If there is anyone who has redefined himself for the better during this time of tea party ascendancy, it is the man who will become the 61st Speaker of the House, John Boehner of Ohio.
As the Republican brand suffered its recent declines, it would naturally follow that Boehner’s last five years as majority-turned-minority leader would attract some negative attention.
But from his impassioned attempts to fend off Obamacare to his bold participation in the conservative offensive that led to huge Republican gains Nov. 2, Boehner has burnished his image as someone who can be trusted to lead the new Republican House into the battles ahead.
As the saying goes, he seems to “get it.”
So what a shame it would be if his instincts are wrong in one of the most important decisions he will make as his speakership approaches.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee has some of the broadest responsibilities in Congress, from health care to the environment, from telecommunications to consumer protection and beyond.
This committee will be the launching pad for the House attempt to stop Obamacare, environmental extremism and any other administration attacks on free markets. Its chairmanship could be the most important position after the top hierarchy of speaker, majority leader, whip and Republican Conference chair.
The heir apparent would seem to be Joe Barton, Texas’ 6th District congressman since 1984. During his ascendancy on the committee, he has been one of the strongest conservative voices for sensible policy on the environment, free markets and health care.
But an arcane rules dispute, sharpened by some personal chemistry issues, may be about to deliver the wrong chairman to Energy and Commerce and, worse, exactly the wrong message to a country looking to make sure Boehner really “gets it.”
The rule in question addresses how long a member may occupy the uppermost rung on the committee ladder. The House Republican Conference rule is six years. But is that six years as chairman if the member is in the majority, plus six years as ranking minority member? Or is it a constantly running meter, encompassing, in Barton’s case, his tenure as chairman and his current status as ranking member?
Barton’s party returns to the majority in January, and he asserts that he still has time in the bank to serve as chairman.
Even if I did not know and support Barton, this would strike me as reasonable. Anyone who has been on both sides knows there’s a world of difference between chairman and ranking member.
There is word that Boehner adheres to the “three terms means three terms” doctrine, in either post. But he could grant a waiver that would settle this immediately, which is exactly what he should do.
The most likely alternative is Rep. Fred Upton, elected from Michigan’s 6th District in 1986. He is affable and popular, with a praiseworthy record of constituent services in a part of Michigan that clearly admires his moderate views.
But against a White House and Senate still predisposed to push the liberal pipe dreams of government-run health care and environmental zealotry, this is no time for half-equipped warriors.
Barton has heard the occasional gripe from conservative purists, on the social issue of stem cell research and the fiscal issue of bailing out GM, whose massive Arlington plant is in his district.
But those are small dents in an overall record that glows with examples of standing up for the hardest tests for conservatism. I do not want to believe that Boehner would shrink from the prospect of offering up the boldest possible opposition in the face of wounded yet combative Democrats.
Whatever Boehner needs to do – from accepting Barton’s interpretation of the rule to issuing a waiver – that is precisely what should happen.
Millions of voters with high expectations are watching.
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