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John Boehner's House Party -- and the Limits of a Speaker's Power

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It is the rarest event in modern American democracy -- the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in the House of Representatives.
When Republican John Boehner claims the gavel from Democrat Nancy Pelosi at noon Wednesday to become the 61st speaker of the House, it will mark only the third party shift since 1955 in the congressional body supposedly most responsive to the voters. Everything else in the capital changes (control of the Senate has ping-ponged eight times since 1955, counting three turnovers in 2001 alone), but the House endures as Washington's answer to the Rock of Gibraltar. To dislodge a House majority, it takes a (cliché alert) tsunami like the 2010 elections in which the Republicans gained 63 seats, the biggest pickup by either party since 1948.
The investiture of a new House speaker should not be confused with a presidential inauguration -- a detail that eluded both Newt Gingrich in 1995 and Nancy Pelosi in 2007. When Gingrich became the first Republican speaker since Joe Martin (who lost his perch in 1955, the year that the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series), he gave a let-the-word-go-forth acceptance speech that included describing the plight of the poor as a "moral crisis equal to segregation, equal to slavery."

In honor of Pelosi becoming the highest-ranking woman in American political history (the speaker follows the vice president in presidential succession), Democrats held a four-day celebration that political critics mocked as a "Pelosi-Palooza."
Boehner -- who is neither a Gingrich-style visionary nor a breakthrough figure like Pelosi -- has a far more modest opening-day agenda. After giving his acceptance speech (prediction: tears will be shed and the "American dream" invoked), Boehner will preside over the passage of the first installment of Republican-backed internal House reforms, including requiring formal votes to increase the federal debt ceiling and mandating that legislation be published online 72 hours before passage. But Boehner's major task on Wednesday will be playing a starring role in a photo-op marathon. The new speaker will be swearing in the huge class of 87 Republican freshman -- and then, in a room off the House floor, reprising the ceremony individually for their families, their friends and their home-state reporters.
Most of what Speaker Boehner (two words that Democrats had better get used to) and his GOP majority plan to do during the opening weeks of the new Congress will be as symbolic as the individual oath-taking ceremonies. House Republicans put out a press release announcing that they will offer a resolution Thursday to cut the House operating budget by 5 percent ($35 million). This is straight out of the Gingrich playbook, even though Republicans in 1995 put through far more draconian staffing cuts. Thursday the Republican majority will also have the entire Constitution read aloud, although, at the moment, this material will not be on the midterm exams.
All this will be prelude to the big elections-have-consequences moment next week when the House majority (with presumably all 242 Republicans and a few skittish Democrats joining in) votes to rescind Nancy Pelosi's proudest achievement -- the Obama health care legislation. The two reasons why this will be merely a gesture for the cameras rather than a serious legislative gambit can be found in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution (the Senate) and Article 1, Section 7 (the presidential veto). With the Democrats still in control of the Senate by a 53-to-47 margin and with House Republicans still 48 votes short of being able to override a presidential veto, it is a certainty that health care reform will remain the law of the land through the 2012 election.
The unalterable truth is that -- without the active cooperation of the president -- it is virtually impossible for a House speaker to undo the past and extremely difficult for him or her to dictate the future. Gingrich initially lost his showdown with Bill Clinton over federal spending, but achieved lasting influence when he worked with the president on welfare reform and a balanced budget. Despite the grandiose hopes of her liberal supporters, the elevation of Pelosi as speaker did not end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- or transform any major policies of the Bush administration.
The legislative issue most likely to produce Cuban-Missile-Crisis-level brinkmanship between the ascendant House Republicans and the Obama White House is the need to raise the federal statutory debt limit beyond its current $14.3 trillion. With federal borrowing currently at $13.9 trillion, the government is on red-ink pace to run out of money sometime this spring. There is no major figure in either party who wants the United States to become an international deadbeat, statutorily unable to pay its bills or to borrow to cover them.
The problem is that no one in the House -- especially those who represent competitive districts -- wants to be on record as casting an unpopular vote to increase the debt ceiling. Instead, both Republicans and Democrats will resort to the easy rhetorical gambit of linking the debt vote to a long-term deficit reduction plan. But there is no visible politically plausible road to a bipartisan agreement, especially since House members in both parties were naysayers on the recent Deficit Commission plan. With Republicans militantly opposed to tax increases and Democrats fervently against draconian spending cuts, the pressures on Boehner and Obama will be intense as the debt clock moves ever closer to $14.3 trillion -- the political version of high noon.
For all the celebration Wednesday among the 83 freshman Republicans (and the wan festivities featuring the nine new House Democrats washed up in the GOP wave), the nation is still sorting out the lasting meaning of November's electoral landslide. If Obama is reelected in 2012 (and the president's polling numbers have registered a small uptick), then Boehner and Company (assuming they hold their majority next time) will be playing a weak hand in the game of Divided Government. But if Obama proves to be a one-term historical accident, then the moment Wednesday that John Boehner -- the 61-year-old son of a bartender from Reading, Ohio -- first clasps the speaker's gavel will be remembered as the start of the Republican resurrection.
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39 Comments

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Robert

Boehne showed remarkable control by not becoming emotional during his ceremony as the new leader of the House.

