A MAN OF THE HOUSE
To understand not just what a House Republican majority would do but how it would do it, it’s critical to recall Boehner’s unique pedigree among recent GOP leaders: He is, chiefly, a legislator, and he’s proud of it.
If Republicans take the House, Boehner would become the first speaker since Washington state Democrat Tom Foley to have previously served as a committee chairman. (Foley chaired Agriculture; Boehner led Education and Labor from 2001 to 2006.) Boehner, remarkably, would also become the first Republican speaker to have chaired a committee since the legendarily autocratic Joe Cannon, who ran the House with an iron fist from 1903 to 1911.
Shaped by that background, Boehner plans not to uproot traditions as much as to revive them—an odd and seemingly contradictory impulse that will mark one of the biggest gambles of his approach to leadership. Unlike Pelosi or Gingrich, Boehner promises to elevate committee chairmen—a back-to-the-future move that could make the House function more as it did in the 1970s and 1980s than it has since the last GOP takeover.
Unlike Gingrich, who abolished three standing committees, Boehner will keep all of the current ones. The GOP pledge calls for cuts to the congressional budget, but there’s no indication that Boehner will move as Gingrich did to disproportionally slash the budgets of some committee he wanted to marginalize. When the ax falls, early indications are that it will fall equally.
“We need to stop writing bills in the speaker’s office,” Boehner said in his e-mail. “Too often, in the House right now, we don’t have legislators; we just have voters. Under Speaker Pelosi, 430 out of the 435 members are just here to vote and raise money. That’s not right. 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.”
Freshmen “are going to have so much power the senior members won’t understand it.” —Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
In a Boehner-run House, the party will set the broad agenda, but chairmen will be given far greater power to write the legislation and, in the process, compete for votes in their subcommittees and full committees. Boehner rejects the idea of using special task forces (a Democratic idea first put in place by Speaker Tip O’Neill that Gingrich shifted into hyperdrive in a legislative approach often described as “adhocracy”) to bypass slow-moving or recalcitrant committees. Boehner doesn’t intend to totally defer to the chairmen and their panels, but his initial instinct is to use indirect means to harness their energy—chiefly by populating key committees with leadership-approved senior aides, a process that, according to numerous sources, has already begun in the form of preapproved lists of suitable top committee staff hires.
A return to the days of empowered chairmen will cost Boehner when it comes to speed, but he’s betting that it will build stronger majorities and better public understanding of legislation before it reaches the floor. “We’re the crucible, the testing ground,” Boehner said of the House. “The institutions of the House that have grown up over 200 years of trial and error are the best to test those ideas and policies. We don’t need five members sitting behind a closed door writing a bill. It’s nuts.”
Compared with Gingrich or GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert, Boehner intends to do much less seniority-skipping when allocating chairmanships, deferring in most cases to those members who have served the longest on the panels. There will, however, be at least one exception: Rep. Joe Barton of Texas has virtually no chance of becoming chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee because of his impolitic harangue of the White House-engineered BP oil-spill bailout as a $20 billion “shakedown” and his open defiance of GOP leaders’ request to withdraw the remark. Michigan’s Fred Upton has the inside track, but John Shimkus of Illinois is also expected to vie for the post.
The limit on this deference may be the reluctance of the new GOP arrivals to grant senior Republicans waivers from the Gingrich-era rule limiting legislators to six years as either a committee chairman or ranking member.
Boehner is generally deferring to seniority, but he is already upholding one hallmark from the Gingrich and Hastert eras by requiring members aspiring to run committees to demonstrate their commitment to the leadership. Those vying for the few contested panels funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the NRCC’s coffers down the campaign’s homestretch to improve their chances of claiming a gavel. California Rep. Ed Royce, seeking the chairmanship of the Financial Services Committee, pledged to raise $1 million two weeks before Election Day. His top rival, Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the committee’s ranking member, is fifth in member support for the “Young Guns” program to raise campaign cash for GOP recruits this cycle. Everyone above him on the list is a member of the leadership.