Is John Boehner Really a Weak Speaker?

There’s a lot of nonsense on the “Hastert Rule” going around, and a lot of nonsense on John Boehner as a “weak” Speaker.

I’ve talked about many times, but here’s the short version:

There’s just no way that a Speaker is going to habitually do things that his conference doesn’t want. Any Speaker who did that wouldn’t last very long at all. A Speaker isn’t “weak” because he’s constrained that way; Nancy Pelosi was equally constrained by her caucus, and so were Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich, and so are all of them.

That doesn’t need to be incorporated into any formal rule; it’s just how it is.

What’s more, just as partisan context needs to be included to assess how a president is doing with Congress, so does the partisan context need to be included if we are interested in assessing a Speaker’s performance. The larger, and the more unified, the majority party, the easier it is for the Speaker to appear “strong.” But that’s not the Speaker’s strength; it’s just a function of a large, unified majority. Tip O’Neill didn’t suddenly get better at being Speaker in 1983; he just had a liberal majority that wasn’t available in 1981-1982.

There are variations beyond simple majority size and unity. Newt Gingrich and Jim Wright both alienated Members who didn’t like their bullying style (and, in the case of Gingrich, his poor negotiating record with the Clinton White House). O’Neill, Pelosi, and (I believe) Boehner have been particularly good at listening to their Members, and moving the agenda towards consensus positions when they can. But no Speaker simply dictates to co-equal Members of the House what to do, and John Boehner isn’t unusually weak because he can’t or won’t do so.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.