WASHINGTON - When someone crosses John Boehner, he or she can expect a couple of reactions from the House speaker. Sometimes it is a thwack on the back and a disapproving shake of his head, quickly followed by a begrudging smile to indicate that all is forgiven. Sometimes it is a fake yell and then a shrug. One recalcitrant even got rewarded.
Never — ever — is there a sense of real anger from the Ohio Republican. His leadership style does not involve rapping knuckles, breaking arms or even threatening to rap knuckles or break arms. He has sworn off intimidation and punishment, in a House that has rarely been run on anything else.
As a result, Boehner has allowed rank-and-file Republicans more freedom to vote their will, with him or against him, than any speaker in modern times.
“I can’t think of any time he’s been heavy-handed with me,” said Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, a suburban moderate who often bucks leadership. That is a universal sentiment echoed by the conservative rebels and moderate stragglers inside the Republican Conference.
Boehner’s laissez-faire style now faces one of its most difficult tests as the House begins to consider far-reaching immigration legislation, which many in the GOP establishment believe is a must-do for the good of the party, but which many Republicans in the House believe is anathema to all they hold dear. Boehner has not made clear where he stands, saying his opinion would only complicate matters.
Some Republicans — including close allies — question whether Boehner’s approach has allowed the unruly House to turn into an ungovernable quagmire, believing the roots of his troubles lie in his approach. What made him popular is now sapping his strength, they say.
“Where it doesn’t work well is when people choose to take advantage of it,” said former Rep. Steven LaTourette, an Ohio Republican who was a member of Boehner’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” LaTourette suggested that it has “handicapped him” at times.
The House has had its share of failures in recent weeks: a modest health care bill pulled from the floor before obvious defeat, a bipartisan farm bill voted down and a growing Republican faction trying to block any budget or immigration legislation for fear of what might become of it in a compromise with the Senate.
The critique of Boehner is a reversal of the one that many, including Boehner, have leveled at President Barack Obama. Whereas Obama is viewed as an outsider — too aloof and disinterested to forge the relationships needed to make major deals — Boehner is seen as too much of an insider — so chummy and deferential that he is unable to persuade members of his caucus to do things they weren’t already inclined to do.
Nevertheless, Boehner is holding firm in his approach on immigration reform. He is letting the Judiciary Committee spill out piecemeal bills, slowly but surely. He will convene a special conference meeting July 10 at the Capitol basement that will function as an open-mike night: Anyone with an idea about immigration can offer his or her plan.
Faced with repeated questions about how he would handle the contentious issue, the speaker said that the very idea of him saying what he believes would be counterproductive. “You know, me taking a position one way or another somewhere — it’s just going to slow the process down and make it more difficult,” Boehner told reporters Thursday. “I’ve got a difficult enough job as it is. I don’t need to make it harder.”
The speaker’s inner circle contends that not only does he have the right approach with his raucous caucus, but also that it is the only one that might work. Many House Republicans first won election in 2010 or 2012, and almost certainly ran on a pledge of transparency and against backroom deals, usually citing Obama’s health care reform as Exhibit A of a bad legislative process.
With pledges like that, a top-down style probably would cost Boehner his job, said Republican Rep. Patrick Tiberi, who is close to the speaker. “I don’t think it would work on the Republican side. Not with the dynamics of where the Republican Party is today, with its decentralized approach.”
Boehner’s rise to power came through preaching this style as an antidote to several decades of heavy-handed leadership in both parties. Before him, Nancy Pelosi built her reputation as arguably the most powerful House speaker of the past 50 years, cracking her Democratic caucus into line to pass broad health care and economic stimulus laws.
Former Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican, approached his eight years atop the House similar to Boehner, but he had a powerful lieutenant in Tom DeLay, who was expert at coaxing wayward Republicans to fall in line, through fear if necessary.
After DeLay’s departure in 2006, Boehner won a narrow victory to succeed him on a 37-page platform built around moving power away from leadership because the “lifeblood of the House runs through the committees and their members.” He offered similar thoughts in his acceptance speech on Jan. 5, 2011, upon becoming speaker, his first words an improvised reassurance that he would not change his easygoing style.
“Thank you, all,” Boehner said then. “It’s still just me.”
What makes Boehner’s leadership team unique is that the good-cop speaker has no bad cop. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is considered a rival to Boehner, while Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy has worked behind the scenes to toughen up an image as a back-slapping friend of the rank and file.
Former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh, who served one term, defied Boehner on the most important votes of his time as speaker but still has a soft spot for him. “He’d say: ‘Walsh! Why’d you vote against me?’ And he’d tell you he was [angry],” Walsh said. But “two minutes later, no big deal.”
Once, in a “classic Boehner” moment, he got a soft smack on his head from the speaker. “Rapped me upside the head. Shook his head at me and said, ‘I didn’t have you on that one.’ And then 20 feet (6 meters) away, he turned around and smiled at me,” Walsh said.
Walsh said he sometimes felt a little sorry for Boehner when he crossed him.
“There were times when I voted against him, that I did feel bad about it,” Walsh said. He said the feeling was shared by a group of 20 or so conservatives who often defied the speaker. “We didn’t feel that way about the rest of leadership. But you genuinely — you felt for him.”
Not that it changed their votes. The group rebelled against a Boehner-led proposal for lifting the U.S. Treasury’s borrowing authority, leading to a less conservative alternative passed with Democratic help. The same scenario played out in December on a leadership-pushed “Plan B” alternative on a tax bill, ending with Boehner reading the “Serenity Prayer” to assembled lawmakers as leadership pulled the legislation from the floor. Less than two weeks later, a more liberal bill passed largely with Democratic votes.
Boehner cares more about the process of governance than any speaker since World War II, often telling private audiences that as his legacy he wants to be known as the speaker who made the system work again.
One of his political heroes is Nicholas Longworth, a Republican speaker from Ohio who served three terms beginning in 1925. Boehner cited Longworth when eliciting his goal for the model House: “quiet in its effectiveness, but unmistakable in its pride and purpose.”
“The oft-repeated phrase was, ‘You can’t help liking Nick,’ ” said Stacy Cordery, a professor at Monmouth College who has studied Longworth. She said Longworth, like Boehner, was known for defusing tensions with jokes and an after-work drink.
In his first days as speaker, however, Longworth cracked down on several Republicans who had broken party rank during the 1924 presidential election, demoting them to the lowest rung of their committees.
During Boehner’s Jan. 3 re-election as speaker, 16 House Republicans initially opposed him as part of a coup attempt. They fell short and four of them, including Rep. Scott Garrett, gave in and voted for Boehner.
Six months later, none of those 16 have received any penalty for their actions. Garrett, a staunch conservative who also frequently bucked the Hastert-DeLay regime, said Boehner doesn’t fit “The Hammer” image that DeLay cultivated.
“You’re only as effective as your own personality and nature will warrant. His personality is not the ‘Hammer’ style,” Garrett said. “It would backfire on him if he were to become something that, deep inside, he knew was not himself.”