Can Speaker Boehner reduce the rancor?

John Boehner has advocated a move away from this model of governance and a desire for greater party cooperation in the House. This may well be empty rhetoric. On the other hand, Boehner is known as a legislator and deal-maker, not simply a partisan bomb-thrower. And he will be the first Speaker in over forty years to have experienced minority status in the House not once but twice – an experience that may have reinforced to Boehner both how poorly the minority party is treated and how easily today’s majority party can become tomorrow’s minority.

But even if we assume that Boehner genuinely seeks better treatment of the minority party and, by so doing, reduce the level of party conflict in the House, can he actually achieve that goal?

There are many reasons to see such an endeavor as hopeless. Both parties have been dominated by ideologically-minded members who not only strongly disagree with each other on policy but also, encouraged by outside activists, disdain compromise and care principally about defeating their partisan opponents. And Boehner will have a strong incentive to use the House as a rival bully pulpit and force President Obama to veto popular conservative legislation in the hopes of a GOP takeover of the Senate and White House in 2012.

I myself am skeptical that party relations can improve in the new House, but if Boehner is truly serious about bringing comity to Congress, there are at least three steps that he will need to take.

First, he must find support among fellow House Republicans. This won’t be easy: many of its newest members are conservative, anti-establishment figures, and others may be eager to shut out the minority the same way they were in the past two congresses (and as they shut out Democrats before 2007). But Professor Boris Shor at the University of Chicago has identified over a half-dozen incoming Republicans as likely moderates, and they may be open to the idea of bipartisan cooperation or, at a minimum, treating the minority party with some degree of respect. Boehner can start with them.

Second, Boehner will need a commitment from House Democrats to refrain from guerilla-type procedural warfare to embarrass and frustrate the majority, a tactic both parties have used. Boehner might find help from Steny Hoyer, who is arguably less polarizing and more moderate in temperament than Nancy Pelosi and – if he replaces Pelosi as Democratic leader – would be the first minority leader in decades with experience as a presiding legislative officer (when he served in the Maryland State Senate). Boehner could also court the three dozen or so Democrats who, in 2009, cosigned a letter calling for more regular order in the House; they may be willing to lobby their colleagues to act with self-restraint in exchange for a more open legislative process.

Finally, Boehner will have to strengthen the role and image of the Speakership as more than a partisan office. Traditionally, the Speakership has served several roles: for instance, the Speakership also represents the House as a whole, with the responsibility to protect the prestige and power of the chamber. Many Speakers have exercised occasional leadership on behalf of interests or policies of opposite party presidents as well. These roles are not necessarily incompatible with leading one’s party.

Given how polarized Congress is today, Boehner will be fighting a difficult uphill battle to convince lawmakers that one can, and should, disagree without being disagreeable. But if he is serious about treating the minority party with respect, he may go down in history as the first Speaker in decades to successfully change the confrontational and partisan political culture of the House, making the chamber more democratic, more inspiring to the public, and a more pleasant place for lawmakers to serve.

Matthew Green is an assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and author of the book “The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership.”

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