As John Boehner this week steps down as Speaker of the House, it’s worth telling the never-reported tale of how Boehner first got on the House Republican leadership track in the first place. The story shows, in microcosm, both Boehner’s remarkable skill-set and his oft-infuriating wheeler-dealer nature.
Let’s start the story sort of in the middle. It was in November of 1994, the second day after the then-remarkable takeover of the House by Republicans for the first time in 40 years. U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, for whom I worked as press secretary (plus certain special projects), was walking up Independence Avenue with me, alongside the Longworth Building. He was telling me that he wasn’t sure yet if he wanted me to serve as chief of staff of the House Republican Conference, or as its Communications Director. As the main job of the Conference Chairman is to oversee internal communications among House Republican offices, I saw the two jobs as equally invigorating: either way, I would be in the middle of developing overarching communications strategy for the new Republican Congress.
The reason Livingston was discussing the two jobs with me was that a huge super-majority of the members already had committed to vote for him to be Conference Chairman. For two full years, he and I had traded memos anticipating what few thought possible, namely the GOP takeover in 1994. In late spring of 1994 he started predicting it publicly, when nobody else but he and Newt Gingrich would do so. In August, he sent a letter to fellow House members announcing his race for Conference Chair, a spot then held by Dick Armey — because, he said, Gingrich would become Speaker and Armey would move up to Majority Leader, thus opening the position.
Even then, most of his colleagues thought the takeover was a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Since few really believed the GOP would win the 40 seat pickup necessary for the majority, nobody else even bothered to run for Conference Chair; Members thus were happy to commit their hypothetical votes, for a hypothetical opening, to Livingston. At the time, Livingston clearly was not a proverbial “back-bencher,” but he also was less than obviously on a “leadership track” himself; instead, he was a prominent… well, high-mid-bencher, to coin a phrase — clearly a legislative workhorse, widely popular colleague, and informal leader, but previously not obviously in line for a top, formal party post.
Still, Livingston’s popularity and foresight had allowed him to clear the field for the Conference post. So, when the great Gingrich-led victory occurred, Livingston’s ascension to the position seemed a foregone conclusion.
And I started eagerly planning my own transition to an exciting new role.
But it was only one or two days after that when Livingston told me not to get my hopes up too high, not just yet. John Boehner had just spoken to him.
At the time, John Boehner was just finishing his second term in Congress — by traditional standards, still a raw neophyte.
But Boehner already had achieved significant prominence. He and fellow 1990-freshman Rick Santorum had become ringleaders of a group of young, energetic, conservative rebels known as the Gang of Seven. The Gang led the way in using after-hours floor speeches on C-Span and other creative tactics to highlight Democratic spending extravagances — and to break wide open a series of scandals at the internal House bank and House Post Office, and several other embarrassing anomalies of entrenched Democratic rule. The Gang’s tactical offensives on spending and ethics played a huge role in setting the table for the 1994 Republican ascendancy.
Boehner himself was clever, indefatigable — and extremely ambitious.
So Boehner had gone to Livingston and said that even as a very junior member of the House, he wanted to become Conference Chair. Livingston liked Boehner, but he had scoffed. Livingston had commitments from 75 percent of the caucus — a fact Boehner darn well knew — and he wasn’t about to budge.
“So why should I not get my hopes up?” I asked. (I am reconstructing my conversations with Livingston from vivid memory.)
“Because then Boehner asked me if there were anything I’d like to do even more than Conference Chair,” Livingston said. “I sort of laughed and told him I had come to Congress 17 years before pledging to balance the damn budget, and I told him that if I were chairman of the Appropriations Committee, I thought I could actually make it happen. But I told Boehner this was a useless conversation: I’m only fifth in seniority on Approps, and my friends in front of me aren’t going to step aside.”
“So what’s the problem?” I asked.
Livingston laughed. “Well, Boehner told me to give him a couple of days and he’d see what he can do.”
Livingston explained that he had told Boehner he wasn’t stepping aside from the Conference race — but that if and only if all of his more-senior Approps colleagues told him they would not object to having him vault over them, without Livingston asking them to do so… and if and only if Gingrich and the internal “Steering Committee” that doled out committee assignments assured him that the Approps chairmanship was his for the asking, then he would withdraw from the Conference race and let Boehner fight for it. As for Livingston, he would not lift even a finger to “campaign” for the spending committee chairmanship. He was still “all in” for the Conference position.
“There’s no way all that Approps stuff is gonna happen,” I said.
“That’s what I thought,” Livingston said. “But Boehner just looked me in the eye and said he would find a way to arrange it. The guy has gumption. He now has me half-believing him.”
