Salena Zito

WASHINGTON – The sweeping office of the Speaker of the House once housed the Library of Congress – more than 6,000 leather-bound tomes owned and beloved by Thomas Jefferson.

A Christmas Day fire in 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of them.

The House speaker then was southern Democrat Linn Boyd, who was critical in shepherding the passage of the 1850 Compromise that defused a showdown between slave states and free states and calmed sectional conflict for a decade.

Imagine anyone trying to craft a compromise in today’s political minefield. Right- and left-wingers, bloggers and cable news go apoplectic just over the use of the phrase, even though compromise is at the root of a functioning democracy.

When Ohio Republican congressman John Boehner became House speaker this year, the line out of Washington was that Republicans were back in power.

People do not understand that, when it comes to power in Washington, Republicans remain in the minority despite their historical gains in House seats in last year’s midterm election.

The 2011 budget agreement, while far from perfect, reflects Boehner’s relentless effort to promote job creation through reduced federal spending and reduced federal regulation of private-sector job-creators.

And, yes, it involved compromise.

“This is a testament to Boehner's leadership and interpersonal skills in keeping this difficult caucus situation in check,” said Keystone College political scientist Jeff Brauer. “The same could not be said of (Nancy) Pelosi, who had a comparable circumstance with ‘blue dog’ Democrats.”

As the previous House speaker, Pelosi, D-Calif., rarely if ever compromised with House Republicans; the Democrats’ majority was so large that GOP votes were not needed.

Pelosi did, however, arm-twist many House Democrats to vote her way on health care, financial regulation, the stimulus package and other legislation. Forced to vote for their party rather than for the will of their districts, most of those members who she arm-twisted lost their seats last year.

Most House speakers are impressive politicians, says presidential historian Dr. Lara Brown: “They have ascended the leadership ladder within their political party and the House chamber.”

They have bested a group of equals – for all House members represent the same number of Americans – by convincing their peers of their strategic vision and tactical competence.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.