Boehner's Choice

Oct 20, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

The most interesting step in John Boehner's quest to become Speaker of the House may well be the last one -- when newly-elected House Republicans set the price for supporting him. Today's political dynamic suggests these are not going to be regular order types who go along to get along.

Current polls suggest that the majority party in the new House probably won't have more than 230 members. That means a dozen members of the majority party will have the power to throw sand in the gears, particularly at the start. And while there are some Democratic candidates who are critical of Nancy Pelosi, the threat is greatest if Republicans take control.

They won't begin their service by asking senior members like Boehner how the House works. They've already defined it as dysfunctional and believe that perception is partly responsible for their victories. They're more likely to tell him how they think the House should be run, which could include some big changes. And at least some of them are probably smart enough to realize that their maximum influence will come at the very start of the process.

Once he's got the gavel, their influence will quickly wane. That's because Republicans in the House won't be able to enact new partisan legislation. The need for an unavailable supermajority in the Senate backstopped by the power of White House vetoes precludes that.

In fact, they'll be limited to nipping at the president's heels and attempting votes that will prove embarrassing for Democrats, including the president. There's precedent for that. But some of the new members may actually want to make some real changes.

That could make them quite wary of the Rules Committee, controlled by the Speaker, which decides which issues will get to the floor and which specific proposals and few relevant amendments will come up during the debate. That's a policy that's inevitably disadvantageous to back benchers who may not have the patience to sit quietly and earn their stripes until they win influence in the Rules Committee.

Some might like the opportunity to vote on tax cuts that would make today's big deficits even bigger. Some may be intent on slashing spending to bring the budget into balance, perhaps by refiguring Social Security benefits. More than a few would like to do both. The leadership's appetite for such divisive votes that would reveal rifts within the party will be modest. The new members who think they were elected to help redefine the party will see things differently.

Unless the newcomers win some specific commitments from Boehner in return for initially supporting him, their chance of making a real difference will be remote.

Shortly after Democrat Luis Gutiérrez was first elected to Congress in 1993, he attended a meeting for new members with House Speaker Tom Foley who attempted to explain how things worked in the House. Never shy, the new member interrupted the presentation to say the meeting should instead focus on how the House would respond to the priorities of new members, who he saw as closest to electoral currents.

Foley brushed him off. Two years later, Foley lost his seat, the Democrats lost their majority and Newt Gingrich became the first Republican House Speaker in a generation. Gutiérrez is still there.

Whether Boehner thinks that story has current relevance and what it may be are provocative questions.