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Magazine / Cover Story

Within His Grasp

Republicans have all but crowned John Boehner the next speaker. But some might be surprised at what he plans to do with the office.

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

photo of Major Garrett
October 28, 2010

Updated at 1 p.m. on October 29.

For six hours last Saturday, top Republican strategists huddled in the offices of the National Republican Congressional Com­mittee for their last ATW, or “around the world” trip, before the midterm elections. The strategists analyzed every competitive House race, reviewed polling data, scrutinized voter-intensity models, and made final decisions about 11th-hour fundraising, TV buys, and headliner travel.

The scheduled three-hour session began at 11 a.m., with eight members of the NRCC senior staff presiding in the second-floor meeting room. Leaders of regional teams were brought in one at a time, and field operatives jumped on conference lines. But at 2 p.m., the strategists were barely halfway through the map because so many races—more than 100—were in play and required attention. When the meeting finally broke up at 5 p.m., no one would say aloud what the underlying evidence revealed—at least 30 Democratic seats were already won and as many 65 seats might be winnable. That night, the NRCC relayed word to Minority Leader John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who will become speaker if his party gains 39 seats or more on Tuesday: The “world” looked like a place where—using cautious assumptions, and conservative polling and intensity metrics—Republicans would emerge from the November midterms with a net gain of 47 to 52 House seats.


This final preelection assessment was the last big step in Boehner’s dogged two-year pursuit of the House majority. In February 2009, when the GOP’s prospects were dimmest, he backed an audacious public claim by Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, the NRCC chairman, that he could put 80 Democratic House seats in play for the 2010 midterms. Rank-and-file members and many astute political analysts considered the claim absurd. In a December 2009 meeting at the NRCC headquarters, Sessions proudly proclaimed that he had recruited enough candidates to meet the 80-seat “in-play” threshold. “That’s great,” Boehner said flatly. “But what are you doing to get to 100 seats?”

Boehner first came to Congress in 1990 and enjoyed what he calls now a “front-row seat” for the last Republican-wave victory, the Newt Gingrich-led assault on entrenched Democratic power (40 years of continuous House majorities) that swept the GOP to control of Congress in 1994.

But even though that triumph is now remembered as a revolution, Boehner would prefer that if Republicans recapture the House, this ascendency unfold as an evolution. The 2010 agenda is not a Contract With America, like its 1994 predecessor, but merely a “Pledge to America.” Although this document pays homage to that contract, Boehner, if given the chance, intends to lead more cautiously and—significantly—more slowly, than Gingrich did. He will set no audacious legislative deadlines (the 1994 contract required moving 10 separate pieces of legislation in the first 100 days of the 104th Congress) and will enact no radical new technological or procedural reforms.

Boehner told National Journal that he’s “learned a thing or two” about how to wield power and how to avoid mistakes, not only those of Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but also those of the GOP revolutionaries under Gingrich—of which Boehner was most certainly one.

But the Ohioan’s ability to apply those lessons will depend on how well he can sell them to a squad of aggressive new members who may resist deferring to complex procedural strategies or such long-term political calculations as coping with the realities of Senate filibusters and President Obama’s veto pen. A stark reality for Boehner and the rest of his team will be the need for a second pledge—this one from what is likely to be a massive freshman class that it is willing to be led and that Boehner and his team are its true leaders.

To achieve this, Boehner has thought a great deal about the past and how to adapt to a political future that crackles with possibility and peril. Among the insights driving this rethink is the embedded sense among his closest advisers that the era of long-lasting House majorities is over, undone by the fluidity of party loyalties, the vagaries of independent voting habits, and the diffusion of media power and visibility.

It is not lost on this team that Democrats held the House for 40 years, before Republicans captured it for 12. Democrats now stand on the edge of losing control after just four years. The cycles are spinning more quickly. Boehner’s answer, paradoxically, is to proceed more slowly and methodically than Republicans did the last time they captured the House in the landslide of 1994.

Boehner has declined to discuss a possible GOP takeover in recent weeks. He denied National Journal’s requests for an in-person interview but agreed to answer questions by e-mail. His responses, and interviews with more than 18 other House Republicans, senior GOP staff, and K Street lobbyists, clearly indicate that the party’s senior leadership has already thought extensively about how it will wield power if, as most analysts now expect, it recaptures 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. 

