Leaving the gavel behind
Boehner made mark with new rules of the House
Remember the bad old days of earmarks? Neither do nearly 200 members of the House of Representatives, who came to Congress in 2011 or later and have never served a day when they could slip porkbarrel projects into bills, siphoning taxpayers’ money to well-connected constituents back home in exchange for supporting bloated bills in Washington.
The end of earmarks had several champions, but the lion’s share of credit goes to House Speaker John A. Boehner, who won his first election to Congress in 1990 on a vow that he would never take earmarks, and who leaves this week having imposed that ban on all of his colleagues.
It’s one of the major ways that the 65-year-old Ohio Republican, while managing deadline showdowns and conservative rebellions, has quietly reshaped the House and the speakership in ways that will reverberate for years as lawmakers on Capitol Hill struggle to regain their footing against an increasingly powerful executive branch.
Mr. Boehner pushed back against the Obama White House in ways big and small, flexing the speaker’s powers to invite world leaders to address Congress, which was most visibly on display this year with speeches by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis; stepping in to have lawyers defend the Defense of Marriage Act when President Obama declined to; holding Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with an investigation; and suing to ask judges to start refereeing fights when the White House pushes the bounds of legislation that Congress passes.
Inside the Capitol, meanwhile, Mr. Boehner reopened the amendment process, nixed the congratulatory resolutions that had absorbed an increasing amount of time on the chamber floor, and sought to tackle the federal debt as his top legislative priority.
“I was fair to people on both sides of the aisle, honest, and remembered what my first responsibility was, and that was to the institution. Around here, the members run around and do all kinds of things, but somebody has to be responsible for the institution, and I understood very clearly when I got this job it was my No. 1 responsibility,” he told a small group of reporters Wednesday as he looked back. “So whether it was how this place operates, whether it was a more open process on the floor, there’s a whole long list of things we’ve done on the institution side.
Along the way, he led Republicans to their biggest House majority in 90 years, passed legislation that reduced the unfunded liabilities of Medicare, shepherded most of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts into permanent law and oversaw a year-to-year drop in federal spending in 2012 and 2013 — the first time that had happened since 1956.
“People forget where the Republican Party was in 2009. It was left for dead. You picked up Time magazine, they were talking about how many decades we’d be in the minority. It was Boehner more than anybody else who unified the Republican Party,” said Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and Boehner ally.
Time to go
Mr. Boehner announced his retirement from Congress in late September, just a day after he hosted Pope Francis at the Capitol.
He was under pressure from conservative activists who said he had squandered fights over Mr. Obama’s deportation amnesty for illegal immigrants at the beginning of this year, and again over federal funding for Planned Parenthood this summer.
Mr. Boehner insisted he could have survived a vote of no confidence, but said it was time to step down.
The conservative activists tick off Boehner failures, including being unable to roll back Mr. Obama’s expansive agenda, passing bills on the strength of Democratic votes and going too far in punishing conservative dissenters.
Some establishment Republicans, meanwhile, say Mr. Boehner went too easy on the rebellious conservatives, issuing weak punishments and even retracting them in some cases after a conservative outcry.
Elected in 1990, Mr. Boehner was one of the rabble rousers of a House dominated by Republicans. He helped expose the scandal-plagued House bank and post office and quickly ascended the rungs of leadership, winning the Republican conference chairmanship in the 104th and 105th congresses. He was part of a failed coup to oust Speaker Newt Gingrich and ended up losing his leadership post after Republican election losses in 1998.
His rise began again in 2005, after Majority Leader Tom DeLay stepped down. Mr. Boehner won a stunning outsider’s victory over Rep. Roy Blunt, Mr. DeLay’s top deputy.
Mr. Boehner said he is still stunned that his colleagues voted for him in that race, given that one of his chief pledges was to try to end earmarks.
“I’m more surprised now than when we did it because I really never realized how everybody was in the game. When I say everybody, I mean virtually everybody was into earmarks. I didn’t realize I was the only one who just never did it,” he said.
After several years of internal battles, he persuaded his Republican colleagues to forgo earmarks, then expanded that ban to the entire House — thus dragging in the Senate as well — when he won the speakership in 2009.
It meant giving up a key tool that leaders had used to keep lawmakers in line — and losing it contributed to his problems in squelching conservative dissent over the past few years. But he said he has no regrets.
It also neutered some of the power of the Appropriations Committee, which for decades had the ability to dole out goodies.
“The appropriators ran the place for a long time. You go back a long time, and the Appropriations Committee was the most powerful committee around here. That’s changed, obviously, dramatically, over the last five years, anyway,” he said.
Mr. Boehner also had some success in restoring lawmakers’ ability to affect debates on the House floor through amendments.
“Any Democrat in this building will tell you they’ve received more amendments, more votes on the floor on their ideas, in the first two years of John Boehner’s speakership than they did in Nancy Pelosi’s, because his philosophy is, we all got elected and we all have something to contribute,” said Rep. Rob Woodall, Georgia Republican. The numbers back up that assertion. Mrs. Pelosi, a California Democrat who was speaker in the 110th and 111th congresses, started off strong, allowing 917 amendments to be offered in her first year. But that dropped to 268 her second year, rose to 538 in 2009 and then dropped to 248 in her final year.
By contrast, Mr. Boehner oversaw 900 amendments in 2011, 589 in 2012, 526 in 2013 and 624 in 2014. The House is on track for another banner year, with 732 amendments offered through the first 10 months, according to records from the Library of Congress website.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, a prolific amender, single-handedly accounted for 124 amendments during the nearly five years Mr. Boehner served as speaker.
Mr. Boehner set the tone just two months into his tenure when the House was debating a massive spending bill and a Republican offered — and won — an amendment to strip out $450 million slated to fund an alternate engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter. That money paid for a plant that employed 800 people just outside of Mr. Boehner’s district, but he didn’t move to stop the amendment.
Reflecting on his years as House speaker, John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said “I was fair to people on both sides of the aisle, honest and remembered what my first responsibility was, and that was to the institution.”