Pelosi says she feels a “natural gravitation to the floor,” but there’s more to it than that: The speaker’s propensity to speak reflects her determination to lead from the front, not the rear, of her caucus.
Since taking the gavel in January 2007, Pelosi has consolidated power in the speaker’s office.
She has overruled influential chairmen such as Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) on key issues such as global warming and children’s health insurance, bringing legislation directly to the floor without committee approval.
She personally forced through a rules change creating a new Office of Congressional Ethics, despite loud complaints from veteran lawmakers in both parties.
She ran a recent Iraq war funding measure through the House as an amendment, an unusual procedure that allowed Democrats to bypass the powerful Appropriations Committee while providing political cover for anti-war members who opposed the funding measure.
And early on, she rebuffed Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) when he pushed for more control of the Democratic “message operation.” Pelosi, insiders say, was — and is — fully aware that control of her party’s message is control of the agenda.
As part of that message control, Pelosi is making floor speeches at an unprecedented rate for a speaker in the post-World War II era. Her frequent speeches — on Iraq, on energy policy, on Tibet, on ethics reform, on members who have passed away, on just about anything Congress might touch — have raised her status as a national political figure and bolstered her efforts to reach out to both the rank-and-file House Democrats and the American public without a media filter.
Few speakers have spoken so much.
In eight years as speaker, Hastert addressed his colleagues from the floor only 85 times — a number Pelosi is on pace to beat before the 110th Congress is over. Hastert would sometimes go months between floor speeches; during the entire 109th Congress, he made only 12 floor speeches, including just five in all of 2006.
Pelosi is giving floor speeches at a rate of better than four a month — and that’s counting months when Congress is out of session.
Hastert and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) preferred to control events from behind the scenes, relying on other members — including Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) and current Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) — to act as their surrogates during most floor debates.
That example was clearly unsuitable for Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who have adopted a model in which the party’s leaders are also its primary spokespeople.
“Steny and Rahm and I and others, [Majority Whip] James Clyburn, we are issue people. That’s why we’re here,” Pelosi, a Democrat from San Francisco, said in an interview with Politico. “I’ve been speaker for a year and a half, [Democratic] leader before that, but for 15 years at least before that, I wasn’t in the leadership. But I was involved in the issues, in the legislation and the rest. Maybe that will get less, but I do love that part of it. It’s nourishing.”
If Pelosi finds herself away from the floor for too long, she says she starts to miss it.
“A speaker doesn’t vote, so sometimes I’ll be having a speech or I’ll be doing this or that, and I’ll say to my staff, ‘I’ve got to go to the floor,’ because I really draw strength being around my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans,” she said.
Republicans complain that the speaker’s speaking violates the traditions of the House.
As speaker andmajority leader, Pelosi and Hoyer are exempt from the strict speaking time limits imposed on rank-and-file members. While Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is accorded the same privilege under House rules, Republicans complain that Pelosi and Hoyer are abusing their status as party leaders in order to dominate floor debates.
“My view is that Speaker Hastert’s time spent speaking on the floor is much more in line with the traditional presence of speakers on the floor,” said Blunt, who wrote a letter to Democrats last year complaining about Pelosi’s verbosity. “In fact, when the House adopted this rule for the speaker and the two leaders, it was really anticipated that, at the time, that the speaker would seldom avail themselves of the rule. ... That’s not been the case in this Congress.”
University of Oklahoma professor Ronald M. Peters, who has written books on the history of the speakership, said that with some notable exceptions — including James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark of Missouri and the legendary Henry Clay of Kentucky — speakers historically have not taken part in floor debates.
“The fact is that most speakers have preferred to play a relatively low public profile, choosing to act behind the scenes instead,” Peters said.
But different speakers have had different ways of handling the job, and some have sought the spotlight others would avoid.
The late Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas), who ran the House for a total of 17 years between 1940 and 1961, shunned personal publicity and criticized lawmakers who sought it. Later speakers, including Reps. Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and Jim Wright (D-Texas), were friendlier with the press but also tried to float above partisan battles on the floor, if possible.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) broke all the rules for the speakership and cast himself as the central figure in huge political fights with former President Bill Clinton. In April 1995, Gingrich gave a nationally televised address to the country; two months later, he took to the stage in New Hampshire to hold a public debate with Clinton. Gingrich became a media star, but even he didn’t speak from the well of the House as often as Pelosi does.
Hastert, for his part, was a throwback to the Rayburn era. He didn’t hold news conferences very often, and when he did, he tried his best not to make any news. His floor appearances were generally brief, and he generally made them only when big events — such as the Sept. 11 attacks — took place or when major legislation, such as the use-of-force resolution for Iraq, was being considered.
“Hastert only went out there on special occasions,” said a former aide to the Illinois Republican, who resigned last year and has now taken a job with the lobbying law firm Dickstein Shapiro. “The idea was that it would maximize his impact. When he did go out there [to speak], people would listen, because it didn’t happen very often. Pelosi does it all the time.”
Pelosi clearly relishes being speaker in a way that Hastert didn’t — especially during his last few years in office — and her enthusiasm carries her out to the well of the chamber.
“Every time I step on the floor, I’m very excited about it,” said Pelosi, whose father, the late Rep. Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., served in the House from 1939 until 1947. “To go on the floor as the speaker of the House, who wouldn’t want to be there?”