For the most part, Boehner has buy-in at the top. His second-in-command, Eric Cantor of Virginia, backs his theory of evolution but also wants to make sure that the midterm message isn’t muddled. Cantor wants a firm, conferencewide ban on earmarks, calling them “emblematic of what’s wrong in Washington.” House Republicans banned the practice for this election year, but no commitments have been made for a GOP-run House. Renouncing earmarks is likely to be a litmus test for many of the Republicans elected with tea party support.

The Boehner doctrine of evolutionary change is simultaneously dull and perilous. How can House leaders turn back the clock to days of languid committee deliberation and deference to various barons and at the same time harness and direct the nail-chomping intensity of 40, and possibly 60, new members hell-bent to dismantle—and they mean, like, yesterday—big chunks of President Obama’s legislative portfolio? (Health care, economic stimulus, and financial regulation top the list.)

It’s the question that keeps Republicans up at night. Many are still in shock from the two previous election cycles in which they lost 55 seats, relegating them to what, just 22 months ago, looked like an island of political and policy irrelevancy. Among the deepest lessons that Boehner and company appear to have learned from the experience is that there are no guarantees.

Power, perks, political allegiances—all ephemeral.


House GOP leaders and their rank and file see spending and taxes as the key issues for their new majority, and Boehner intends to use the debates over those issues as the glue to hold his caucus together as members grow accustomed to the levers of power.

The assumptions of the leaders-in-waiting begin with the conviction that they will face tough tax and budget issues almost immediately. They see no prospect of resolving the fight over the totality of Bush-era tax cuts during the lame-duck Congress and are girding for an early January showdown as tax increases hit every bracket (the Bush tax cuts expire at midnight on December 31).

They also expect the White House and congressional Democrats to do as Republicans did when they lost the majority in 2006—punt unfinished spending bills to the new Congress. This will force Republicans to instantly put spending cuts promised on the campaign trail into legislation, even as they try to push the tax issue against a potentially hostile Democratic Senate and an Obama White House eager for defini­tional fights.

If neither issue is resolved when Congress returns to Washington after the election, House Republican leaders would be compelled to write new tax legislation and deal with unfinished spending bills in their very first month in power. That crucible would test Boehner’s ability to organize, mobilize, and channel the energy of a possibly untamable new majority. There is no master plan, merely the rejectionist rhetoric that first fueled tea party protests and that establishment Republicans like Boehner call their own.

“The president is going to have to realize that he can’t keep ignoring the American people,” Boehner said. “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 [had] better, too. We’re going to stay focused on doing what the American people want, and what they want is less spending.”

One decision has been made: Republicans intend to bring at least one separate bill proposing a cut in federal spending to the House floor every week—a public-relations device to nibble at the deficit and at the same time offer some evidence of attempted belt-tightening while bigger debates over spending, debt, and entitlements gestate. Dusting off another old tool, Republicans plan to give the Budget Committee greater clout to scrutinize and stop spending by seeking to undo programs that are receiving funding without a separate congressional authorization—a two-step process created in the 1974 Budget Reform Act but summarily ignored by contemporary Congresses (including those of the Gingrich era).

Another big decision, one that may test the balance between long-term goals and short-term zeal: House Republican leaders have preemptively ruled out pushing a government shutdown as part of any budget negotiations. Boehner, Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy of California, the chief deputy whip, all rejected using even the threat of a shutdown as a negotiating tactic. “Our goal is to cut the size of government, not shut it down,” Boehner told National Journal. “People across the country don’t want to see the government shut down,” McCarthy said.

How will the GOP avoid the still-reverberating trauma of the Clinton-era shutdown confrontation? Overall, Republicans believe they can negotiate tougher budget cuts than Obama wants and extend all the Bush tax cuts because, they say, the U.S. economy is in a much weaker position than it was during the face-off with President Clinton. (At that point, unemployment stood at 5.6 percent, and the federal debt at $4.7 trillion, compared with today’s 9.6 percent unemployment and $13.6 trillion debt.) “Nobody in America thinks this recession is over,” Cantor said. “There’s a veil of uncertainty over this entire economy. And the leverage we have is that [Obama] has got to come through the House to get a tax bill.”

“The president is going to have to realize that he can’t keep ignoring the American people.” —Minority Leader John Boehner

But a significant internal fight looms over how to cut spending and who will be allowed to wield the knife. Jerry Lewis of California is in line to chair the powerful Appropriations Committee, but he would need a waiver of the six-year term limit rule. Lewis’s bid divides top Republicans, some of whom view him as too accommodating to spending; many of the aggressive freshman budget-cutters are likely to see the fight, correctly or not, as a litmus test of the leadership’s commitment to deep spending reductions. Lewis and Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, his possible successor, have preemptively declared their support for extending the earmark ban into the next Congress. They may not have had a choice. “Earmarks as currently known are dead,” McCarthy says. And Boehner? “Change is never easy, but change is necessary. Going back to ‘business as usual’ is not an option.”

