How John Boehner, one of the most underrated modern politicians, reshaped Washington forever

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REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Tom Latham was there for the culmination of John Boehner’s career as speaker.

It was September 28, the day before Boehner planned to announce his resignation as speaker. It was also the day Pope Francis, after years of prodding, addressed a joint session of Congress.

Latham, a former US representative from Iowa and one of Boehner’s staunchest allies in the House, was eating dinner with him at a Washington restaurant.

He saw a more relaxed Boehner than perhaps ever before. A Boehner who looked like he had nothing left to do.

“It seemed like,” Latham told Business Insider recently, “he had accomplished everything he had wanted to accomplish.”

Handing the gavel off to now-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) on Thursday, Boehner left Congress undoubtedly a divisive figure.

Boehner cited the triumphant, first ever address by a pope to a joint session of Congress – in which he played an outsized part in organizing – as the reason he chose to leave when he did.

But Boehner’s hand was effectively forced by a loud, influential group of hard-line Republican members who disagreed with his legislative priorities and procedural process.

He consistently frustrated lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. There was the 2011 debt-ceiling fight that eventually led to a downgrade of US credit. The squabbling over the “fiscal cliff” that led Boehner to tell then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) to “go f— yourself.” The 16-day, federal-government shutdown in 2013 that badly damaged the party’s standing with American voters.

However, to his allies – and even some of his foes – Boehner’s presence in the House will be missed. His allies argue he has the most accomplished record of any speaker in recent memory – especially considering the ever increasing partisan nature of Washington.

“Boehner was a rare Republican who understood that certain things had to get done, compromise was needed to reach it, and Democrats could end up helping him accomplish what he needed,” a Senate Democratic aide told Business Insider.

“He and the Democratic leaders gained a comfortability with each other’s personalities and styles, which was helpful in negotiation. There was no b.s. between them because they knew they would have to work with each other over and over again.”

Entering into the job in 2011, staring at a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate, Boehner leaves having successfully implemented a slew of GOP legislative priorities, all the while navigating land mine after land mine with little-to-no leverage. Some of the changes he pushed for and implemented will leave a lasting, perhaps permanent effect on Congress.

“Boehnerland,” or “Boehnerworld” – his loyalists and those who have worked for him – sees a speaker who was misunderstood and consistently underrated. He banned earmarks, in a Congress that was obsessed with pork-barrel projects. He made the Bush tax cuts permanent, even with a president who had campaigned against them. He helped foster the first true entitlement reform in decades.

“Biggest accomplishments, not in order: SGR Repeal [Medicare reform], cutting spending four years in a row, ending earmarks,” emailed Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio).

His fundraising prowess also has been unmatched in recent history, helping usher in the biggest House GOP majority in nearly a century.

“It must be nice to rejoice in what a strong GOP majority can do in the House (while ignoring its limitations) while ignoring the fundraiser-in-chief, and his ability to traverse the land and go to fundraisers rather than doing what he’d like to do: Cut his lawn!” one former House GOP leadership aide told Business Insider recently.

“Building a historically large majority,” the aide said, “isn’t easy.”

For Michael Steel, Boehner’s longtime press secretary who now works on the presidential campaign of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), his favorite Boehner moment came in 2010, before he was speaker, when he memorably railed against the Affordable Care Act on the House floor.

“Can you say it was done openly? With transparency and accountability? Without backroom deals struck behind closed doors hidden from the people? Hell no you can’t!” he thundered. “Have you read the bill? Have you read the reconciliation bill? Have you read the manager’s amendment? Hell no you haven’t!”

For Steel, it “encapsulated” who Boehner was – and what kind of speaker he would turn out to be.

“His obvious passion, his opposition to a bigger, more intrusive federal government, and his disdain for back-room deals hidden from the American people,” Steel said.

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John Boehner and Barack Obama.
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REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

That disdain for backroom dealing was part of what led him to another monumental change that, for better or worse, has changed how Washington operates.

Boehner was one of the sole members of Congress who did not request or accept an earmark during his time in the body – he ran his first campaign for Congress on the promise. He made it a chamber-wide feature as speaker, in what one former Boehner aide said was “almost exclusively his personal decision.”

Depending on whom you talk to in Washington, the earmark ban has been nothing short of the best or worst thing to happen in the Capitol during Boehner’s tenure. They either add to the corruption flowing through Washington – or they make it impossible to deal.

