their 12 years in exile. When Pelosi got the chance, she returned the favor.
“We just shut the process down,” said Jones, the former Clyburn aide. “There was a very strong desire among leadership to protect policy. And if you’re going to protect policy, you’d better make damn sure the diverse parts of the caucus can rally around it. That means all the committee fights take place around the leadership table. And the fights are high stakes.”
These tendencies—generated by Republicans and tightened by Democrats—gave the House an “us-versus-them” edge that intensified partisan divisions and marginalized committees. Under Pelosi, committees still moved bills, of course, but they played a diminished role in crafting them; or if they did write the original bill, the leadership often overrode the committee’s draft to appease party factions.
“If you are working the process in committee and you see the leadership change it,” Jones said, “you feel disenfranchised.”
Today’s Republicans say they couldn’t use that system if they tried. “You can’t get away with leadership-knows-best anymore,” said Brad Dayspring, Cantor’s spokesman. “Protecting our members from a tough vote is not something we can do anymore.”
Perhaps the best example of the new paradigm is the budget resolution that seeks an unprecedented overhaul of Medicare, a plan drafted entirely by Ryan, who worked as a budget aide to then-Rep. Sam Brownback of Kansas during the 1995 Gingrich revolution and served as a backbencher under Hastert.
“We built the budget over hours and weeks, and brick by brick,” Ryan told National Journal. “We showed our package to leadership and they said, ‘OK.’ Usually, it’s the other way around. Newt did these working groups that he created to go around the committee system. [Boehner has] been a rock. He’s never once tried to talk me out of an idea. He motivates through incentives and encouragement, not fear and intimidation. He’s a delegator, not a dictator.”
“Now, committees are told to legislate. They are not being told what the product is.” -Steve Stombres, chief of staff to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor
Stombres, a veteran of GOP vote-counting operations, said that the Ryan budget, fraught with political risks that everyone can see, retains a tensile strength because members understand it, believe in it, and watched it being built. “The budget used to be the hardest vote we ever passed, the hardest whip we ever had to do,” he said. “This was the easiest budget to pass and the easiest whip we’ve ever had.”
Ryan contends that his budget—now under sustained Democratic attack for its vow 10 years hence to abolish Medicare’s fee-for-service benefit system and replace it with vouchers—is a more durable political document because he built it and sold it first to his committee and then to the GOP Conference. Rank-and-file Republicans, especially the tenacious freshman budget cutters, would have revolted had his budget not taken on Medicare, Ryan says.
“We would have been dis-unified,” he said. “It’s a false presumption to think we would be better off if we had not done this.”
Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, was more blunt. “We promised people we would be serious about the budget. If we hadn’t done this, people would have known we were the same old Washington assholes.”
The dominant narrative now—fed by polling data and the surprise GOP loss in last month’s special election in New York’s 26th District (the most Republican of the party’s four remaining Empire State congressional districts and in GOP hands since 1970)—is of backlash and buyer’s remorse. Top aides to Pelosi and Clyburn are certain that House Republicans have stamped their own ticket to oblivion. Pelosi now talks in ever-confident tones of taking back control of the chamber, almost entirely on the strength of what she regards as the GOP’s Medicare overreach.
“If they had made the Medicare vouchers voluntary, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” a senior House Democratic aide in Pelosi’s inner circle said. “By making it mandatory they gave us all we needed.” Top House Democratic political advisers spent weeks badgering party lawyers to bless TV ads proclaiming that House Republicans voted to “end Medicare.” The operatives won, and Kathy Hochul, the Erie County clerk, used Medicare to defeat GOP state Assembly member Jane Corwin in the special election.
