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Opinion: Making Laws vs. Making a Point -- Lessons From Boehner’s Retirement

The departing Speaker of the House made a mistake given today’s political climate: He was willing to compromise to move things ahead

Dick Zimmer
Credit: Amanda Brown
Dick Zimmer

You can run for office in order to govern or to express your principles. With luck, you can do both at the same time, but often you have to choose.

Most legislators spend their time explaining and promoting their personal political positions in order to get reelected and to convince others of their views. It is left to a minority to cut the deals that reconcile deeply held differences and keep the legislative machinery from stalling.

Twenty-five years ago John Boehner began his career in Congress as a hell-raising conservative freshman, a member of the Gang of Seven who loudly brought attention to institutional excesses like the corrupt House Bank and Post Office. He won an upset victory as House Majority Leader on a conservative reform platform of spending restraint and earmarks reform. But last week he was forced from office because a small minority of the Republican conference saw him as a contemptible defender of the status quo.

Hardly anyone has accused Boehner of changing his principles, which have always been strongly conservative. Instead, the dissenters have accused him of subordinating those principles to his desire to reach accommodation with a liberal president and a filibuster-bound Senate.

John Boehner and I were first elected to the House in the same election. We became friends but we took different political paths.

I was invited to join the Gang of Seven but declined. Even though I shared its agenda, I didn’t want to spend time on the House floor calling my colleagues crooks.

Although the press usually called me a moderate because of my pro-choice and pro-environment voting record, I was as conservative as any of my colleagues on issues like taxes, spending, and crony capitalism.

Both Boehner and I supported Newt Gingrich when he ran for party leadership because we knew that Republicans would never take the majority if they kept playing by the gentlemanly rules of previous minority leaders. I even supported the legislation that led to the government shutdowns of 1995-1996, thinking (wrongly) that Bill Clinton would be blamed and would capitulate. (Note to current members of Congress: There is no education in the second -- or third or fourth -- kick of a mule.)

Unlike Boehner, I never tried to follow Gingrich into leadership. I preferred to spend my time working on issues I cared about rather than helping to (in Boehner’s words) “keep 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow long enough to get a bill passed.” And I wanted the freedom to jump out of the wheelbarrow myself if a bill wasn’t to my liking.

I have grown to admire the lawmakers who undertake the hard work of legislative sausage making, even when I have problems with the results.

My party leader in the state Assembly (and later my House colleague) Dean Gallo unflappably negotiated with Michael Adubato, the fiery chairman of the Insurance Committee, to change the insurance system for the state’s bad drivers.

During Gov. Chris Christie’s first term, Senate President Steve Sweeney helped resolve seemingly intractable differences with Republicans on pension and benefits reform. And, together with Sen. Teresa Ruiz, he did the same on teacher-tenure reform. Now that Sen. Sweeney is positioning himself for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and Christie is running for president, Sweeney’s role as bipartisan facilitator is predictably diminishing.

John Boehner evolved from rabble-rouser to legislative craftsman during his years as a House committee chairman when he helped bring together staunch liberals Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller with the Bush Administration to craft the No Child Left Behind Act. Even though that legislation has turned out to be unpopular with liberals and conservatives, it passed with enormous bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate.

The problem that irritates the House Freedom Caucus arises not from the failures of John Boehner, but from the Constitution. The founders didn’t want legislating to be easy, as it is in parliamentary systems. They wanted it to be very hard. The only way for a bill to become law is for a majority of both houses and the chief executive to compromise in order to agree on the same piece of legislation. For this to happen, true legislators have to recognize that reality.

Dick Zimmer served in the New Jersey State Assembly and state Senate, and then served in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was twice the state's Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.

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