Tuesday, August 4, 2009

All Politics is Pelosi

Jonathan Zasloff has a nice and well-deserved tribute to Henry Waxman today. Waxman's one of the last of the Watergate babies remaining in Congress, and he's been an excellent, productive Member of Congress.

But in comparing 1993 with 2009, I think the best thing the Democrats have going for them is Nancy Pelosi in the Speaker's chair (indeed, Zasloff gives her credit as well).

Here's the history:

The reforms that began after the 1958 election and concluded when Waxman was a new Member gave enormous power to the party leadership, and in particular to the Speaker (control in the House had been wielded for decades by committee chairs; reforms moved control down to subcommittee chairs, and up to the Speaker). There have been only six Speakers in the fully postreform House of Representatives. Two of these, Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich, overreached by using the powers of the Speaker to their fullest extent, raising such resentment from their own party that neither could survive hard times and partisan attacks. Their successors, Tom Foley and Dennis Hastert, were generally regarded as weak and aimless, and both presided over the loss of their party's majority status.

Tip O'Neill, alone of the first five postreform Speakers, had the excellent political judgment needed to balance centralized power and individual Member interests. Speaker Pelosi has said that she looked to him as her example, and it shows. An impressive example was the Waxman/Dingell contest at the beginning of the 111th Congress; the fight could easily have caused all sorts of resentments and negative consequences, but I've seen no reporting to that effect at all. Even her most significant misstep, John Murtha's failed challenge to Steny Hoyer for Majority Leader just after the 2006 elections, was well-handled by all accounts after the fact. Pelosi received high marks from scholars writing at the end of the 110th Congress, and I see no reason to expect anything different as she adjusts to a very different political context this year.

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