Amid the wreckage of the New York loss, it’s worth remembering that when 40 Senate Republicans voted for the Ryan budget—a group that stretched from old-guard appropriator Thad Cochran of Mississippi to tea party favorite Mike Lee of Utah and through freshman Mark Kirk of Illinois and moderate Richard Lugar of Indiana—they did so after that election. If those GOP senators saw a cliff, they edged closer to it, not farther away. So did GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, who offered a qualified endorsement of Ryan’s budget after two days of (to party stalwarts) dissatisfying dodginess. To know that Ryan’s handiwork has become something of a litmus test for serious GOP presidential candidates, one only needs to revisit Gingrich’s version of Pennsylvania Avenue Apocalypse Now when he had to backtrack from his criticisms of the plan.
FLYING HIGH, FLYING LOW
For those skeptics who think that “regular order” and “letting the House work its will” are bubblegum phrases filled with air and easy to puncture, consider this: Boehner allowed the House to rise up and defeat a project near his Ohio district that he has defended for years. That project, a General Electric and Rolls-Royce program to build a second engine for the F-35 jet fighter, lost every dime of funding when an amendment by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., prevailed during consideration of the continuing resolution. By a 233-198 vote, lawmakers cut $450 million in Pentagon spending, the largest defense cut approved on the floor and one that shocked and disappointed second-engine backers besides Boehner—among them Cantor and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon of California.
The speaker’s position on the second engine was clear. A GE Aviation plant just outside Boehner’s district in Evendale, Ohio, employs about 1,000 people, and Boehner and others argued that if the F-35 ever needed greater thrust capacity, the GE-Rolls-Royce engine could and should meet the Pentagon’s needs. Defense Secretary Robert Gates opposed the second engine (the project began in the mid 1990s with an earmark written by then-Sen. John Warner, R-Va.), arguing that it siphoned funds from more important defense needs. Presidents Bush and Obama opposed the second engine, and each tried to kill it, losing every time to a seemingly unbeatable regional and bipartisan coalition loyal to the engine’s makers and the concept of having a backup if the original engine design, manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, fell short.
But when the House turned against it, Boehner was nowhere to be found. Aides said that he deliberately avoided the floor vote so as not to tilt the outcome. His absence miffed McKeon. The chairman’s staff pleaded with Boehner’s aides to join the fight, which McKeon feared he might lose amid budget-cutting gusto.
“There were some who felt he should have weighed in on that,” McKeon told NJ, referring to Boehner. “I didn’t ask John to weigh in on it. The opponents just did a really good job. And we didn’t do a good job.”
Rooney remembers the vote as if it was a dream.
“I thought I was going to lose that day; we had lost by 20 votes the year before. When we got to [the needed] 218, I remember thinking, ‘Please, God, no one change your vote.’ Afterward, someone came up to me and said, ‘You just beat the speaker.’ I was like, ‘Uh-oh.’ I’m still sort of shocked to this day that we accomplished that.”
But Rooney said he has paid no price with Boehner or any other House GOP leader. “There was no call to the office. Nothing like that. Under any normal political scenario in the past, there is no way we could have been successful. The speaker had a parochial interest. This does signal a change in Washington.”
Rooney feared that the change might be short-lived. He knew that Boehner would negotiate the final deal with Obama and Reid on the continuing resolution and could, at any time, tuck funding for the second engine back in the deal. “I did worry about it,” Rooney said.
Reid’s staff expected Boehner to do just that. In fact, Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Patrick Leahy of Vermont lobbied Reid to give Boehner room to revive the engine. At the start of negotiations on the CR, Reid’s chief of staff, David Krone, told Boehner’s chief of staff, Barry Jackson, that Reid would green-light moving the second engine into the final compromise. Jackson said no. “The speaker does not believe in micromanaging the Defense Department.” Boehner wouldn’t ask directly for the second engine to be revived, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t look for indirect ways to keep it alive.
When the CR negotiations began, Boehner suggested beginning with a defense-spending number that included the 2010 authorization levels—which made room for the second F-35 engine. When Obama and Reid objected, Boehner retreated quickly. When the final deal was announced on April 8, a harried Boehner took questions for more than an hour from House Republicans curious about what was in—or not in—the deal before finally retreating in exhaustion to a side room. There, he answered more questions, as if granting audiences to individual members. Rooney approached, and before he could say a word, Boehner waved him off. “Don’t worry,” the speaker told the two-term upstart who had bested him. “The second engine is not in the deal.”