January 05 2011 at 9:25 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
wesxauto

This change has got to be 100% better than what we have had the last 4 years because I have never seen such a division of the American people and the anger ever. The goverment has out grown and lost all control of itself and is so not effective in solving any problems as we have seen with money or legeslation. Not a tea party person but I do think the basic jest of the party will benifit us all.

January 05 2011 at 3:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to wesxauto's comment
vince

the Republicans screewed the country for the past 10 years giving the whole pot away to rich interests and the dummy public put them back in. You are right we are resentfull

January 05 2011 at 3:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mark Roy-Brooks

I believe that the main reason most Americans were against the Healthcare Bill was because of the way Congress passed it. They rushed through it, not allowing the people to see the details beforehand. Pelosi's famous statement, "We have to pass the bill so you can see what's in the bill." That's not how it is supposed to work. The American people are these people's bosses. There are a lot of things in the healthcare bill that are good: no pre-existing conditions, able to insure our children through age 26, etc. But there are things that can be done to make the cost more effective, such as allowing companies to do business across state lines. Competition will do the most to keep cost down. Anyway, let's hope this new House will remember that they work for the people, and listen to us, and don't do any back-door, bribing deals.

January 05 2011 at 11:34 AM Report abuse +21 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Mark Roy-Brooks's comment
sunchld0

The polls I've seen show Americans like healthcare reform. If a polling question is worded in a negative way, then the response will always be "negative." A neutrally worded poll question is far more reliable than one skewed to show only "negative" results. By the way, you don't speak for me and my wife. We both favor the current healthcare reform.

January 05 2011 at 3:55 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Tom

If you read the reports on the health care bill carefully you'll find that the Republicans were about as fully informed on what was contained in the bill as could be and were even given the opportunity to say yea or nay on provisions. The republicans and those here on the message boards who don't favor anything democratic would have you believing the pipe dreams they dreamed up.

January 05 2011 at 7:27 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
wesxauto

Just think about how much money that is to add 16000 new IRS agents at 75k to 100K per year for the rest of their life to police and attack people and business on the healthcare issue alone. The shift of profit of insurance companys to the goverment may not be the best way to solve the problem.

January 05 2011 at 10:42 AM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply
tplapper

The problem is the 2 party system. Hopefully a strong Third Party candidate will come along.

January 05 2011 at 10:18 AM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply
truthforfreedom

It's a very exciting day. Mr. Boehner will make a fine Speaker. The past Speaker made a mockery of the position and she stomped all over the American people with her anti American speeches. Not knowing what is in each bill and blatently admitting it was more than a red flag for me. Calling Americans who didn't agree with her astro turf and implying she and her fellows were the only ones who knew what was good for American people was demeaning and insulting. Yes, this is a very exciting day as Americans will be treated with respect and dignity and we will once again be able to speak out without being called names or feeling ignorant for having a different opinion. Good bye Ms. Pelosi and keep a lid on your personal opinions about what American's want and need.

January 05 2011 at 10:09 AM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to truthforfreedom's comment
qyqq

The Republicans of 2010 will crash and burn even faster than the class of 1994. They're incapable of restraining their extremism.

January 05 2011 at 11:15 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
callendoudna

Uh, guys, all the GOP-controled House has to do is appropriate $0.00 toward the implimentation of Obamacare and it won't matter if the Senate blocks the measure or the President vetoes because spending bills have got to pass BOTH Houses of Congress will get even one penny toward hiring those 16,000 new IRS agents he needs to get the ball rolling on Obamacare.

January 05 2011 at 9:59 AM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to callendoudna's comment
akhn29

I would really like to know what is so good about leaving the status quo in place? Our healthcare system is a disaster and will only get worse and less efficient as time goes on. Let's all work together to improve it and that would be by letting "Obamacare" (as you so derogatorily call it) take full effect and from thatpoint make improvements. I think that is how Social Security became the safety net for all of our seniors and now, contrary to what many believe, is still solvent and without it our country would become a shambles.

January 05 2011 at 11:05 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
vector26436

In just two short years we will all be able to vote OUT all those Democrats, as well as Obama, who vote against the Republican's attempt to cut spending and BIG GOVERNMENT. They will all be voting on killing Obamacare, and other high profile spending sprees that the Obama Regime has passed. Make a note as to which politician votes against the efforts to curtail Obama's Socialist takeover, so they can be booted in 2012.

January 05 2011 at 9:37 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to vector26436's comment
qyqq

Dream on. This election will lead directly to another Democratic landslide in 2012.

January 05 2011 at 11:16 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
bsonicsoul

If the highest paid people say no to everything including health care, then they are not doing their job. We can be sure that all the persons saying no to health care has health care for their family. Have you spoken to the people in the streets of
New York about health care?

January 05 2011 at 9:23 AM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to bsonicsoul's comment
Dallas

Lawyers belong in the Judicial branch . People should make the laws

January 05 2011 at 9:18 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

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