Let’s pause here for a moment. For those unfamiliar with Capitol Hill traditions, especially as they held sway two decades ago, this scenario might not seem as astonishing as it was then. In the prior half-century, there had been only about five times when the claims of seniority had been breached with regard to committee chairmanship — and even then, usually only for the second-most-senior member, to replace a much-older and less-vigorous Member who also was significantly out of step ideologically with his colleagues. The idea of jumping over four Members with more seniority, especially for the most powerful committee on Capitol Hill and one where collegiality famously reigned, and especially when at least a couple of the more senior Members were reasonably young and vigorous, was almost unthinkable.
Similarly unthinkable — in fact, probably even more seemingly ludicrous — was the idea of a guy just starting his third two-year term, Boehner, somehow grabbing the fourth-ranking organizational spot in the entire congressional majority.
Furthermore, the odds against the combination of both these ideas would, by the standards of the day, be something along the lines of Livingston’s alma mater Tulane University defeating the Dallas Cowboys in a football game.
But this was a new day in Congress. This was the first shift in party control in four decades. This was in the time of the then-astonishingly bold “Contract with America.” This was when Gingrich was describing his forces as “revolutionaries.”
And this was John Boehner, a guy with jaw-dropping energy and a love of the internal games of Hill politics that, just four years into his House career, already was becoming near-legendary.
Boehner knew he couldn’t defeat Livingston for Conference Chair. So he set about the task of getting Livingston out of his way by securing for Bob a job that, legislatively, was even more important.
To this day, I don’t know how Boehner did it — other than, quite obviously, he got Newt Gingrich on board with his plan. Gingrich wanted a trusted conservative with backbone to make significant cuts in domestic Appropriations, and Livingston filled the bill. But even with Gingrich working with Boehner, the quadruple-bank-shot was no sure thing. After all, as powerful as the newly Speakerized Gingrich was, not even Gingrich succeeded in convincing his colleagues to elect his good friend Bob Walker of Pennsylvania as House Majority Whip in a battle with Tom DeLay of Texas.
Livingston told me at the time that not even he knew how Boehner had pulled all his kangaroos from a cap. All he knew was that, one by one, his senior Appropriations colleagues came to him and said they would be happy to have Livingston take all the arrows that would come the way of an Approps chairman who took anything sharper than a butter knife to annual spending programs. And Gingrich and the Steering Committee came through, too. Thus, without lobbying a single colleague, Livingston was handed the Appropriations Chair on a silver platter, leaving the Conference chairmanship to the conservative Boehner without a serious contest.
For believers in limited government and budget balancers, it was a fortuitous turn of events. In just the first two years, Livingston led his new committee in completely “zeroing out” funding for exactly 300 federal programs while achieving savings of almost exactly $50 billion in actual dollars — and $100 billion from “projected” spending. This was back when those numbers represented a far larger percentage of the overall federal budget than they do now. It was a superlative accomplishment by Livingston (and his passed-over senior colleagues, who became able subcommittee chairmen), still far too little appreciated.
With help from other committees, too, especially the welfare reform bill designed in the Ways and Means Committee of Texan Bill Archer, the budget indeed was balanced in less than five years, for the first time in more than three decades.
And John Boehner, after just four years in Congress, already had planted his feet high up the House Leadership ladder.
Sure, there were some highly unexpected plot twists to come. First Boehner would flirt with a mid-session coup attempt against Gingrich — an attempt Livingston played a huge role in stopping — and, for his disloyalty, be booted from the Conference chairmanship (after just four years) in favor of J.C. Watts. Some sixteen months after that, in the wake of unexpectedly bad election results in 1998, Livingston himself would push his friend Gingrich aside for the Speakership (while still urging Gingrich to run for president), only in turn to fall victim, during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, to reports of long-atoned-for marital infidelity.
Boehner, for his part, would accept chairmanship of the Education Committee as a not-bad consolation prize for his own ouster from the Conference leadership. As was his wont, Boehner would find the committee role at least as useful as the Conference post when it came to building up chits with colleagues; he eventually maneuvered his way back into Leadership and thence to the Speakership anyway.
(As for me, I found I wasn’t built for the insiderish ethos of the Appropriations Committee, even with Livingston stomping hard against its big-spending proclivities. Within two years of Boehner’s astonishing feat of wheeler-dealership, I skedaddled back into journalism, where I belonged.)
I’ve waited more than two decades to tell this story. And, forgive the cliché, but a lot of water has flowed under the bridge in those 21 years. Boehner now leaves the stage without much public approbation for his quarter-century in office. But if his talent for national legislative leadership fell well short of his talent for securing votes for Leadership, the latter talent for insider baseball did help him secure more victories — for school choice, against earmarks, and even on budget and tax policy — than conservatives right now are willing to credit. His legacy is not a bad one, but merely mixed.
Meanwhile, we’ll never know the alternative history that might have occurred if Boehner had left Livingston as he was on a sunny day in November of 1994, walking alongside the Longworth Building, planning how to run the House Republican Conference.
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