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Experts Rank Pelosi Among Greatest House Speakers

Nov 4, 2010 – 8:34 PM
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Andrea Stone

Andrea Stone Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Nov. 4) -- Nancy Pelosi may be moving out of her spacious office in the Capitol, but the woman who broke the marble ceiling to become the first female speaker of the House has already moved into the ranks of the most effective legislators in history.

"While right now she is overshadowed by this thumping, she's going to rank quite high in the pantheon of modern speakers" of the last 100 years, said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Only Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving speaker in history whose parliamentary maneuvers cleared the way for passage of civil rights and social legislation in the 1960s, ranks higher.

Four years isn't much time to make it into the history books. The new House Republican majority, with Rep. John Boehner in the speaker's office, has vowed to undo much of what Pelosi and her fellow Democrats accomplished in the last two years under President Barack Obama. And her tenure has not been without controversy.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., attends a memorial service in Statuary Hall for the late Congressman John Murtha, D-Pa., Mar. 3, 2010.
Tom Williams, Roll Call / Getty Images
Despite what the president called a "shellacking" for Democrats in the midterm elections, experts say House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will go down in history as one of the most effective legislators.

Few Republicans would give Pelosi even a passing grade. She has been caricatured as a monster, has been excoriated by right-wing bloggers as the mother of all federal deficits and has become the bete noire of conservative talk radio. Most would, and have, called her the worst speaker in history.

Yet historians and nonpartisan political observers who take the long view say Pelosi stands out among the 52 lawmakers who have held the job set forth in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution. And not just because all the others were men.

"The last Congress in particular has been remarkable in its productivity -- in both the number of bills enacted and their scope -- and Pelosi shares much of the credit," said Matthew Green, a political scientist at Catholic University of America and author of "The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership."

Many speakers shepherded through big bills: Democrat Tip O'Neill guided major energy legislation though in 1978, and Republican Dennis Hastert twisted arms to create a new Medicare prescription drug benefit. But few, Green said, have passed more legislation than Pelosi.

Other speakers have taken a back seat on major legislation on their watch, Green added. John McCormack presided in the 1960s when Congress enacted Lyndon Johnson's historic Great Society program, but it was the president who wrote and lobbied for most of the bills, not the elderly speaker. In contrast, Obama took a mostly hands-off approach to health care reform, leaving it to Pelosi and others in Congress to work out the details.

Getting Things Done

In an interview with Politics Daily, Pelosi said she "didn't come here to be in a popularity contest" but to get things done. And so she did.

Voters may have shown their disdain for Pelosi's handiwork, but the list of legislation she saw through in her short time as speaker is long. An economic stimulus bill. Financial regulation. Expanded student aid. An expanded G.I. bill for veterans. And, above all else, health care reform. Green calls it her "single greatest legislative achievement."

"Pelosi almost single-handedly pushed the bill through the House in its final stages, lobbying reluctant lawmakers up to the final minutes to vote for it," Green said. "Without her leadership, the bill very likely would have died."

John Pitney, a former Republican House aide who now teaches at Claremont McKenna College in California, agrees that Pelosi deserves major credit for the historic legislation.

"After the election of Scott Brown, many people in the Washington community thought the measure was dead," he said. "She refused to give up and was determined to see it through. The measure faced strong political resistance, and many Democrats were very reluctant to vote for it. Through a combination of persuasion and pressure, she pushed it over the line."

But she may have pushed too far. "By forcing vulnerable Democrats to vote for legislation unpopular with their constituents, like health care and climate change legislation, Pelosi made it difficult for those lawmakers to win reelection this year," Green said.

Pitney rates Pelosi as a "highly effective" legislator. He said her "centralization of power fits the mold" of 19th century Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed. The Maine Republican's "Reed's Rules" strengthened majority party power by doing away with Senate-style stalling tactics and "did much to shape the institution of the House that we know today," Pitney said. "But in her political radioactivity, she is more like Newt Gingrich."

Pelosi did most of the heavy legislative lifting without the help of Republicans. That may or not be her fault -- Boehner told ABC that "partisanship got worse" under Democratic control.

Not that either of them would be mistaken for one of their greatest predecessors, Henry Clay. "The Great Compromiser" helped stave off the Civil War. It's not clear how his powers of persuasion would play in the polarized precincts of modern-day Capitol Hill.

Pelosi might not appreciate being compared with another illustrative speaker, Joseph "Uncle Joe" Cannon, the Illinois Republican who ruled the House a century ago and whose name adorns the building where she has her constituents office. Yet her ability to enforce discipline in a caucus that runs the gamut from Dennis Kucinich on the left to Bobby Bright on the right recalls the tight control once wielded by the "Iron Duke of Congress."

Pelosi ranks with O'Neill, the Massachusetts Democrat who "was a lightning rod for the opposition," said Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University. "She accrued power to the speaker's office and managed a large, unruly and diverse caucus and graciously accepted the rejection of her more conservative members in the 2010 campaign in the interest of retaining her majority."

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Of course, Pelosi didn't maintain her majority in the end.

First, she headed "a strong opposition effort against President Bush that generated a critical debate about the administration's policies and put Democrats on the offensive," Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer said. Then, Pelosi's "House helped to set up many of the issues that would define the 2008 campaign" that sent Obama to the White House.

But Tuesday's election certainly will leave question marks about her legacy.

"If we don't focus on duration as the best measure for what a speaker does or does not do," Zelizer said, "she will rank as an important leader."
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