End of an Era: Assessing Boehner's Legacy
As John Boehner stepped up to the lectern in the House chamber to address his colleagues one final time, the Ohio Republican known for shedding tears easily and often in public reached behind him, picked up a box of tissues and held it out to his colleagues.
The room roared with laughter and stood to give Boehner an ovation.
Once the applause died down, the 13-term Capitol Hill veteran who served as speaker for five tumultuous years spoke Thursday about the importance of the House as an institution and the honor he felt having been able to serve there.
“I leave with no regrets or burdens,” Boehner said. “If anything, I leave as I started – just a regular guy humbled by the chance to do a big job. That’s what I’m most proud of. That I’m still just me.”
Boehner mentioned some other things he was proud of: passing entitlement reforms, banning earmarks, blocking tax increases and passing major spending reductions.
He rounded out his remarks with a line he utters often: “If you just do the right things for the right reasons, good things will happen.” He then stepped back from the lectern, fighting back tears as his colleagues again rose to applaud him. He turned his back, heaved a great sigh, and began shaking the hands of those nearby.
Not long after that, Paul Ryan was elected and sworn in to replace Boehner. Early in his remarks, the Wisconsin lawmaker thanked his predecessor, calling him “a man of character, a true class act. He is, without question, the gentleman from Ohio.” Boehner saluted, waved and walked out of the House chamber for the final time.
It was the end of a congressional career marked by significant highs and lows, major victories for Republicans and, at the end, extreme dysfunction and lack of unity within the party. With the Boehner era over, RealClearPolitics explores what his legacy might be.
Getting Rid of Earmarks
It began in 1990, when the Ohio state representative prevailed in a primary against the incumbent Republican congressman and a former member. In that contest, Boehner laid the groundwork for what would ultimately be one of his signature achievements in the House: banning earmarks from the appropriations process. David Schnittger, a Boehner aide from 1992 through the end of last year, said his boss won that race in part because he took a personal stand against earmarks.
“He would tell people that if you think the job of the federal legislator is to go to Washington and raid the federal treasury on your behalf, you probably ought to go vote for one of my opponents,” Schnittger told RCP in an interview. “He would say it that bluntly, but that wasn’t just rhetoric.”
The challenger made good on his promise, adopting a personal no earmarks pledge when he came to Congress as a freshman lawmaker in 1991. Twenty years later, when he became speaker, Boehner extended the ban to the entire House.
Rep. Tom Cole, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, told RCP that he personally disagreed with his colleague on the earmark ban, but listed it as one of the most significant changes to the House during Boehner’s tenure.
“He saw this as cleaning up the stables, and there’s no question, no John Boehner and earmarks would still be here, so he deserves credit for that,” Cole said.
From Leadership to Committee Chair and Back
Boehner’s first foray into party leadership came just a few years into his Capitol Hill career when he became the conference chairman in 1995. He lasted in the position just four years, losing an intra-party election and being replaced by Rep. J.C. Watts in 1999. Several colleagues said losing the leadership post was one of the lowest moments in Boehner’s congressional tenure.
But Schnittger said that although the loss was a “crushing blow to everyone in the Boehner organization,” the congressman himself wasn’t down about it. As early as the night after losing to Watts, at a gathering at a steakhouse in Washington, Schnittger remembers Boehner telling members of his staff that the loss would be a “blessing in disguise.”
Schnittger said it was difficult to believe that at the time, but it played out exactly as his boss hoped it would. Boehner left leadership and returned to committee work, where he was able to dive into the process of crafting legislation. He ultimately rose to become chairman of the House education committee, where he was pivotal in forging the bipartisan No Child Left Behind law that was seen at the time as a landmark overhaul of the nation’s education system.
Ohio Rep. Pat Tiberi joined Congress in 2000, the same year Boehner became the committee’s chairman. In a tribute to the outgoing speaker on the House floor earlier this week, Tiberi recalled that the panel wasn’t on his list of top selections, but Boehner approached him and said, “I don’t know why you’re doing that; you’re going to be on Education and Workforce Committee.” Tiberi was placed on it, which he called “an unbelievable experience,” and credited Boehner’s leadership with passing the education reforms.
