As the House crept towards its July 4 recess in 2009 and a Democratic majority eyed the finish line for a sweeping climate-change bill, John Boehner seized the spotlight. Then the minority leader, Boehner took to the floor and began reading out the text of a 300-page amendment to the bill, kicking off what would be a blistering hour-long speech on the floor that stunned members on both sides. It was capped off when Boehner, off the floor, branded the bill a “pile of shit.”
He was unsuccessful in derailing the Waxman-Markey bill in the House (though the bill ultimately failed in the Senate). But the speech set the stage for what would become an issue of common ground for Boehner and the party’s conservative wing.
Boehner on Friday announced plans to resign as speaker and from his seat in Congress amid pressure from the Far Right. But one irony of the end of his tenure was that for all their difficulties, on energy Boehner gave the conservative caucus just about everything they could have wanted.
Throughout his tenure as speaker, Boehner shepherded through dozens of bills dealing with red-meat energy priorities: expanding oil and gas production, stripping tax credits for renewable energy, and scrapping President Obama’s climate regulations. But the agenda also started going deep into the regulatory process, with bills designed to hasten environmental reviews and restrict what science agencies could consider.
Former Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska said that Boehner often embraced the opportunity to legislate on energy, since it was one issue where he was really able to see eye-to-eye with his conservative foes.
“Wherever you are on the spectrum of the Republican side, whether you’re a moderate or a libertarian, everyone can agree that we needed to use our energy resources wisely, but use them to help our economy,” Terry told National Journal. “This was an issue that really brought everyone together. Those seem to be fewer and farther between lately."
Among the bills that Boehner advanced were massive energy packages to expand offshore drilling, open up shale-gas finds, and expedite pipelines and other energy infrastructure. Since 2011, the House voted at least 11 times on bills related to the Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline. There were several bills designed to weaken individual environmental rules, including a bill passed in June that would let states opt out of regulations on the power sector.
But there were also wonkier items that went after the very process by which the White House was moving its environmental regulations. That included bills like the Reins Act—which passed this summer and would require congressional approval for executive-branch rules—and bills that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to publicly release its environmental data. On Friday, the House passed a bill to streamline environmental analyses, which included a provision barring consideration of the “social cost of carbon.”
Even in his last months in Congress, Boehner came out against the decades-old ban on crude-oil exports. After Boehner announced his decision on the issue in July, a bill from Rep. Joe Barton of Texas lifting the ban got kicked into gear and is now set to come to the floor in October.
Former Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, one of the coauthors of the energy bill that Boehner railed against, who left Congress last year, said in an interview that Boehner was in a “no win” circumstance with the Right and tried to do the best he could.
But ultimately, Waxman, who served 20 terms, summed up the agenda this way: “[Boehner] gave the right wing carte blanche on the environment and on health care. He brought bills to the House floor to strip EPA of its legal authority on climate change, on clean air, on ozone, on anything that they wanted.”
Those priorities ended up being rebuffed by the Democratic Senate, or in the case of the Keystone pipeline, by President Obama’s veto pen.
But Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for 21st Century Energy, said the bills were still important to show opposition to the White House’s agenda—even the smaller, regulatory bills.
“He was willing to advance things that were really good for America, but might not capture the headlines,” she said of Boehner. “Regulatory transparency won’t keep anyone up at night, but he understood it was badly needed.”
The likely replacement for Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, also comes with an aggressive energy agenda, possibly even more robust than what Boehner promoted. McCarthy led the House Energy Action Team, which worked on the party's energy priorities, and has been trying to move legislation lifting some environmental regulations and Endangered Species Act restrictions to help his home state of California deal with a massive drought. McCarthy is also especially concerned with EPA rules limiting ground-level smog, an issue that disproportionately affects his Central Valley district.
And given that President Obama is continuing to push forward with a climate-change agenda that conservatives despise, energy is sure to remain a key legislative priority. Terry, who served eight terms, said that will only help whoever steps into Boehner’s shoes.
“Energy is just too important to our economy, and it really helps to show the differences between the White House and Democrats and the Republicans on this,” Terry said. “It’s kind of a light lift on our side of the aisle. And leadership, whoever it is, is going to need a few of those issues that everyone can agree on.”
Ben Geman (Reporter) contributed to this article