A Kinder, Gentler Speaker?

Pelosi, Hastert, and Gingrich all consolidated power in leadership circles, and that consolidation shaped the ways that lawmakers--and K Street lobbyists--functioned. Gingrich set the process in motion, tightening his power by ignoring seniority in appointing committee chairmen, term-limiting them to six years, and increasing the use of leadership-picked task forces to circumvent the committee process. Hastert and then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay demanded that legislation pass with GOP votes and almost never sought bipartisan support on big-ticket bills. They also blocked Democratic amendments to shield Republicans from votes that carried high political risk. That generated deep animosity among Democrats during their 12 years in exile. When Pelosi got the chance, she returned the favor.

"We just shut the process down," said Jones, the former Clyburn aide. "There was a very strong desire among leadership to protect policy. And if you're going to protect policy, you'd better make damn sure the diverse parts of the caucus can rally around it. That means all the committee fights take place around the leadership table. And the fights are high stakes."

These tendencies--generated by Republicans and tightened by Democrats--gave the House an "us-versus-them" edge that intensified partisan divisions and marginalized committees. Under Pelosi, committees still moved bills, of course, but they played a diminished role in crafting them; or if they did write the original bill, the leadership often overrode the committee's draft to appease party factions.

"If you are working the process in committee and you see the leadership change it," Jones said, "you feel disenfranchised."

Today's Republicans say they couldn't use that system if they tried. "You can't get away with leadership-knows-best anymore," said Brad Dayspring, Cantor's spokesman. "Protecting our members from a tough vote is not something we can do anymore."

Perhaps the best example of the new paradigm is the budget resolution that seeks an unprecedented overhaul of Medicare, a plan drafted entirely by Ryan, who worked as a budget aide to then-Rep. Sam Brownback of Kansas during the 1995 Gingrich revolution and served as a backbencher under Hastert.

"We built the budget over hours and weeks, and brick by brick," Ryan told National Journal. "We showed our package to leadership and they said, 'OK.' Usually, it's the other way around. Newt did these working groups that he created to go around the committee system. [Boehner has] been a rock. He's never once tried to talk me out of an idea. He motivates through incentives and encouragement, not fear and intimidation. He's a delegator, not a dictator."

Stombres, a veteran of GOP vote-counting operations, said that the Ryan budget, fraught with political risks that everyone can see, retains a tensile strength because members understand it, believe in it, and watched it being built. "The budget used to be the hardest vote we ever passed, the hardest whip we ever had to do," he said. "This was the easiest budget to pass and the easiest whip we've ever had."

Ryan contends that his budget--now under sustained Democratic attack for its vow 10 years hence to abolish Medicare's fee-for-service benefit system and replace it with vouchers--is a more durable political document because he built it and sold it first to his committee and then to the GOP Conference. Rank-and-file Republicans, especially the tenacious freshman budget cutters, would have revolted had his budget not taken on Medicare, Ryan says.

"We would have been dis-unified," he said. "It's a false presumption to think we would be better off if we had not done this."

Michael Steel, Boehner's spokesman, was more blunt. "We promised people we would be serious about the budget. If we hadn't done this, people would have known we were the same old Washington assholes."

The dominant narrative now--fed by polling data and the surprise GOP loss in last month's special election in New York's 26th District (the most Republican of the party's four remaining Empire State congressional districts and in GOP hands since 1970)--is of backlash and buyer's remorse. Top aides to Pelosi and Clyburn are certain that House Republicans have stamped their own ticket to oblivion. Pelosi now talks in ever-confident tones of taking back control of the chamber, almost entirely on the strength of what she regards as the GOP's Medicare overreach.

"If they had made the Medicare vouchers voluntary, we wouldn't be in this situation," a senior House Democratic aide in Pelosi's inner circle said. "By making it mandatory they gave us all we needed." Top House Democratic political advisers spent weeks badgering party lawyers to bless TV ads proclaiming that House Republicans voted to "end Medicare." The operatives won, and Kathy Hochul, the Erie County clerk, used Medicare to defeat GOP state Assembly member Jane Corwin in the special election.

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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