On the Power of the Speaker of the House By Dr. Louis Perron

John Boehner served as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from January 2011 to October 2015, and in that position he was the third highest ranked American after President and Vice President. Boehner was first elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1990. In other words, he saw Presidents George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama govern in Washington DC, and speaks of each of them in his memoirs.

Being Speaker of the House is a powerful position, especially in presidential systems where their role is somewhat functionally equivalent to that of a Prime Minister in parliamentary systems. They act as the conductor of parliament and I use that term knowing full well that a conductor makes or breaks the success of an orchestra. The hardest power of the Speaker of the House is that he controls which bills come to a vote. In addition, however, they have a soft power that should not be underestimated. For example, they decide which parliamentarians can travel (and of course almost all parliamentarians want to travel).

However, being President of the Chamber is a position in which it is difficult to shine. Dennis Hastert, for example, who was president for much of the Bush presidency, was then sent to prison. Not only in the United States, but also in other presidential systems, speakers rarely rise through the ranks and become presidents.

An effective Speaker of the House knows how to count votes, which means he must be able to distinguish between MPs who bullshit him and those who can be counted on. As I wrote in a previous article about President Nancy Pelosimoney (=campaign donations) is an important asset for a speaker to keep his caucus together and instill discipline.

Boehner writes that during his time in Congress he met some of the smartest people and some of the dumbest. I guess parliaments represent their peoples pretty well after all.

According to Boehner, the more time a congressional leader spends with freshmen, the better. “They got elected, sure, but somehow they have to learn how to be members of Congress.” And power can corrupt people very quickly. Not necessarily in terms of money, but character. After being elected and seeing themselves on television, some quickly turn into assholes.

On a personal note, Boehner writes of his humble beginnings growing up with eleven siblings. He writes anecdotally that he never used a fully dry towel when he lived with his family. Growing up in a large family also made Boehner tolerant of chaos. His father owned a bar, where John worked for two dollars on Saturdays. He negotiated a five-dollar raise, which served as his first lesson in negotiation.

As mentioned, Boehner was elected to the United States House of Representatives in the early 1990s. Upon his arrival, he soon realized that his party leadership had not made serious attempts to win a majority since long time. He describes them as “nice, sympathetic and able to handle administrative problems”, but it was clear to Boehner that it would take a new breath of leadership to win a majority. It would soon come in the person of Newt Gingrich, who nationalized the 1994 campaign with the Contract for America, a plan with specific policy proposals. Components of the plan had already been tested in polls and focus groups to ensure that each proposal had majority support among voters. More controversial policies were left out.

After a thrilling election night, Boehner quickly realized the important differences between campaigning and governing. “I realized pretty quickly that in the absence of any other plan, your plan becomes the plan,” Boehner writes. “After that, I made sure I never walked into a meeting without a plan.”

Dr. Louis Perron is an internationally renowned expert on electoral victory. In recent years, he has won dozens of election and referendum campaigns in various countries.

(C) 2022, Louis Perron.

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