During the 2013 showdown that eventually led to a government shutdown, one Democratic congressional aide memorably told Business Insider that, in that aide’s humble opinion, it was the reason Boehner couldn’t control the increasingly loud chorus of House conservatives. The ban had made it “insanely hard” to get things done in Washington.

But Boehner has proudly owned the ban, and he’s seen his share of credit from all sides. Phil Kerpen, the president of the conservative group American Commitment, recently wrote that it was “one of his greatest legacies” as speaker.

“Grassroots anger has died down over the years, and calls for bringing back earmarks are now everywhere. But Boehner has held firm, insisting repeatedly that earmarks would never return as long as he was speaker,” Kerpen wrote.

“That meant winning support on tough votes through persuasion over slices of pizza, and sometimes it meant losing those tough votes. But the alternative would have been restoring the power of the speaker to dole out millions of taxpayer dollars for individual pet projects to buy votes, or withhold these special favors as a form of discipline. Boehner did what was right, not what was easy.”

In fact, he was a leader, and a speaker, who rarely took the easy road.

From the get-go, he seemed unafraid to challenge a president, Barack Obama, who entered into office with as close to a sweeping mandate as possible. He had a Democratic House and a supermajority in the Senate. House Republicans had hit a near-historic low point in 2006, the midterm election in which the party was walloped as a whole.

Yet, as the House GOP’s minority leader, Boehner and then-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) held the line against the first big vote of the Obama presidency – the stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It garnered a big, fat zero in the Republican “yea” column, setting the tone for the rest of the Obama-Boehner relationship.

“Cantor deserves a ton of credit for rallying the minority as Whip to not lose one vote, but that was also a moment for Boehner as Minority Leader to pull a post-2008 Election Day GOP caucus together and show how they were going to fight as a minority party,” the former House GOP aide told Business Insider.

When he became speaker, Boehner continued his confrontational style with the White House – most notably, in his first year, on the budget. He never found the elusive “grand bargain” he’d hoped for, and the White House had hoped for, but he ushered in an era of spending cuts almost unthinkable just two years earlier.

Early last year, economists Richard Kogan and William Chen at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that 10-year deficits had fallen by nearly $5 trillion since 2010, largely due to about $3.27 trillion worth of cuts enacted through legislation.

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U.S. House Speaker-elect Ryan salutes the members of the House as he stands with outgoing Speaker John Boehner.
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REUTERS/Gary Cameron

A big chunk of that came in a deal neither Boehner nor the White House liked – the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was hammered out ahead of a deadline to raise the nation’s debt limit and brought about the across-the-board, indiscriminate cuts of sequestration.

But the slashing continued with the Bush tax cut deal in 2012 and the budget deal hashed out by the now-Speaker Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Washington) in 2013 (which replaced the cuts of sequestration with other cuts). He and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) earlier this year reached an agreement on a permanent “doc fix” to change the way Medicare pays doctors. It will save billions of dollars.

“You’re right on this being under noticed,” the House GOP aide said. “They actually cut spending under Obama. Find me someone in 2009 that thought that was possible. Even Obama now takes credit for reduced deficits that Boehner and team are responsible for.”

Boehner’s deal-making culminated in his final days, when he helped broker a two-year budget deal with congressional Democrats and the White House. The accord was the product of a speaker free of the constraints of furious bluster on the right. Some allies, and some opponents, believe it’s the kind of leader he wanted to be all along.

“The criticism of Boehner is that he was so reluctant to stand up to his far right wing. He could have chosen to marginalize them by cutting deals earlier and more frequently with his Democratic counterparts,” the Senate Democratic aide said.

“But he resisted, in order to prove to his right wing that he really did love them. Of course, the right wing didn’t reciprocate, and ultimately in his final act, Boehner did what he should have been doing all along.”

In the end, he seemed at peace with his legacy. Regrets, he had one. But he seemed ready to ride off into the sunset – literally, in the golf cart featuring the “MR SPKR” license plate the entire House GOP conference had pitched in to get him.

Boehner was asked at a press conference announcing his resignation what he’d miss about being in Congress. He joked with reporters that he’d, of course, miss them. And when another reporter commented on his “relieved” demeanor, he abruptly broke into dance.

“Zip-a-dee-do-dah!” he said, with a big smile.