Surprise! The history of the speaker of the house repeats itself


The recent history of the third most powerful constitutional office in the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, is so checkered that you have to seriously question the background of anyone who seeks it.

Unearned fees

For example, in June 1989, Texan Jim Wright, who had been Speaker for two years and change, resigned when it became public that he had routed unearned speaking fees through his wife’s job. Yep, not smart.


Wright’s main accuser was a hyperactive young Republican backbencher no one had ever heard of: Newton Leroy Gingrich.
Wright was followed by the hardworking former boss of the House Ag Committee, Tom Foley, who, in Nov. 1994, became the first sitting Speaker to be defeated for re-election since the Civil War. Ouch.

The Republican rout that clipped Foley delivered the Speaker’s gavel to the now well-known Gingrich. The job turned into a nightmare for Newt.

In 1995, a government shutdown he had advocated became a Republican disaster. In 1997, he barely beat a “coup” attempt by four GOP colleagues. (One was John Boehner.)

Mid-term elections

Then, after a poor GOP showing in the 1998 mid-terms, a bruised Gingrich quit. On his way out, however, Never Nice Newt said he was glad to be going because he was “not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.”

And this from a person who had a one-word rejoinder for anyone — friend or foe alike — who challenged him: “Pathetic.”

Robert Livingston

Enter, briefly, Robert Livingston, a long-serving congressman from Louisiana, who deftly maneuvered to succeed Gingrich. Before the House could coronate him, however, Livingston withdrew because of personal indiscretions.

And, yes, those indiscretions were exactly what you think they were. Dennis Hastert. Republicans quickly turned to a rumpled, no-surprises former wrestling coach from Illinois, J. Dennis Hastert. Hastert served as Speaker until his quiet, still-no-surprises retirement in 2007. On Sept. 29, however, the Associated Press reported that attorneys for Hastert were negotiating “a possible plea agreement” to an “indictment handed down in May” that alleged Hastert had agreed “to pay someone $3.5 million to hide claims of past misconduct.” And, yes, those “claims of past misconduct,” noted the AP, are exactly what you think they are.

First woman

In 2007, Democrat Nancy Pelosi became the first woman Speaker. She served four years without indictment, coup, election defeat, scandal or resignation before the Republicans regained the House majority in the 2010 mid-term elections. That return brought the return of would-be-Gingrich-deposer, John Boehner.

Boehner’s tenure, however, has been as big a nightmare as Gingrich’s. The far right wing of his party has delivered him one embarrassing defeat after another despite clear House majorities.

Farm bill

A big hit came in mid-2013 when Boehner’s chief whip, Kevin McCarthy, failed to get enough votes to pass an uncontroversial Farm Bill. It was a shocking setback for Boehner, McCarthy, and their stalwart Republican allies: farmers. (A similar Farm Bill passed in 2014, with Boehner, for the first time ever, voting for a multi-year farm law.)

California ranching history

Now the Ohioan is out and Californian McCarthy, whose grandfather was a rancher, likely is in. No one sees any more legislative success for him than what Boehner enjoyed—which, in fact, was little to none.

Pundits disagree on all the reasons why failure is a hallmark of today’s politics but a big part, they say, is Big Money giving big money to ambitious politicians who brazenly seek power. Thus it ever was; politics has always been about raw ambition and raw power. That’s exactly how so many deeply flawed people attained the Speakership. That and the fact that we envied and financed them rather than questioned and checked ‘em.

The split among “cannibal” Republicans isn’t new either. Recall Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the shattering defeat the GOP took that November. It paved the path for President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs that quickly followed.

History repeats

No, today’s political failure isn’t new (or news) so it shouldn’t be surprising. What is surprising, however, is how we’re always surprised by it. Maybe that’s why history repeats itself: it’s giving us another chance to learn.

© 2015 ag comm

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