But time still remained. Lawmakers spent the following weekend going over the deal’s fine print. It is often at this stage that favored projects sneak back into legislation, typically bearing no fingerprints. Sometime in this process—the principals cannot agree when—Jackson called Krone with a question long expected. “Is the second engine still available?” Jackson wasn’t demanding. He wasn’t insisting. But one last time, the most tempting perhaps of the entire process, he was exploring what might be possible. Brown and Leahy and other supportive lawmakers had been hovering around the issue. Krone said it was very late in the process and that Reid’s office would have to run the request by Obama, Gates, and White House Budget Director Jack Lew. Jackson told Krone to wait for him to call back. When he did, he withdrew the request.
Krone still marvels at Boehner’s restraint. “He never sold out his members. The carrot was there. They thought about it. But they never took it.”
Rooney said, “We didn’t know what he was negotiating in there.” The House had approved dozens of policy riders (something Republicans once opposed on spending bills) and any one or all of them could be tossed out at Boehner’s direction. “I thought I was going to be taken out with the tide like everything else. A lot of riders—most of the riders—were dropped. The fact that the second engine was one of the ones he kept in the final deal, I just find that very uplifting.”
McKeon disagrees with the outcome. His 2012 defense authorization bill seeks to revive the second engine by allowing GE and Rolls-Royce to fund development on their own and retain access to Defense Department facilities and by preventing any destruction of existing tooling and design. “I don’t think the issue is over.” McKeon knows that it’s up to his committee to turn the tide. Boehner clearly won’t intervene, and McKeon says that Boehner’s instincts served him well.
“The will of the House is the will of the House,” McKeon said. “To overcome that vote just because he was the speaker would have damaged his credibility and undermined his leadership.”
BOEHNER AND THE BUDGET ABYSS
Obama couldn’t deny Boehner time to pray any more than he could force Boehner to produce 218 votes—the second and equally important (though often underappreciated) step in translating a budget deal into legislation. Boehner left the Oval Office on April 7 after making his request. The atmosphere remained tense as he and Reid made their way out of the West Wing. The two had come to know and respect each other during weeks of private negotiations and public fencing over the budget and several near-misses on government shutdowns. Reid sensed that Boehner felt boxed in. Obama had demanded that the speaker call him with his answer by 9 the next morning. As Boehner left the White House, Reid returned to the Oval Office. “I think we need to give him more time, Mr. President.”
Krone, Reid’s chief of staff, then spoke plainly. “You know he’s not going to call, don’t you?” Krone said.
“What do you mean, he’s not going to call?” Obama said, incredulous. Reid told Obama he could sense that Boehner felt squeezed and would milk the clock before agreeing to a deal.
“He’s going to keep his options open as long as he can,” Krone told the president.
Reid and Krone’s intuition served them and Obama well. Boehner didn’t call. Importantly, nobody overreacted. Ultimately, the deal got done late on that Friday, April 8, and each side claimed a hard-fought if unsatisfying victory. Boehner didn’t get all the spending cuts he wanted and Obama gave up more than he preferred.
Boehner never wanted a government shutdown, and he had conveyed as much to Reid last December when the speaker ventured across the Capitol to meet with the majority leader in his private office. The venue for that meeting may seem trivial, but Reid considered it a sign of respect and graciousness that Boehner, who had dispatched GOP aides to Nevada to fight Reid’s reelection just a month earlier, would venture onto his turf for their first encounter as the Capitol’s top power brokers.
“We have to find a way to cooperate,” Boehner told Reid. “We have to find a way.”
