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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Speaker of the House: A Matter of Self-Discipline in Leading

In the wake of President Obama's mission to execute Osama bin Laden, Speaker Boehner issued a statement complimenting his rival in the White House. In contrast, Sarah Palin gave George W. Bush all the credit. The Speaker, too, could have gone with political expediency. Therefore, for the Speaker to have publically acknowledged Obama's victory as America's involved political self-discipline. Speaker Boehner had sought to apply self-discipline, moreover, to his decentralized leadership style from the moment of his swearing in. Given the consolidating nature of power, such a leadership style in the House would face considerable head winds.

On January 5, 2011, John Boehner was sworn in as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He had promised to decentralize the power that had been so tightly held by the previous Speaker and others further back.  Indeed, it had been Gingrich's micromanaging of Boehner in 1995 that may well have prompted Boehner to want to give more power to lower-level party leaders and committee chairs. Boehner even promised to better provide for the minority party in that proceedings would be more open and fair.  Of course, obstructionism, favoritism, and in general the realities of governing may force the Speaker to consolidate power. The exigencies of his position may well trump any bad memories of having been one of the low men on the totem pole.  It is in the nature of human nature to identify with the present at the expense of the past. Adding to these factors, consolidating power into a few select hands may seem necessary to getting the trains to run on time.

Indeed, Boehner might be tempted to add trains. Noting the inherent difficulty in having one legislature governing an empire-scale union, the anti-federalist (and pro-commerce) Agrippa of Massachusetts wrote in 1787, "A diversity of produce, wants and interests, produces commerce, and commerce, where there is a common, equal and moderate authority to preside, produces friendship." (Agrippa, Letter 8, 4.6.30). Agrippa was bemoaning the consolidation that he feared would ensue from the powers granted by the U.S. Constitution to Congress (at the expense of the state governments). Agrippa was by in large right. The dual-sovereignty in American federalism has largely been eclipsed by decades of encroachments by the general government. It would have taken self-discipline for Congress not to have encroached when it could. Similarly, self-discipline is required for a Speaker of the House, which is a constitutional office, to preside, which is to say, to look to the overall interest of the whole rather than to engage in partisanship.  
In spite of his asseverations to return some power to the states and to decentralize his power in the House, Speaker Boehner is apt to reverse himself in practice. Should he do so, he might find that his tenure is shorter rather than longer, for those who clutch most to power tend to see it slip through their hands faster than otherwise. Despite pushing through a lot of big legislation, both Speakers Gingrich and Pelosi lost their Speakerships relatively quickly. The nature of power may well be paradoxical: those who love it most may well be least equipped to manage it.

Sources: Naftali Bendavid and Patrick O'Conner, "New Speaker Vows to Share Power--a Tricky Proposition," The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2011, pp. A1, A6.

Agrippa, in Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Anti-Federalist, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 243