To the relief of many, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) did not repeat the triumphalism that so marked the installation of Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. Instead, after hearing Speaker Pelosi lavish praise on him and receiving a standing ovation from all House members, he shrugged and stated simply: “It’s still just me.”
Not to make too much of it, but Boehner is a political figure who has eluded celebrity status in this town where celebrity is craved. Instead, Boehner is a virtual unknown face to the American people. His biggest claims to fame have to do with his tan and his ability to cry. In fact, Boehner took out the handkerchief twice on Wednesday to wipe away tears before he received the gavel.
But mostly, Boehner is most comfortable working behind the scenes without fanfare. He’s a doer — he held the Republicans together during the last two years. In public, he is not a sweet talker. It was revealing that his acceptance speech was a bit halting, not polished like his counterpart on the opposite side of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Barack Obama.
In sharp contrast to the last two years of his predecessor, Boehner hit notes of austerity, self-sacrifice, and humility: “Nearly one in ten of our neighbors are looking for work,” he stated at the beginning of his acceptance speech. In D.C., there will be no Republican galas and no celebratory parties. Boehner has already announced he will order a 5% cutback for his own speaker’s budget and will ask all the House members to accept a similar cutback. He also has promised he will fly on commercial aircraft, eschewing the expensive Air Force jets used by outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The contrasts between Boehner’s and Pelosi’s backgrounds are pretty revealing. Nancy Pelosi was born into a powerful political family in Baltimore. Her father was a congressman and mayor of Baltimore. She married Paul Pelosi, a millionaire. The Pelosis live a comfortable, lavish lifestyle — her husband is a wealthy real estate developer and venture capitalist as well as the owner of two sports teams. As of 2008, the Pelosis have officially reported a net worth of $12.5 million, but estimates are that this understates their wealth. In addition to their large portfolio of jointly owned San Francisco Bay Area real estate and a Washington condo in fashionable Georgetown, the couple also owns a vineyard in St. Helena, California, valued between $5 million and $25 million. Just days ago the Pelosis vacationed in Hawaii before returning to Washington — she stayed at the exotic Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, where she reportedly spent $10,000 per night.
Boehner, on the other hand, came from modest beginnings. He is the second of twelve children. He grew up in Cincinnati having to share one bathroom with his eleven siblings in a two-bedroom house.
He started working at his family’s bar at age 8, a business founded by their grandfather. He has lived in southwest Ohio his entire life. All but two of his siblings still live within a few miles of each other, two are unemployed, and most of the others have blue-collar jobs.
Boehner recalled his hard upbringing when he addressed supporters on election night when the Republicans took back the House. Choking up, he told them, “I spent my whole life chasing the American dream. I started out mopping floors, waiting tables, and tending bar at my dad’s tavern. I put myself through school working every rotten job there was and night shift I can find. And I poured my heart and soul into running a small business.”
Given his background, Boehner’s humility seemed deep and heartfelt. “The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is,” he told the House on Wednesday.
His expression of humility and his stated commitment to reform House rules for more openness should not be underestimated, although some will probably consider them to be window dressing. It’s possible that his tone might stick and serve as a potential antidote to the arrogant, closed-door style of governing that reflected the Pelosi legacy.
Pelosi had many well-known incidents of arrogance throughout her tenure. Her public approval rating reached near-death levels, last year suffering a rating of only 11%. Interestingly, on Wednesday 21 Democrats voted “present” or for someone other than Pelosi when the roll call came up, showing their disapproval for the former speaker. Checking the record books, Fox News discovered that “it marked the worst showing for a party’s nominee in more than 80 years.”
Her resignation speech also felt unseemly. Before handing over the gavel to Boehner, she spelled out her many accomplishments. She spoke longer in her resignation speech than Boehner did in his acceptance remarks. It was classic Pelosi. Throughout her tenure she has appeared insecure. On Wednesday, she still felt she had to defend her record, ranging from helping prostate cancer victims to repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In the past, most transfers of the speakership have been short, sweet, and to the point.
Boehner also knows his victory may be very fleeting. In two years’ time the gavel could be handed back to Pelosi. He acknowledged that his position is temporary, almost tenuous, at one time invoking Biblical scriptures about how after death we return to dust. Upon accepting the gavel, he declared the people “have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker. “
Austerity and job creation measures were echoed by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), the new majority leader. In referring to meetings with incoming freshmen congressmen, many of whom are Tea Party supporters, Cantor told reporters this week he had a three-part rule: “Every day make sure we ask: are our actions focused on job creation and the economy? Two, are our actions focused on spending? And three, are our actions focused on shrinking government while protecting and expanding liberty?” He said the marching orders were clear: “If we’re not focused on those things, the question to ask is: ‘why are we doing it?’”
