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.

History’s most celebrated speakers – Henry Clay, who presided over the Missouri Compromise; James K. Polk, who helped Andrew Jackson dismantle the National Bank; Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving speaker starting in World War II – knew their members and understood the political pressures they face.

“They are able to cobble together winning coalitions because they understand what each member, specifically what each member in their party, can vote for and cannot vote for,” explains Brown.

In short, they are master horse-traders and vote-counters.

The speakers who fell from grace or suffered revolts, such as Pelosi and Republican Newt Gingrich, typically asked too much of their peers and expected them to sacrifice too often for the good of their parties.

“That said, it is important to understand that both the size of the majority and the level of partisan polarization play a role in how speakers behave,” says Brown.

Boehner has an opportunity to be a great speaker and a brilliant compromiser (which, by the way, is what Americans ultimately want, and why they revolted against Pelosi) because he lacks a large majority.

Pelosi and Gingrich ran their much-larger House majorities with an iron-fist because both dealt with ideologically cohesive partisans fiercely opposed to the other side’s minority. “They would have been branded ‘sell-outs’ had they included too many members of the opposite party in their coalitions,” says Brown.

On the eve of the budget deal, a Gallup poll found more Americans want government leaders who share their views on the budget to back a compromise to avert a shutdown, rather than to hold out for a budget they agree with.

The key here is compromise: Most Americans understand it. They have to navigate every day in the real world, where no one ever gets everything they want.

A great speaker, Brauer says, is one who can guide legislation that ultimately proves to work. At the moment, the nation’s great concerns are jobs and the deficit.

“Ultimately,” he says, “Boehner's speakership will be judged on whether the policies he guides through truly create jobs and lessen the country's debt load.”


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.