House Speaker John Boehner has his hands full dealing with stubborn Democrats, interest groups, and Tea Party conservatives. Throw in the explosion of cable TV, social media, and bloggers, and it's enough to make a grown speaker cry, or at least long for the good old days. "I remember when we won the majority in 1994," said Boehner. "There was one cable station that just did news. There was an Internet, but only a couple of geeks in Palo Alto were using it...no Twitter," he sniffed. "I think what's happening in the media world, what's happening with digital media, and then what's happening with these outside interest groups and the tremendous amounts of money they have, it's causing further divides."
He has sympathizers, two important ones: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who joined Boehner in lamenting modern changes to the institution during a late June tribute to famous former Speaker Henry Clay at Kentucky's Transylvania University, where Clay was a trustee.
Hastert, who preceded Pelosi, complained that the days of House members becoming friends while waiting for floor votes is gone. "People go back to their little rabbit hutches in the office buildings and watch all the debates on TV. Nobody is on the floor during that period of time. So you kind of become isolated," he said. Plus, he added, campaign finance reform has made partisan groups key in fundraising. "I think that has caused a much tougher personal situation in the Congress."
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Pelosi noted that during Clay's years in Congress in the early-1800s, the media had more perspective and didn't force members to always take sides. "We're in a whole different atmosphere in terms of real time communication. It isn't reflective, it isn't proven, it's just that word goes out," she said.
For his part, Boehner is trying to change the atmosphere in the House to a way that his "role model" Clay would appreciate, when the "Great Compromiser" settled tough fights like today's debt limit crisis.
"One of my goals, as I try to restore the institution, as I see it, is to really get the committee system functioning, get members working together. I'm a big believer that more bills ought to come to the floor under a more open process, where more people get to participate, more people get to offer amendments," he said. It could lessen the tension and isolation. "Members will figure out sooner or later, if they want to get a bill across the floor, they are going to have to build a coalition. They are going to have to find somebody on the other side of the aisle to work with," he said.
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.