“It wouldn’t have happened without the leadership of then-Chairman Boehner,” Tiberi said. “Boy, could he run a committee. It was really his forte that most Americans don’t even know what a great committee chairman he was. He was a committee chairman’s chairman, quite frankly.”
When the opportunity to return to leadership came in 2006, Schnittger credits both Boehner’s early work as a reformer and his success as a committee chairman as the two things that helped him succeed Tom DeLay as Republican majority leader.
Cole, who also called losing the conference leadership post the low point of his colleague’s career, said it was “amazing” that he fought his way back.
“Most people quit when they lose a leadership spot and even if they don’t, they don’t get back,” Cole said.
But Boehner was majority leader for only one year before Democrats regained control of the House in the 2006 midterms and relegated Boehner and the Republicans to four long years in the minority, where they watched major Democratic legislation – including the stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act – pass through the chamber and become law.
Boehner’s opposition to those Obama achievements, however, helped lay the groundwork for the sweeping 2010 elections that saw Republicans roar back to the majority in the House.
“He’s the one that lined us up in opposition to the president’s policies, and in 2009, when people thought we weren’t going to be back in power for a generation, he saw that we could get back and he got us there,” Cole said.
It was the first midterm election of the Obama administration, four years after Boehner became minority leader, and Republicans needed to gain 39 seats to regain control of the House. They won 63. Steve Stivers, an Ohio Republican who was elected in that 2010 wave, remembers that Boehner’s first and perhaps biggest contribution was in the work he did to recruit candidates. Five Ohio Republicans won seats previously held by Democrats that year, and the leader personally recruited three of them, according to Stivers.
When Boehner persuaded Stivers to enter the race, he told his fellow Ohioan about the “greater cause of working to turn America around,” Stivers told RCP. He pitched him on huge overspending problems and a bloated federal government, and the work needed to make government more efficient and effective. Stivers decided to run.
“Then he helped make sure we had everything we needed, the resources we needed to fight a real fight and he had our backs all the way through that fight and we won,” Stivers recalled. “And that’s just in Ohio and there are stories like that all across the country. Where he helped recruit candidates, he helped make sure they had what they needed to win and he fought [alongside] them the whole way through the campaign.”
After helping lead his party back to the majority, 241 Republicans – the entire conference, minus Boehner himself – elected the Ohio lawmaker speaker of the House in a show of unanimity that ultimately wouldn’t last long.
“It's still just me," Boehner joked at the time, a similar refrain to the one he uttered nearly five years later as he departed. During the time in between, his close allies credit him with reining in the federal deficit, extending the Bush tax cuts and passing major entitlement reforms, including the so-called “doc fix” passed earlier this year that changed for 10 years how doctors are reimbursed for treating Medicare patients, a problem that had been simply patched every year in Congress for two decades.
But there were swings and misses as well. Boehner attempted in 2011 to negotiate a deficit “grand bargain” with Obama to raise revenue while making historic cuts in federal spending. The agreement ultimately collapsed, with Republicans refusing to raise taxes and Boehner saying at the time that Obama later asked for an additional $400 billion in revenue that would have required more tax increases. In an interview with reporters at the Capitol this week, Boehner said failing to lock in the original agreement “still stings.”
“We had an agreement, we looked each other in the eye with Eric Cantor and I and the president in the Oval Office,” Boehner said. “It would’ve really helped our economy; it would’ve helped our deficit. It would’ve meant a lot of things long term, really trillions and trillions and trillions of dollars in savings over the course of 20 to 30 years.”
The seeds of potential trouble for Boehner came in the speaker’s election in early 2013. Despite his winning all Republican votes in 2011, nine party members voted for other candidates and several didn’t vote at all, giving the incumbent just a slim victory.
Another low point hit when the government shut down for 16 days that year as Republicans attempted to defund Obamacare using the appropriations process. The GOP largely took the blame for that shutdown and it was the first in an ever-increasing pattern of conservative Republicans pushing Boehner, and the rest of the conference, to the fiscal brink.
