During my 26 years in Congress, I served with five different House Speakers and since leaving office in 2005 have had the opportunity to closely follow a sixth – Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The new speaker, John Boehner, who takes office today is his own person and probably will be different from any of the past six Speakers (Tip O’Neill, Jim Wright, Tom Foley, Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert and Pelosi). One thing is certain – it is very unlikely that he will be similar to Gingrich and Pelosi who in many respects were like two peas in a pod.
Gingrich and Pelosi were poles apart politically but were very similar to their approach to the job.
Both believed in centralizing power in the office of the Speaker, with Committee Chairmanships often being required to defer to the Speaker on major legislative initiatives. -- In fact, some significant pieces of legislation were actually written in the Speakers office under both Pelosi and Gingrich.
As a former committee chairman himself, Boehner will try to put more power back in the hands of chairs, at least initially. He may ultimately revert to the Gingrich-Pelosi model but he has publicly indicated he wants to follow the “regular order” of committee deliberation. Interestingly, neither Gingrich nor Pelosi served as committee chairs before becoming Speaker.
Both Gingrich and Pelosi maintained a very high public profile during their speakerships – appearing on magazine covers and evening television news shows. Both felt that part of their job was being the public voice of their party, particularly in times when the presidency was held by the opposition party.
Boehner, on the other hand, has maintained a much lower profile in the two months between his party’s victory and assuming office and he is likely to continue this approach in the months ahead.
Additionally, Gingrich and Pelosi represented the leading edge of movements that brought their respective parties into power and clearly spoke for a majority of their legislative colleagues on important issues even though there was some dissent within their ranks.
Boehner is not the leading edge of the Tea Party movement and will have to reconcile some of the extreme members of that faction with more practical members of the Republican conference on issues like raising the debt ceiling.
Both Gingrich and Pelosi (and their chief lieutenants) were very good at counting votes. Boehner has a larger majority than Gingrich ever enjoyed and larger than Pelosi enjoyed during her first two years as Speaker. As a result, Boehner’s vote counting skills may not be put to the test that faced these two predecessors.
Both Gingrich and Pelosi spent part or all of their terms with Speakers of the opposite party (Pelosi did have a Democratic president for her final two years). As Speakers in opposition, they played a very high profile role in fighting the president of the other party.
Boehner also has a president of the opposition party but he does have somewhat of a history of working across party lines as he did with Democrats in Congress on passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation which originated in the Education Committee that he chaired.
Gingrich and Pelosi were effective leaders who were not shy about getting publicity for things they believed in and not shy about pushing their colleagues to enact their legislative agendas. Boehner is a different type of leader and it remains to be seen whether he will equal Gingrich and Pelosi’s highs and lows.
Martin Frost, a Democrat, represented the Dallas-Fort Worth area of north Texas in the House of Representatives from 1979 - 2005. He is currently a shareholder in the Washington office of the Polsinelli, Shughart law firm.