Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi: Two Peas in a Pod?

Class will please come to order. Today's subject in Congress 101 is a study of two recent speakers of the House — Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi. The topic for today's lecture is "Gingrich and Pelosi — Odd Couple or Two Peas in a Pod."

Let's start with their similarities.

Both are goal oriented and believe — with some justification — that they were instrumental in the efforts of their respective parties to win a legislative majority in the election when their party seized control.

Gingrich provided the intellectual underpinnings through the "Contract With America" for his party's stunning victory in 1994. Pelosi, through her tenacious fundraising and focus, led the charge for her party's victory in 2006.

Both viewed themselves as spokesmen for their respective parties and felt that it was important that the Congressional branch of their parties speak with one voice — their own.

Both actively sought and received enormous press coverage when they assumed office ... something new speakers rarely do.

Gingrich was on magazine covers and gave a one-hour policy-driven acceptance speech when he was handed the gavel by Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Pelosi did an elaborate victory tour which included a fancy reception at the Italian Embassy, a star-studded concert at a local museum and a back-to-her-roots tour of inner-city Baltimore, where her father and brother had been mayor.

Both clearly see themselves as national leaders, a role that some less publicity-conscious past speakers did not always pursue publicly.

Gingrich, in retrospect, questioned his penchant for seeking publicity. He said in remarks during a 2003 conference marking the 100th anniversary of the speakership of Joe Cannon the following: "I should have had much more media discipline. ... There is a side of me that's permanently analytical, that likes coming and giving the speech, and that side of me should not have been allowed out of the box for the entire time I was speaker."

Pelosi, on the other hand, emphasizes almost daily photo ops rather than lengthy policy pronouncements.

Both have aggressively sparred with presidents of the opposite party over major policy issues early in their term — Gingrich over the federal budget and Pelosi over Iraq. Gingrich ultimately was out-maneuvered by President Bill Clinton and the jury is still out on Pelosi's confrontation with George W. Bush over Iraq.

Both Gingrich and Pelosi have used restrictive floor procedures through the Rules Committee to the advantage of their legislative priorities, after promising during their respective campaigns to have more open rules and to be fair to the minority. Gingrich never did follow through on this commitment but it is still possible that Pelosi will.

Both Gingrich and Pelosi have tried to rein in the power of strong committee chairs but with different results dictated somewhat by internal politics in their respective parties.

The old bull committee chairs on the Democratic side had been powers for decades — Speakers Sam Rayburn, John McCormick, Carl Albert, Tip O'Neill, James Wright and Thomas Foley all faced challenges in dealing with people like Judge Smith, Danny Rostenkowski and John Dingell.

Gingrich chose to confront the old bulls in his party head on. He passed over senior members on the Appropriations Committee and reached down in the ranks to make Bob Livingston chairman. He imposed a three-term limit on how long someone could be chair of a particular committee. He often had major bills written in the speaker's office rather than in committee through the normal process.

Speaker Pelosi followed the seniority system and did not try to deny any senior member a standing committee chairmanship though she did confront Dingell over the global-warming issue by proposing a select committee on that subject.

Dingell ultimately prevailed when it was made clear the select committee would not have authority to originate legislation though she did extract a pledge from Dingell to move energy legislation this summer. Also, she continued the three-term limit for committee chairs though she may be forced to revisit that issue.

Pelosi will find it very difficult to ignore seniority in committee-chair selections because of the internal political issue of dealing with the Congressional Black Caucus.

Black House members are the new white Southerners — they come from safe districts and keep getting re-elected year after year, the way white Southerners did before the South turned Republican.

Any effort to bypass seniority, even involving a white chair, is seen as a bad precedent by black members of Congress who have been patiently waiting for their turn.

The two exceptions so far were when Pelosi passed over Jane Harman and Alcee Hastings, a black, for chair of the Intelligence Committee. The Intelligence Committee is not a permanent standing committee (members are term limited), so she had more leeway than normal.

Unlike Gingrich, Pelosi generally has not yet tried to write major legislation in the speaker's office, allowing bills to go through the normal committee process.

Both Gingrich and Pelosi have strong staffs and personally are bright. Pelosi is street-smart whereas Gingrich is more of an intellectual with wide-ranging (some would say too wide-ranging) interests.

And unlike some speakers, both care deeply about international affairs rather than just domestic policy, though both also have distinct ideas about domestic policy.

Certainly, Speaker Pelosi's recent trip to the Middle East and her focus on Iraq highlights this interest. Speaker Jim Wright on the Democratic side demonstrated a comparable interest in international affairs when he became actively involved in Central American peace efforts during the Reagan presidency, and Dennis Hastert was intimately involved in U.S. policy toward Columbia. But most other speakers left foreign policy to the executive branch.

Also, both have been troubled from time to time in dealing with extremes in their respective parties — Gingrich with the extreme right and Pelosi with the extreme left.

Both grew up somewhere else and were not originally from the areas they represented. Gingrich grew up in Pennsylvania, though he served from Georgia; Pelosi grew up in Baltimore, though her political base is now San Francisco.

This is in direct contrast with most speakers who were lifelong residents of their particular states and districts — Tip O'Neill and John McCormack in Massachusetts, Carl Albert in Oklahoma, Sam Rayburn and James Wright in Texas and Dennis Hastert in Illinois.

Interestingly, both Gingrich and Pelosi have had somewhat uneasy relationships with other members of their leadership team. Gingrich clearly did not get along well with his whip, Tom DeLay.

DeLay had some unflattering things to say about Gingrich in his recent book; and, Gingrich loyalists have made it clear to the press that they were not disappointed when DeLay fell from power over ethical issues. In fact, some members of Gingrich's team tried to mount a coup against him in 1997.

Pelosi and her principal deputy, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, have had a sometimes difficult relationship stemming from his race against her for party whip.

Her support for Jack Murtha in his unsuccessful challenge to Hoyer for majority leader earlier this year is a clear indication that the feud is not yet over. Both are pros and are working together, but some tension clearly remains. It is inconceivable that anyone would try to mount an internal coup against Pelosi however.

Let's talk about their differences. When all was said and done, Gingrich turned out to be a softy and was reluctant to really come down hard on a member of his own party who didn't follow the party line.

Once he left office, the Hastert-DeLay team had no reluctance to punish wayward members and to threaten those thinking about dissenting in a very heavy-handed way.

Pelosi, on the other had, has a well-deserved reputation for being tough as nails despite the pleasant smile. She had no reluctance to strip Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson of his plum Ways and Means Committee seat when he became the subject of an FBI criminal investigation even though no charges have yet been brought against him.

She also was perfectly willing to pass over the highly respected Jane Harman for Intelligence Committee chair due to a personal rivalry and the sense that Harman had not been tough enough in taking on Bush over Iraq.

Another subtle difference between the two was that Gingrich ultimately tried to work with President Clinton on issues like peace in Bosnia after first confronting Clinton on the budget. Pelosi has not yet shown any real interest in cooperating with Bush on major issues.

Also Gingrich tended to have such a wide range of interests that he did not focus well on particular solutions. Pelosi seems to be very focused and a better legislative strategist than people originally thought when she first took office. She could still fail badly on some major issue but so far she's demonstrated a good understanding for how the House works.

And then there is the matter of how they play against type. Gingrich, the advocate of family values, has been divorced twice and was having a thinly hidden affair while attacking Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky matter.

Pelosi, who leads a party some think is soft on family values, has been married to the same man for more than 40 years, raised five children before entering elective office and is a proud and doting grandmother. Go figure.

And so, class, we have two truly historic figures who are much more similar in their approach to the speakership than most people realize.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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