A tale of two house speakers

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At the turn of the New Year, the speakers of two Houses of Representatives were much in the news.

In New Mexico, the death of Ben Lujan, longtime Democratic speaker of the state House of Representatives, occasioned glowing tributes to a man characterized as “a political giant” and “a statesman.”

Back in the nation’s capital, the weakened U.S. House Speaker John Boehner’s inability to manage his fellow House Republicans, never mind the Congress itself, left not a few onlookers wondering how much longer his speakership could endure.

House speakers are traditionally elected by the majority party in that legislative chamber. In New Mexico there have been exceptions to that custom. During the 1980s, even though Republicans were the minority in the state House, a number of conservative Democrats broke ranks with their party and helped elected a Republican House speaker.

But Speaker Lujan was elected by a unified House Democratic caucus in 2001 and kept his party unified throughout his tenure in that post. In part that was because he ran a tight ship in a gentlemanly way.

He was also a skillful legislator. It was Lujan who championed the successful drive to eliminate the state sales tax on food.

Perhaps Lujan’s greatest political gift was his ability to strike legislative compromises with adversaries and deliver on the bargains he struck.

It’s a skill that consistently seems to be missing from Speaker John Boehner’s political arsenal.

To be fair, Boehner became a U.S. House speaker following the 2010 midterm elections, which sent a raft of far right tea party Republicans to Congress, many of whom consider compromise to be another word for iniquity.

Nor is it clear that Boehner was actually these doctrinaire newcomers’ first choice as speaker. He was simply the House Republican minority leader whose party suddenly found itself with a majority, and almost by default he rose to become speaker.

But as the top Republican in Congress, it has made him a most unreliable deal-maker in his dealings with a Democratic president and Senate. Twice in his two years as speaker, Boehner has been very close to striking critical compromises with the president on matters of the utmost national importance only to back away when his own House Republican cohorts declined to support him.

In both instances the results have been disastrous.

The speaker’s hasty retreat last year on a deal with the president for raising the debt ceiling ultimately resulted in that ill-conceived bit of legislation that brought us to the lunacy of a so-called “fiscal cliff.”

It also led to the downgrading of America’s credit rating and dampened the nation’s economic recovery.

More recently, when his negotiations with the president over the looming “cliff” produced rumbles of discontent among his restless caucus, Boehner walked away once again and came up with his infamous “Plan B,” which was summarily rejected by House Republicans anyway.

Whereupon the speaker shut down the U.S. House of Representatives, skulked off to Ohio for the holidays, and left it to the White House and Senate to figure something out.

Ironically, the plan that came out this abdication of responsibility on Boehner’s part is in certain respects a scaled-down version of a compromise he and the president had been working on before the speaker went off on his Plan B gambit.

Last week Boehner actually voted for that plan. Two-thirds of the other fractious House Republicans did not.

There are House speakers and there are House speakers.

May New Mexico’s late Speaker Lujan rest in peace and may our nation survive the further adventures of its hapless House Speaker Boehner — if he survives.