Madam Speaker: Why No. 2 matters

Nancy Pelosi ocupies the second highest elected post in the US.Will she be remembered as a Henry Clay or a Galusha Grow?

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif, left center, is greeted on her entrance with House Minority leader John Boehner of Ohio, right, center, before the swearing-in of the 111th Congress.

Over the six decades that he wrote for the Monitor, Richard Strout would periodically pen a column on the practicality of the Westminster system of government. A lanky, straight-talking New Englander, Mr. Strout had spent two years as a reporter on the Sheffield Independent in England, where he became enamored of the British form of parliamentary democracy.

There is a lot to like. The system Britain and most democracies use, he would note, allows vigorous direct debate (see “Prime Minister’s Question Time”) and gives the party in power clear ability to push its legislative agenda or fall trying. It is always obvious where legislation stands in Parliament – no procedural holds or arcane maneuvers that, say, block a president’s appointments until an equally arcane countermaneuver overcomes it.

The master of the House of Commons is the prime minister. He or she is the commander of the armed forces, the public face of the nation, but also a politician who must defend an intensely local constituency by minding such minutiae as postal regulations. Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair were exemplary occupants of that post. The queen or king is the head of state, but that is largely ceremonial, as is the post of speaker of the House of Commons: a white-wigged official whose job is to establish decorum in the chamber (and who, according to the Guardian, is currently concerned that question time is “far too noisy”).

The master of the US House of Representatives is the speaker. The American speaker is the most powerful politician after the president. Sure, there’s the vice president, but he or she is just a spare president. Next in line after the veep is the speaker of the House, the subject of this week’s cover story. John Nance Garner, who served in both posts, was scathing about being No. 2, much preferring having wielded the gavel in the House.

Speakers are prime ministers without command of the military or bully pulpit. Throughout American history, speakers have been giants. And shrimps. There are little-remembered presidents, of course; Benjamin Harrison and Millard Fillmore come to mind. And there are well-remembered speakers. Henry Clay, Sam Rayburn, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, and Newt Gingrich made their marks as allies or adversaries of sitting presidents. Many other speakers are of interest only to PhD candidates. (Can you say Langdon Cheves or Galusha A. Grow?)

The American system is all about checks and balances. As Strout pointed out in one column, “[I]t was crafted to thwart tyrants: The president can block the Senate, the Senate can block the House, the Supreme Court can block all three.” Strout found that frustrating and thought a constitutional convention could come up with improvements to the system, an option the Constitution itself allows. To mention it is not treason. Neither is it realistic. Even in eras that seem less divisive than this one, reaching consensus on a new way of governing this nation is difficult to imagine.

The Westminster style is like soccer: straightforward, admirable, and maybe one day in the far-off future as popular in the United States as in the rest of the world. The American system is like football: complex, governed by a bewildering set of rules, and somehow a reflection of the national character. Nancy Pelosi is the US’s second most powerful elected official, and by all accounts an astute quarterback, running the plays and marching the Democratic Party’s agenda downfield. (For a deeply insightful profile of how she works, click here.)

It’s too early to know if history will judge Pelosi a Henry Clay or a Langdon Cheves.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor

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