Following the passage of President Barack Obamas health care bill in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) received high praise for her role in the outcome. Some experts even went so far as to suggest she may be one of the most powerful and successful Speakers in history. As columnist Mark Shields observed, until now, no Speaker not even legendary giants Sam Rayburn and Tip ONeill had managed to pass national health care.
Is Pelosi, in fact, among the most successful Speakers in history? Does her tenure at least merit her nomination, if not election, to the select group of truly great Speakers, including Henry Clay, Thomas Reed, Rayburn and ONeill?
By comparing the careers of these Speakers with Pelosis thus far, one finds three parallels that suggest such a nomination is merited.
First, most great Speakers establish a historic first of some kind. For example, Rayburn served for more years as Speaker than any before or since and ONeill holds the record for the most consecutive years served as Speaker. Pelosi, as the first female Speaker, obviously fits this category.
Second, while most Speakers have won at least one tough legislative battle, historically prominent Speakers have done so with tremendous consequences for national policy or for how Congress operates. Clay helped transform the speakership into a powerful position, while Reed forced changes to the Houses rules in the 1890s that dramatically limited minority obstruction and transformed the House into the majoritarian body that it is today. Fifty years later, Rayburn passed an extension of the military draft by a single vote, just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor proved it to be a prescient move.
The health care bill passed under Pelosis leadership and tireless efforts is, by all accounts, a measure with far-reaching implications for our nations health care policy. And Pelosi succeeded under especially challenging circumstances. For instance, when Democrats lost their 60-seat majority in the Senate in January, she had to rebuild her partys confidence and was limited in her ability to alter the content of the health care bill in exchange for votes.
Finally, most Speakers of historical greatness have demonstrated a willingness to act, often courageously, on behalf of policy goals that their party does not entirely share. Reed sought to change the Houses rules with considerable uncertainty about whether his own party would unify behind him and was ready to resign the speakership if he failed. Rayburn passed the draft extension bill in the face of strong opposition within his own party. And ONeill worked with President Ronald Reagan to enact legislation shoring up the financial health of Social Security despite the deep reservations of fellow Democrats.