During that December meeting, Boehner turned to his chief of staff, Jackson, and pointed to Reid’s new chief of staff, Krone, and said he and Reid would “need you two” to deal with budget and other top-tier negotiations and that the aides would have to operate with candor and trust. And although such talk might strike some freshman Republicans as a preemptive act of surrender, at the same meeting Boehner bluntly declared an end to congressional earmarks, line items of federal spending that senators value highly and were in no mood to jettison. Reid stiffened at Boehner’s flat refusal to send any earmarks to the Senate, but he sensed the Ohio Republican’s seriousness—and, most important, Boehner’s institutional commitment to make things work and find a way to forge deals, not blow them up.
This predilection led to last week’s four-year extension of sensitive and at times politically divisive government intelligence-gathering powers under the PATRIOT Act. Reid called Boehner during the House recess while the speaker was in California raising money for fellow Republicans; Reid proposed a three-and-a-half year extension of post-9/11 surveillance powers. Boehner pushed for four years and promised that he would quiet restive conservatives who wanted to make the surveillance provisions permanent.
That deal held despite a minor uprising by Rand Paul of Kentucky and several other Senate Republicans. With the backing of House Republicans, the PATRIOT Act extension had legislative throw weight. Rand’s demand for votes on amendments to restrict government access to certain firearm and business records held up passage and forced some uncomfortable policy contortions but, in the end, amounted to little more than a procedural hiccup. At no time did Boehner or Reid square off and challenge each other’s commitment to national security, as had happened in earlier debates on the issue. The deal got done—again within hours of the law expiring—but done, just the same.
Before becoming speaker, Boehner told NJ that he would give committee chairmen more power, allow rank-and-file members of both parties to offer amendments, and encourage bottom-up legislating through the process of “regular order.” Six months into his speakership, he has made significant moves in these directions, restructuring not only House operations but also the way lobbyists approach issues, coalition building, and paths to power.
“The diffusion of power is on both sides of the aisle,” Jones, the former Clyburn aide now with the Podesta Group, said. “K Street has noticed and is changing. The vote structure is so much up in the air now.”
One measure of House openness is the growing number of floor amendments and subsequent roll-call votes—the most vivid expression of partisan and policy preferences. So far in this Congress, the House has considered and voted on 437 amendments; six bills have come to the floor with modified open rules allowing for wide, though not unlimited, debate. In the entire 111th Congress, the Democratic-controlled House allowed one bill to be debated under a modified open rule and considered 810 amendments.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., has promised that the House will debate each spending bill under an open rule, meaning no limits on amendments.
House Democrats grudgingly admit that Boehner’s approach has led to more amendments, and longer and more-varied floor debate, but they dispute that the process is as open as Republicans say.
“The question isn’t just the quantity of the amendments; it’s the quality,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a senior member of the Rules Committee. “Most of what Republicans have been doing is messaging. The bills are written to protect their agenda, so amendments that would get at their priorities are ruled out of order or non-germane. Things are not as open as they say they are, and they’re not as fair as they say they are.”
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, flatly rejected the continuing-resolution debate and its dozens of amendments and late-night sessions as meaningless. “That was like a Potemkin village,” he charged.
“I’m not sure I understand the criticism,” Steel said. “It’s arguing that we’re not bipartisan and open because Democrats didn’t get their way. Open process doesn’t mean Republicans are going to vote for Democratic ideas.”
On that, McGovern does not disagree. “That’s their prerogative. They won. And it doesn’t do any good to complain, because nobody is going to listen.”
By all accounts, Boehner’s handling of Ryan’s budget, the CR, the F-35 second engine, and the PATRIOT Act has strengthened his speakership. But the debt-ceiling negotiations bring big challenges. Ironically, it was a legislative loss that has Boehner well situated to deal with the tests ahead. Every House Republican knows that Boehner could have played the prerogatives game and forced the second F-35 engine into law. That he didn’t, Republicans say, has given the speaker more flexibility and latitude. He will need all of both that he can get, because the issues and the negotiations will only get tougher.
CORRECTION: The original version of this report gave an incorrect first name for freshman Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
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This article appears in the June 4, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.