Cantor acknowledged that the election results were not an endorsement of all things Republican: “We know very clearly that that election was a repudiation of what had gone on in this town. It wasn’t necessarily an election about us.”
While Boehner aired themes on Wednesday, Cantor was all business this week. Without flourishes, Cantor was straightforward and activist-oriented. Speaking at a packed press conference in his new office as the majority leader, he promised: “This will be a results-driven Congress,” with many actions coming right out of the gate.
Cantor unveiled an aggressive three-week road map that he says will lead up to the president’s yearly State of the Union address. Usually the House is pretty quiet in the weeks before the presidential speech — not so this time. Cantor’s playbook will include the repeal of ObamaCare on January 12, rapid cutting of specific federal programs, and the “targeting of job-killing regulations.”
An immediate contrast is the repeal of the health care bill: last year the Democrats unveiled an impenetrable 2,000-page bill, the Republican repeal bill is only two pages long.
Many Washington insiders believed the Republican campaign slogan of “repeal and replace” ObamaCare was merely playing to the Tea Party crowd. Instead, it now will be the first signature bill taken up by the House.
“It is going to reflect what most people inside the Beltway and outside the Beltway understand about the health care bill that was passed,” he told reporters. “It is a job-killing health care bill that spends money we don’t have. We will repeal it and replace it with the kind of health care most Americans want.”
Most reporters at Cantor’s first press conference as majority leader seemed unimpressed. One said they heard Democrats characterize it as “political theater” and a “Kabuki Dance.”
But he was not asked whether any Blue Dog Democrats would vote for the repeal. Nineteen Democrats decided to abandon Pelosi as their next speaker. Would some also join Republicans on repealing ObamaCare? Also, when it is repealed, what pressure will there be on vulnerable Democratic senators up for re-election in conservative states? Might a few feel pressure to join the 47 Republican senators and vote for repeal? And what does a presidential veto look like to the public? None of these issues were raised by a single reporter among the nearly 100 who crammed into Cantor’s room.
As expected, Boehner called for more accountability and transparency. Yet he really is changing House rules that will help Democrats to thwart legislation. As he said, he will hand Democrats the power to “disrupt” pending legislation. This was never the case in the Pelosi House, which was run with a firm, authoritarian hand.
But the most ambitious reform initiatives for openness and transparency will be driven by Rep. Darryl Issa, the new incoming chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It is well known how Issa and his committee have been working to shine lights on government departments and agencies through possible subpoenas and oversight hearings. But less well-known is their commitment to open up congressional hearings and its proceedings to citizens. On Wednesday, Issa announced the release of raw video footage of previous hearings going back to 2009, saying it was a first step to encourage “digital democracy” and empower citizen watchdogs “with the raw material of Washington.”
Cantor also challenged President Obama over his upcoming State of the Union address: “Number one, I’m looking to see some significant spending cuts proposed by the president that we can work on together,” he told the reporters. “Secondly, I think the president has been very outspoken as far as his position on earmarks. I hope he picks up the phone and calls Leader Reid on the other side of the Capitol and he insists he join in making sure there are no earmarks in legislation coming out of Congress.”
Yet the earmarks make up only a small part of the budget. And the Republican formula for cutting $100 billion from the current budget only looks at “discretionary, non-defense spending.” This only accounts for 15% of the budget. Surprisingly, Cantor said their cuts would focus on defense too: “Everything is on the table,” he said.
Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), a fiscal hawk, on Wednesday renewed his pledge to go after both discretionary spending and entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. However, he tempered that by saying it would have to be done “one step at a time.” In an op-ed in the Washington Examiner, he wrote: “We have to earn a mandate to reform entitlements and reduce the size of government by building credibility one step at a time with aggressive oversight and common sense spending cuts.”
With more than 80 new members, most of them Tea Party advocates, Boehner will have to deliver real spending cuts. He recognizes Washington has been tone-deaf, and whether to appease or to commit, he told his colleagues they were accountable to the public. “This is their (the public’s) Congress,” he said. “It’s about them, not us. What they want is a government that is honest, accountable and responsive to their needs. A government that respects individual liberty, honors our heritage, and bows before the public it serves.”
Reaction to the speech was positive, even from liberal skeptics. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein called it “as smart a speech as I’ve seen a politician give.” Liz Halloran at National Public Radio called Boehner an “Horatio Alger story.” Huffington Post tweets were applauding it. Politico’s takeaway from the speech? “[I]t’s that he will push for a more humble House and project a subdued leadership style.” In an online reader poll by the Washington Post, Boehner edged out Pelosi 50-49% on the question of who gave the better speech.