The Future of the Pelosi Speakership

Jun 2 '10

In my final post on the speakership, I’ll discuss what the future might have in store for Pelosi. Will she continue to be a powerful speaker, or is there the chance that her influence might decline?

First, however, I want to recommend a new book on the Pelosi speakership by Ronald Peters and Cindy Simon Rosenthal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics. (I would have mentioned the book sooner, but I just got my copy this past weekend.) It’s the most up-to-date and thorough study of Speaker Pelosi I have read, filled with insights about Pelosi’s governing style, the constraints she faces as speaker, and how her leadership reflects broader changes in congressional politics in recent years. I highly recommend it.

So what does the future hold for Pelosi? It’s probably a safe bet to assume that, with a partisan Congress and a Speaker able and willing to use her power, Pelosi will remain an influential leader, and the office of the Speaker will continue to be as strong (if not stronger) in the years ahead. On the other hand, no speaker is invulnerable. And Pelosi is not universally loved in the House; as NPR reporter Andrea Seabrook noted in March, in the wake of health care’s final passage in the House, “some lawmakers feel stepped on, others a bit sold out.”

As I see it, Pelosi has at least two potential weaknesses that could make it harder for her to achieve her goals or even lessen her authority within the Democratic caucus. (If Democrats fail to retain control of the House after November, of course, her power would be diminished even further: besides losing the speakership, she could potentially face some serious disgruntlement among Democrats, if not an outright challenge for the position of party leader.) These possible weaknesses are:

1. Overly partisan. Though the speaker is the top leader of her party in the House, the Constitution is vague about what the job actually entails (stating only that “the House shall choose its speaker”), and the speakership did not start out as a partisan office, as Ronald Peters documents in his excellent book on the office. Nonetheless, it has become an increasingly partisan position over time, especially in the past few decades, and is arguably as partisan as ever under Pelosi (which Peters and Rosenthal also note in their recent book).

This is a problem for Pelosi for two reasons. First, it prevents her from being able to draw upon Republican votes to help pass bills, forcing her to look for votes from Democrats from marginal districts; these Democrats may be at particular risk of losing reelection if they help Pelosi, particularly on partisan legislation, and may resent being compelled to do so. Second, it diminishes Pelosi’s authority as an officer of the entire House, an important role of the speaker (as I argue in my book). Pelosi cannot be expected to protect the House’s institutional authority, or the rights of all members, when nearly half of those members believe the Speaker does not represent them.

Congress is partisan for lots of reasons, and I don’t expect a speaker to ignore the pressure from her party to be partisan. But as Dan Burns and I have argued elsewhere, leaders can play an important part in ensuring that regular order and procedures are followed in Congress, rather than permit rules to be regularly exploited to help the majority party at the minority’s expense. In other words, they do have some leeway to act in non-partisan or bipartisan ways. Even if Pelosi’s partisanship does not handicap her in the future, it could be a problem if her successor continues her partisan leadership style.

2. Emphasis on personal loyalty. In many ways, Pelosi has substituted party loyalty for personal loyalty as a benchmark to judge House Democrats. As Peters and Rosenthal put it, “in Pelosi’s world, loyalty counts for a great deal” (p. 67).

As I noted in my previous post, this has probably helped her win some difficult votes, if only because she has established a reputation for punishing disloyal Democrats. But it can also be a dangerous tactic. Some Democrats may become resentful if they perceive that only those who are chummy with Pelosi are rewarded, or if they are punished because they are not deemed sufficiently loyal by the Speaker.

Emphasizing loyalty can also force a leader into making unwise political decisions. Perhaps the best example of this was Pelosi’s decision to support John Murtha in his race for Democratic majority leader in 2006, challenging the more popular Steny Hoyer (who was also widely favored to win). Pelosi probably supported Murtha out of a sense of personal loyalty, but when Hoyer won, it unnecessarily raised questions about Pelosi’s judgment and influence.

Two other features of the Pelosi speakership might also be viewed as serious liabilities, though I do not. One is Pelosi’s liberal preferences. Pelosi as a “San Francisco liberal” is a popular epithet among Republicans, especially as a way of encouraging donations (if not votes) from the party faithful. But one can’t forget that Pelosi’s party is also quite liberal; and regardless, she has demonstrated the ability to be a good-faith bargainer with Democrats with whom she disagrees – at least when she needs their votes. Her willingness to let Bart Stupak offer a pro-life amendment to the House version of health care in late 2009, over the sharp complaints of pro-choice Democrats, is a case in point.

Second, as partisan as she may be, Pelosi has at times demonstrated some independence from her party on certain legislative matters. Most notably, in 2007 she pushed for the passage of a resolution condemning Turkey for the genocide of ethnic Armenians in the early 20th century. She did this even though it threatened U.S.-Turkey relations and was not strongly supported by her caucus. However, I argue in my book that speakers are not strict “agents” of their party, as is the conventional wisdom among most scholars. Rather, speakers can exercise leadership on behalf of other concerns besides that of their party in Congress without necessarily endangering their position as speaker. Pelosi’s move was a function of her long-time advocacy for human rights and reflected the concerns of the sizeable Armenian population in California, and it did not hurt her authority within her party.

At this very moment, I think it’s safe to say that Pelosi is at (or near) the top of her game. Her influence in the House is substantial, and she can take credit for helping enact several major pieces of legislation, health care reform among them. But some of the very things that have made her strong – a partisan House which grants many powers to the speaker, an emphasis on loyalty – are also potential weaknesses. If she remains speaker after November, it will be worth watching closely to see if these become more serious threats to her power.