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.”
This article appears in the June 4, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.