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Pelosi and Health Care: How Impressive Was Her Leadership, Really?

- May 25, 2010

With all the exaggerated superlatives we’ve heard about Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an honest appraisal of her leadership is hard to come by. Just how impressive was her leadership on health care? And does it truly put her in the rankings of the “greatest” or “most successful” speakers in American history, as many suggest?

First, let me offer some reasons why Pelosi’s leadership on health care reform was not as remarkable as people claim.

1) Lots of speakers have exercised significant leadership on legislation. In fact, every speaker since Sam Rayburn has provided major leadership on at least one legislative initiative. In my new book on the speakership, I examined 34 histories of Congress and American politics to identify cases since the 1940’s in which a speaker is claimed to have exercised legislative leadership. As the chart below shows, even speakers who wouldn’t make anyone’s top five list of most powerful speakers did at least a few things that subsequent historians believed were worthy of attention.


To provide a more reasonable basis for comparison, since some of these speakers served much longer than others, the chart below shows the average number of cases per year of service. (The average has gone up, but note that Jim Wright’s tenure was unusually short, while Newt Gingrich’s was both short and quite action-packed.)


Regardless of how you do the numbers, the point is that a speaker exercising legislative leadership is, in itself, not especially unusual.

2) Many speakers have won tough votes. Health care was but one of numerous instances in history in which a speaker exercised sustained and aggressive legislative leadership that almost certainly affected the outcome of a vote. One of my favorite examples is Speaker Rayburn’s efforts to extend the military draft in August 1941, which ultimately passed the House by a single vote (203 to 202). At the time, many congressmen and their constituents were unwilling to keep young men in uniform, and a good number were isolationist. To get the draft passed despite this resistance, Rayburn:

* persuaded President Roosevelt to limit the extension;

* lobbied legislators intensively, even delaying the vote for a day (on the pretext of a lawmaker’s sudden demise) to buy himself more time;

* kept lobbying as the bill was debated on the floor, and even during the vote itself; and

* abruptly ended the vote before any one of a number of legislators had the chance to switch their own votes and kill the bill.

3) Health care reform had help from many party leaders, not just Pelosi. President Obama, for instance, put health care at the top of his agenda and lobbied many key lawmakers (apparently winning over Dennis Kucinich, among others). To pass the bill in his chamber, Senate majority leader Harry Reid managed to forge a difficult and tenuous compromise among liberals and moderates in his party while keeping several Democratic Senators (like Joseph Lieberman) from “going rogue” and killing the bill. In short, Pelosi did not enact health care reform alone.

On the other hand, Pelosi’s leadership on health care was, in some respects, even more impressive than others have given her credit for. To wit:

1) Pelosi delegated little. Unlike in the days of Sam Rayburn, the majority party of today’s House features an extensive collection of party whips whose job is to determine and influence the vote choice of their colleagues. But Pelosi reportedly did the vast majority of whipping on the final bill by herself. And, from what I’ve heard anecdotally from Hill staff, her claim that she “never stop[ped] whipping” on health care was accurate: she was utterly relentless in trying to persuade Democrats to vote for the measure, cornering key “swing” Dems like Bart Stupak whenever and wherever she could. Not many speakers were as good at whipping as Pelosi has proven herself to be.

2) Pelosi faced multiple handicaps. The Speaker lacked several tools available to previous speakers in passing the final version of health care reform. She could not use a special floor rule to shield lawmakers from a direct vote on the final bill. (It was briefly considered but then dropped after the idea faced strong public criticism). Nor could she keep the voting clock open for last-minute arm-twisting, a useful tactic that was discredited when Speaker Dennis Hastert kept the clock open for a record three hours to pass a Medicare prescription drug bill in 2004. And the procedural environment of the Senate meant the Senate bill had to be passed as it was; “goodies” could not be added directly to the legislation in exchange for votes. (A bill of “fixes” was passed separately, but Senate rules limited what that bill could contain.)

3) The final bill passed by more than the bare minimum. If the House had enacted the final version of health care by only one vote, every Democrat who voted for it could have been accused of being the one responsible for its enactment. That’s not a good place to be if you’re an electorally vulnerable Democrat. (Just ask Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky.) By passing the bill by a larger margin, Pelosi avoided this danger – a noteworthy feat when one considers just how many Democrats who voted for the bill would have preferred not to.

On balance, I think the latter three points, plus other things we know about Pelosi’s role in the legislative process (such as her strong and successful push to avoid passing a more limited bill, which she dismissed as “Kiddie Care”), indicate that she clearly is an influential speaker: her leadership was critical to the final outcome (whether you agree with that outcome or not) and was impressive enough to be included in future histories of Congress and public policy. Nonetheless, her actions should be evaluated in comparison to what other speakers have done, and are expected to do, as part of their job; and in this respect, I do not think they were themselves sufficient to put Pelosi on a list of the greatest speakers in history.

Her leadership on health care does raise another question, however: how did Pelosi pull it off? Or, to put it more broadly, what is the source of Pelosi’s influence? I’ll turn to this topic in my next post.

Next Post: Why is Pelosi Powerful?