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Book Review: On the House, by John Boehner
Dr. Louis Perron - Political Consultant Dr. Louis Perron - Political Consultant
Saturday, July 23, 2022


On my last spa day, I told my wellness buddy that I am currently reading the book On the House by John Boehner. "John who?" he asked me.

John Boehner was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from January 2011 until October 2015, and in that position, he was the third-highest ranking American after the president and the vice president. Boehner was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990. In other words, he has seen presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama govern in Washington D.C. and talks about all three of them in his memoirs.

To be Speaker of the House is a powerful position, especially in presidential systems where their role is somewhat functionally equivalent to a Prime Minister in parliamentary systems. They somewhat act like the conductor of parliament (knowing fully well that a conductor makes or breaks an orchestra). The hardest power of the Speaker is that he controls what bills make it to the floor for a vote. In addition, they have soft power that should not be underestimated. For example, they get to decide which members of parliament get to travel (and of course almost all members of parliament want to travel).

Yet to be Speaker of the House is a position in which it is hard to shine. Dennis Hastert for example, who served as Speaker during much of the Bush presidency, was later sent to jail. Not only in the U.S., but also in other presidential systems, they rarely move up and become presidents.

An effective speaker knows how to count votes, which means that he has to be able to distinguish between members who bullshit him and those who can be counted on. As I wrote in an earlier piece about Speaker Nancy Pelosi, money (=campaign donations) is an important asset for a Speaker to hold his caucus together and instill discipline.

Boehner writes that during his time in congress, he met some of the smartest and some of the dumbest people. I guess parliaments represent their peoples pretty well after all.

On a personal note, Boehner writes about his humble beginnings growing up with eleven brothers and sisters. He writes anecdotally that he never used a towel that was entirely dry while living with his family. Growing up in a big family also made Boehner tolerant to chaos. His father owned a bar, where John would work earning two dollars a Saturday. He bargained for a pay rise to five dollars, which served him as an early lesson in negotiating.

What makes the book stand out is how honest Boehner talks about his successes, but also his struggles and failures. In fact, when Republicans won the majority in 2010, it was his turn to become Speaker, but by that time, he had already grown somewhat distant to his own party.

The key question in that respect is the one every member of parliament and especially those in the leadership have to answer: do you want to make a statement, lead a movement, and become a symbol?  Or do you actually want to legislate and get something done? If it's the second one, chances are that you will not get everything you want, but instead will have to make a compromise.

Boehner also talks in frank terms about the rise of partisan media and its crucial role in that process. When he was first elected in the 1990, there was no FOX News, no Breitbart and barely any talk radio. By the time he became speaker in 2010, however, they have all become an important factor. In fact, they have become a new power center.

Bohner left Washington D.C. in 2015. The processes he describes, have only become more pronounced since then.

Dr. Louis Perron is an internationally renowned political consultant based in Switzerland. He has won dozens of competitive election and referendum campaigns in various countries. His clients include everything from mayors up to senators, members of cabinet, presidents – and a former Miss Universe.

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