Being John Boehner
“I don’t want to be John Boehner,” said Councilman Jimmy Vacca of the Bronx in a recent debate for New York City Council Speaker. “When he goes in to see Obama, Obama says, ‘I can’t negotiate with you because you don’t represent your body.’ … I want to be a Speaker that when I sit down with the mayor, he will know that I consulted my colleagues and that I represent the will of the body.”
The remark was in response to a proposed package of reforms that would diminish the powers of the office, most notably by curtailing the Speaker’s control over the distribution of member items. Vacca’s argument is that the reforms weaken the Council in relation to the mayor by unilaterally disarming one of the most effective weapons in the Speaker’s arsenal. Without the carrot and stick of member items, the Speaker would have to depend more on the body’s ability to arrive at consensus on its own—a problematic proposition in any legislature, particularly one with so many firebrand ideologues and wild card freshmen.
As a former good government advocate, I am viscerally inclined to support the proposed reforms to the Speaker’s office. I have bristled over the years as Speaker Quinn used the power of the purse to cajole her fellow Council members into submission and castigate them when they got out of line—particularly when the reasons for flexing her muscle were petty or gratuitous. And let us not forget that it was the desire for the Speaker to be able to dole out member items year-round that led to the slush fund scandal.
Still, Vacca has a point. The analogy between the House of Representatives and what the City Council could become is not so far-fetched. Even most of Speaker Boehner’s critics would admit that he has tried his best to lead his Conference reasonably—and yet inundated with members who don’t respond to reason, and denied the tools to compel them to do so, he has been adrift, watching momentous legislation like the so-called “grand bargain” drown in eddies of extremism.
While it is noble in theory to narrow the influence the Speaker wields over the members, does the practical result of this reform negate the good it seeks to achieve? In The Prince, Machiavelli contends that if a leader must choose between being loved or feared, it is better to be feared, because “Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared.” Sadly, I believe this observation holds true 500 years later.
So should the Council do away with member items, or distribute them evenly among the flock? Though perhaps doing so may one day be proven wise and just, at the moment I, for one, am having second thoughts. Just as Voltaire pointed out that “Common sense is not so common,” time and again we have seen that when reasonable people get into government, they suddenly cease to use their reason.