On other issues, a House Republican majority would probably challenge Obama’s massive health care law from two fronts: limiting or blocking the spending needed to enforce regulations or administer new federal programs, and using the investigatory power of various committees to raise questions about already-implemented or soon-to-be implemented provisions. “Repealing” the health care law is a high priority, but House Republicans realize that the president will give little or no ground. They must prepare their members for months of trench warfare with little to show for it but changes around the edges until a new president or a larger GOP Senate majority arrives after the 2012 election. “It is up to us to begin the process of repealing the law,” Cantor said. “But we have to be very deliberate in making the case.” Clean-energy legislation, a priority of Pelosi’s, will fade under the GOP. And legislation to combat the threat of global warming, which a growing number of Republicans dispute is even happening, will move into a deep freeze.


As they contemplate this agenda, House Republican leaders say all the right things about learning from the errors of the past and proceeding with modesty. They lace their assessments of the likelihood of wrenching power from Democrats with embroidered words of caution and circumspection.

“It’s not a Republican victory,” McCarthy says of the election still not yet won. “People are still leery. This is a large vote against the current majority and the president. There is a window of opportunity. But if Republicans lose their way, we will never have an opportunity again for at least another generation.”

But what is the way? How do Republicans define it, and how does moving deliberately make it work? Can it work? Can a plan to cautiously, systematically confront a Democratic president and a Senate likely to remain Democratic (if with a much smaller majority) yield anything but gridlock? Who gives in? How much deal-making will the tea partiers tolerate? No one knows.

If the GOP wins the majority, no one can even say how far the new members who provide it will follow the senior members who lead it. McCarthy, who headed the GOP’s recruiting effort for this election cycle and probably knows the incoming freshmen better than any other party leader, says that they “don’t care about the seniority or the structure” of Congress, and he predicts that “they are going to have such power the senior members won’t understand it.”

If Republicans take the House, they will gain not only power but also exposure to a public that has not demonstrated lasting allegiance to either party throughout this decade. A recession-weary nation will continue looking to Washington, not just for change but also for results—tangible improvements in their economic future. Republicans know that they can’t satisfy those expectations by themselves and strictly on their terms, no matter how much the tea party might wish it so. How, then, do House Republicans intend to measure success if they win their majority?

“It will be very wise for us to remember that we are going to be operating as a majority in an environment with the opposition in control of the executive branch and, probably, the Senate,” Cantor said. “The goals we set have to be set in that context. Part of being able to say we’ve delivered is to improve the lot of the country. But we can’t summarily say we’re going to cut spending any way that we want to if the president doesn’t go along. We have to demonstrate competency in leadership.”

McCarthy, who may become the party’s No. 3 leader with only two years in Congress under his belt, speaks with the same you’ve-never-seen-anything-like-this zeal that many Obama supporters used in 2008. He envisions a changed political landscape that will transform the culture of Washington and bring new, lasting change—more lasting and in a far different ideological direction than the changes of 2006 and 2008.

“This is a different time,” McCarthy said. “This is a behavior-change recession. People are changing their behavior. They are saving and living with less. These [Republican] candidates out here are not getting elected by promising things they will deliver inside their districts. This is going to be a behavioral change for government.”

So far, the bumper stickers for the top voices in what may be a House Republican majority can be summarized as follows: Boehner: Old School Rules; Cantor: Competency in Leadership; McCarthy: Change the Culture.

And therein lies the subtle space between revolution and evolution. House Republican leaders—even the upstart McCarthy—remember the sting of losing power, something the Gingrich clan never knew. Losing power and being unsure when they might regain it appears to have chastened House Republicans as they stand on the threshold of power. They know the voters’ energy is not a force they created but have only attempted to harness. They know they are not beloved. They know that the grassroots anger that may propel them to power grew up outside of any battered and neglected party infrastructure. They have no illusions about a new Republican machine. They have no agreement on how to meet their supporters’ demands to sharply cut federal spending without alienating the same mercurial independents who could bring them to power next week, only two years after helping Democrats achieve their most decisive victory since 1964.

They know, in other words, far more about their limitations than their aspirations. Their destination is clearer than their path.

And that may be the biggest change of all. 

CORRECTION: The original version of this report should have stated that John Boehner was elected to the House in 1990.

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