John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Pelosi Is Going Her Own Way

Posted on September 29, 2009
The Constitution doesn’t say much about the office of the speaker of the House, other than, “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other officers.” The House rules book defines more exactly the powers of the speaker when it comes to parliamentary procedures within the chamber itself.


But there is no rule book when it comes to how a speaker manages his or her majority and relationships with the executive branch and the Senate, or with outside interest groups and the media.


Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the current House speaker, has taken a unique approach to managing the House over the past nine months. She has insisted on ideological purity as a way to keep her political base engaged and has largely left the White House to fend for itself when it comes to approaching centrists and cutting deals to get things done.


For example, she has insisted on including a public option in a health care reform package, even though it is clear that her colleagues in the Senate will not be able to pass a plan that includes it. When House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), hinted that he was open to cutting a deal and ditching the public option, she slammed the door on his fingers and on the possibility of compromise.


She also recently waded into the situation in Afghanistan by stating that she was not supportive of the idea of putting more troops into the region to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Such a public statement puts the president on notice. If he backs his generals, who are urgently requesting more troops, he will not have her backing. If he supports Pelosi’s position, he may face the resignations of his key commanders in the theater of operations.


Pelosi also insisted that the House take up a controversial cap-and-trade bill earlier this year, knowing full well that the Senate had no interest in considering the legislation until after the health care debate was concluded. That strategy backfired, though, as public anger at what many saw as a huge tax increase on energy use put vulnerable Democrats on the defensive and made it harder for them to vote for a health care reform bill. 


The speaker has stepped into other unnecessary controversies. She accused the CIA of lying to her and to Congress, causing an uproar that hurt her reputation in swing districts. She also accused Republicans and conservative commentators of creating a climate of fear that might lead to the kind of violence that killed her friend Harvey Milk in San Francisco, although as other analysts have pointed out, Milk was assassinated by someone who had a personal act to grind and was not an anti-tax protester.

Pelosi has seemingly decided to be the liberal conscience of Congress and not the traditional speaker who represents the entire House. While she has raised some money for her more moderate colleagues, she has allowed Hoyer to be the principal point of contact for the Blue Dog Democrats. She has little to no contact with Republicans, and it is well-known that she simply refuses to meet individually with most Republican members.


It is unusual for a speaker to be so nakedly partisan. Speakers usually at least go through the pretense of bipartisanship. Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), whom I worked for, had good relationships with several Democrats in his congressional delegation, including Reps. Danny Davis and Jerry Costello. Democratic Speakers Tom Foley of Washington and Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts both had very close working relationships with House Minority Leader Bob Michel of Illinois. Even Georgia’s Newt Gingrich, who was probably the most partisan speaker of the House before Pelosi, had a decent working relationship with President Bill Clinton and was so distrusted by his political base that some conservatives attempted to oust him in an aborted coup.


Texas’s Sam Rayburn and Massachusetts’s Joseph Martin had such a close relationship that when Martin lost the speakership in the election of 1954 to Rayburn, the new Democratic speaker let the crestfallen Martin keep his prime Capitol office space overlooking the Washington Mall. That office space stayed with the Republicans, whether they were in the minority or in the majority, until days following the election of 2006. Pelosi put Republicans on notice as soon as it became clear that the Democrats were going to regain Congress that she was going to retake Rayburn’s office.


It remains to be seen if Pelosi’s partisanship will pay off for her and her more liberal Democratic colleagues. Congressional ratings have sunk to near-historic lows. Republicans are more energized than ever. And centrist Democrats face their most challenging political landscape in at least a decade.


At the end of the day, what matters most is production. And it is unclear right now that the Democrats will be able to deliver on any of their promises, despite having wide majorities in both the House and the Senate.


Nancy Pelosi seems content to go her own way as speaker. And that might cause her to give back her office to John Boehner come next November.
Read more:
Read more:

Subscribe to the Feehery Theory Newsletter, exclusively on Substack.
Learn More