Green: Rating Pelosi Against History’s Greatest Speakers

Posted April 23, 2010 at 5:47pm

Following the passage of President Barack Obama’s health care bill in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) received high praise for her role in the outcome. Some experts even went so far as to suggest she may be one of the most powerful and successful Speakers in history. As columnist Mark Shields observed, until now, no Speaker — not even “legendary giants” Sam Rayburn and Tip O’Neill — had managed to pass national health care.

[IMGCAP(1)]Is Pelosi, in fact, among the most successful Speakers in history? Does her tenure at least merit her nomination, if not election, to the select group of truly great Speakers, including Henry Clay, Thomas Reed, Rayburn and O’Neill?

By comparing the careers of these Speakers with Pelosi’s thus far, one finds three parallels that suggest such a nomination is merited.

First, most great Speakers establish a historic “first” of some kind. For example, Rayburn served for more years as Speaker than any before or since and O’Neill holds the record for the most consecutive years served as Speaker. Pelosi, as the first female Speaker, obviously fits this category.

Second, while most Speakers have won at least one tough legislative battle, historically prominent Speakers have done so with tremendous consequences for national policy or for how Congress operates. Clay helped transform the speakership into a powerful position, while Reed forced changes to the House’s rules in the 1890s that dramatically limited minority obstruction and transformed the House into the majoritarian body that it is today. Fifty years later, Rayburn passed an extension of the military draft by a single vote, just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor proved it to be a prescient move.

The health care bill passed under Pelosi’s leadership and tireless efforts is, by all accounts, a measure with far-reaching implications for our nation’s health care policy. And Pelosi succeeded under especially challenging circumstances. For instance, when Democrats lost their 60-seat majority in the Senate in January, she had to rebuild her party’s confidence and was limited in her ability to alter the content of the health care bill in exchange for votes.

Finally, most Speakers of historical greatness have demonstrated a willingness to act, often courageously, on behalf of policy goals that their party does not entirely share. Reed sought to change the House’s rules with considerable uncertainty about whether his own party would unify behind him and was ready to resign the speakership if he failed. Rayburn passed the draft extension bill in the face of strong opposition within his own party. And O’Neill worked with President Ronald Reagan to enact legislation shoring up the financial health of Social Security despite the deep reservations of fellow Democrats.

Serving at a time of strong party polarization in Congress, Pelosi has had less opportunity to demonstrate such leadership. But she has been willing to permit the House to pass measures opposed by a majority of her own party, ranging from funding for the war in Iraq to limits on insurance coverage for abortion. And in her own autobiography, she notes O’Neill’s bipartisan work to save Social Security as one reason that he is the Speaker she admires the most.

Pelosi, then, appears to be a strong candidate for historical greatness. But there is one other important feature of many great Speakers that Pelosi has not yet had a chance to demonstrate: critical leadership at the end of one’s tenure. For instance, less than a year before his death, Rayburn managed to win a tough floor fight against southern conservative Democrats, limiting their influence on the Rules Committee — the beginning of the end of their dominance in Congress. And in his last year in office, O’Neill narrowly blocked a major funding proposal for the Nicaraguan Contras, delivering a major defeat to the Reagan White House.

Of course, Pelosi’s speakership is not finished yet. If she can turn the passage of health care into an enduring basis of power for future legislative victories, she could well ensure her place among the great Speakers of history.

Matthew Green is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at Catholic University of America and author of the forthcoming book “The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership.”