John Boehner's Reformer History--And Future

Whether or not he gets to keep it for more than two years is another thing.

By + More

If the latest Gallup Poll is right, Ohio Republican John Boehner’s next job will be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Whether or not he gets to keep it for more than two years has a lot to do with how he handles things as the country gets to know him.

[See where Boehner gets his campaign money.]

The national media is already out to get him. The Democrats are spending buckets of money trying to turn him into Satan’s evil twin. Even a few of his Republican colleagues say quietly that they wonder whether he is up to the job, though none of them dare do it on the record.

There are plenty of reasons to believe he is. Congress needs radical reform and Boehner is, at heart, a reformer. Few people have written of his work as part of 1990’s “Gang of Seven,” the GOP freshmen who spent their first two years in Congress routing out corruption--including the nefarious undertakings at the now-shuttered House Bank and the House Post Office--and taking on the House establishment.

That kind of commitment to reform is needed once again, not just for the sake of the Republicans but for the institution of the House as a whole. Under Speaker Nancy Pelosi the chamber’s parliamentary practices have been so abused as to be hardly recognizable to anyone outside the old Soviet Central Committee.

[See which industries contribute to Pelosi.]

Boehner has pledged to change the way the House functions, to make it work on behalf of the American people and their interests. How those interests are defined, however, is where the problems lie.

Traditional limited government conservatives want things. So does the so-called Tea Party movement. As do social conservatives and the self-described independent voters who are deserting Obama and the Democrats in droves. And they don’t all agree on what it is they want.

Up to now Boehner has shown great promise in managing these unequal concerns, some of which conflict with what other elements in the new GOP-leaning coalition want through the production of the GOP’s “Pledge to America.” His largely successful effort to break Republican House members of their addiction to earmarks is a testament to his skill. But these achievements are, in and of themselves, not enough.

In an under-appreciated speech he gave in late September, Boehner put forward a program of reforms that, if enacted, will change the way Washington works. Its components, which include increased oversight of federal agencies and their activities; rewriting of the 1974 Budget Act; reopening the legislative process so that more members could have input on pending legislation, bringing real debate back to the floor of the House; a permanent ban on earmarking “as we know it;” and making all bills available online for 72 hours before they are brought to the floor, are all positive steps in the right direction. But they are not all things he can accomplish with a single bang of his gavel.

To achieve success Boehner will have to win the backing for some of these items from the U.S. Senate and President Obama, who, it should be obvious, does not want him to succeed. Which means the Democrats will do whatever they can to pick apart what he is trying to do in hopes of persuading the American people that, in giving control of the House back to the Republicans, they made a huge mistake.

Boehner has a limited window in which he can fight back. To do it successfully he needs to change the rules of the game from the first day. Otherwise he and his party will be drawn into fights the Democrats want to have and which they are experts at winning. The new speaker must act to create new debates, ones he can control and can win where the majority of the American electorate will side with him.

This will not be easy, as he is likely to be under attack from the both the left--who will accuse him of going too far from the moment he mounts the speaker’s rostrum--and from elements on the right, which will complain that he is going neither far enough nor fast enough to suit them.

Boehner will, therefore, have to be bold--and bold on a whole new level if he is to set and control the agenda in order that his program for reform might prevail.

With this in mind it would be intriguing to see what the outcome would be if he were to announce an effort to immediately pass by the end of January, or at least before the State of the Union, through the House a continuing resolution that would fund the federal government for the next two years at fiscal year 2008 levels.

This would abandon altogether the regular budgeting process, which is really of no great consequence since neither party has been able to make it work as designed since it was passed in 1974. But it would also give the GOP majority two years worth of breathing room, time to focus on specific items rather than huge programs, and it would allow him to sidestep the counter-productive, even destructive trench warfare that is almost certain to accompany any effort to bring the budget back into the semblance of balance under regular order.

[Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

As an added bonus it would temporarily neuter the power of congressional appropriators--who are sometimes referred to as the third party in Congress--while still allowing room to defund Obamacare by prohibiting the expenditure of federal funds to establish any of the new bureaucracies needed to implement and manage it.

It would also allow the new majority to pivot away from spending issues to push back on tax cuts and to focus on oversight of the executive branch, a function that has been sorely neglected over the last decade. 

And, in the political sense, it would keep Boehner and his new majority above the fray, at least far enough that he can avoid the bloody, time-consuming, and destructive battles over “the spending people like” that derailed the Republican Revolution of 1994.

How Boehner performs in the first 100 days of his speakership will do a lot to determine whether he gets to keep the job and whether or not President Barack Obama gets to keep his.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the GOP.
  • See who is donating to your member of Congress.
  • Become a political insider: Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly, our digital magazine.