Cole said it was unfair to blame Boehner, but conservatives at the time argued that by refusing to stand firm on not funding Obamacare, the party leadership ceded to the White House before the battle had even begun.
“Boehner warned ’em exactly what was going to happen and if I have a disagreement with the speaker, it would be I wouldn’t have gone down that road,” Cole said, reflecting on the shutdown. “I remember talking to [Boehner] at the time and saying, ‘Why are we letting the guys who wouldn’t vote for you dictate the strategy in the conference?’ And he said, ‘Tom, I’ve been trying to teach them for years; maybe this will teach them.’”
That lesson, however, didn’t get through. The same conservative Republicans, perhaps buoyed by the fact that they won sweeping midterm victories in 2014 despite the shutdown, tried the strategy again in February of this year. They funded the Department of Homeland Security, but stripped money for the president’s executive actions delaying deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants. The strategy failed, with Boehner negotiating an agreement with Democrats to keep the department open. Conservatives tried the strategy for a third time just last month with the goal of defunding Planned Parenthood, though again a “clean” bill ultimately passed.
But the conflict wound up pushing Boehner to the exit.
Still, that wasn’t before perhaps the pinnacle of Boehner’s congressional career: the visit last month to Capitol Hill by Pope Francis. Boehner, a devout Catholic, had been trying for nearly his entire Washington career to get a pope to address Congress, and he finally succeeded this year. The fanfare surrounded the pope’s visit was immense, and Boehner appeared deeply moved throughout the historic day, shedding tears freely both in the House chamber and when Francis appeared before thousands of people on the West Lawn of the Capitol. The speaker announced his resignation the next morning.
Boehner wasn’t done, however.
In the waning days of his speakership, he worked with the White House and fellow congressional leaders for one last agreement to raise spending above sequestration caps, lift the debt ceiling and pass significant entitlement reform.
Asked to name one thing that epitomized Boehner’s time in Congress, Stivers, the fellow Ohioan and a close ally of the speaker, said his retirement announcement itself – sparing Republicans a difficult vote on whether he should remain speaker – spoke volumes about him.
“He wanted to take away a tough vote from the team and look out for the rest of us and make sure we didn’t have to take a tough vote on him, so he stepped away,” Stivers said.
Beyond the policies, politics and leadership, John Boehner will be remembered for a number of personal quirks. He had his famous birthday song, which Stivers said “we’ll all sing around here forever.” He was known to say the Serenity Prayer on difficult days: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Cole said that in addition to that entreaty, Boehner would often sing a rendition of “Zip-A-De-Doo-Dah” on tough days.
He was well known throughout Washington not just for the flowing tears, but also for chain-smoking cigarettes and his love of merlot. He ate breakfast at the same Capitol Hill diner every morning and often ate dinner at the same Italian restaurant.
During the countless weekends and recess weeks he spent on the road, he was well known as an avid golfer. As a goodbye gift, his fellow Republicans gave him a golf cart with an Ohio license plate that read “MR SPKR,” and his Ohio colleagues gave him a golf bag and a new set of clubs. Asked what was next for Boehner, Cole joked, “A lot of golf.”
No matter how difficult things got for the speaker, according to every source RCP spoke with, Boehner himself never got down.
“His ability to take a punch and get up and keep moving, his resilience, his sheer toughness and stubbornness and unwillingness to yield to adversity are just extraordinarily admirable characteristics,” Cole said. “There’s just no quit in John Boehner and that’s one of the reasons why this conference is going to miss him a lot.”
He also earned the respect of his political opponents. Pelosi praised Boehner in a speech Thursday as “the personification of the American dream” who was “always true and loyal to the members of his conference.” Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said Boehner served with “fidelity and responsibility.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said his legacy “is one of absolute honesty.”
Those compliments appear to characterize exactly what Boehner wants his legacy to be. Asked by reporters earlier this week how he wanted to be remembered, Boehner responded by again saying he was “a regular guy with a big job.”
“I was fair to people on both sides of the aisle, honest, and that I remembered what my first responsibility was and that was to the institution,” Boehner said.