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Madam speaker

By Jonathan Bernstein

I highly recommend to everyone a series of posts by guest author and scholar of speakers Matthew Green over at the Monkey Cage. (And by the way, I should thank Ezra for his support of blogging political scientists, such as this one and this one.) Green is doing a set of posts examining Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The link is to the first substantive piece, about her leadership role in health-care reform.

Green attempts to put Pelosi in perspective, which I think is quite right to do, and he does find her work on the ACA to be impressive. The thing that caught my eye was Green's graph of examples of speaker legislative leadership, which showed Speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich as having by far the most cases per year in office. As Green notes, both Wright and Gingrich had unusually short stays in power. What he doesn't say is why, and how it reflects on Pelosi.

In fact, the circumstances surrounding the demise of Wright and Gingrich are very similar. In both cases, the speaker took over in a situation in which the majority party had quite a bit of pent-up demand for action and a chance to do something about it (Wright became speaker in 1987 at the same time that the Senate flipped back to the Democrats after six years; Gingrich, of course, entered with new GOP majorities in both Houses of Congress). Both were opposed by temporarily unpopular presidents of the other party. Both centralized power not just to the party machinery but also to the speaker himself. Both, after an initial flurry of success, wound up being accused by the minority party of a bunch of trumped-up and mostly phony or minor ethics violations. And in both cases, the majority party, tired of being dictated to, took an early opportunity to dump the speaker, replacing him in both cases with someone with an excellent Hill reputation for being both fair and pleasant. As far as I can tell, with both Wright and Gingrich it wasn't the bad publicity that did them in, and it certainly wasn't minority party success in making ethics charges stick; it was majority party members who were fed up with the way they were running the House. In both cases, it probably didn't help that there was a disappointing intervening election or two. The smoking gun document, by the way, was from Appropriations Chair Bob Livingston to Gingrich demanding internal reforms that would restore the traditional role of the committees at the expense of the party structure (and, therefore, the speaker).

What I find impressive about Pelosi, then -- and I would say the same thing about Tip O'Neill -- is that she has been able to influence events by using the strong powers that reform in the House (1959-1975) gave the speaker, without overdoing it and causing a revolt among her own party. Of course, it's still early; we're only in the fourth year of Pelosi's tenure, and we'll see what happens should she endure an electoral setback (of course, if the setback is severe enough, she'll only be minority leader anyway if she chooses to stay on and her party still wants her). Still, it didn't take nearly this long for the rank-and-file, including committee chairs, to start plotting against Wright and Gingrich. To me, that's really the sign of Pelosi's strength: not that she pushed legislation through the House, but that she did that while keeping, as far as we know, everyone within the Democratic caucus happy.

By the way, while I do recommend Green's work (and the Polsby and Rohde books I cited in an earlier post). I get to recommend reporters, too: on Jim Wright, you want to read John Barry's “The Ambition and the Power”; on Newt Gingrich, you want David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf, "Tell Newt to Shut Up!"

-- Jonathan Bernstein blogs about American politics, political institutions and democracy at A Plain Blog About Politics, and you can follow him on Twitter here.

By Washington Post Editors  |  May 25, 2010; 2:52 PM ET
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