If you want to understand how Congress, the Minnesota Legislature or for that matter any legislative body really operates, I highly recommend reading “On the House,” John Boehner’s autobiography. Boehner was an Ohio congressman who rose to become Speaker of the House from 2010 to 2014. Previously he had been both Republican minority and majority leader.
Although laced with salty vocabulary, the book is a riot. Boehner basically skewers everybody: Democrat, Republican, president, senator or representative. It makes no difference. In the first 20 pages alone, three former representatives from Minnesota come under fire.
Boehner was elected to Congress from Ohio in 1990. The first thing he discovered upon arrival was the House Bank scandal. He wrote, “Here in Congress, if I had zero dollars in my account, I could just write checks and someone else would pay for it. I guess you’d have to pay the House bank back at some point, but nobody seemed to be too bothered by that. And guess who paid for this great perk? The American taxpayer.”
Altogether, 296 of the 435 members were bouncing checks. Two of the worst offenders, Boehner writes, were Minnesotans, former 2nd District Republican Rep. Vin Weber and former 6th District DFL Rep. Gerry Sikorski. Weber bounced 125 checks worth $47,987, while Sikorski bounced 671 totaling $119,996. That was still real money in 1992.
Weber decided not to seek re-election and has become a successful D.C. power broker. That was the wiser move. Sikorski blamed his wife, saying he was too busy legislating to worry about overdrafts. That didn’t fly. Voters replaced him with Republican Rod Grams that November.
The third Minnesotan that Boehner takes a shot at is former 6th District Rep. Michele Bachmann. He writes, “When she first came to town, Bachmann was largely a bomb thrower, complaining about a lot of nonsense to get attention. … She was a kook, no doubt about it, but not the only one. There had always been a few of them around.”
That changed in 2010, when the Republicans gained control of the House. With more allies, Bachmann demanded to be assigned to the powerful Ways and Means Committee, but Boehner refused. Bachmann told Boehner that if she didn’t get Ways and Means, she was going to go on talk shows hosted by the likes of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin and explain how Boehner was treating the people who had just given Republicans the majority.
Boehner then came up with the idea to put her on the also prestigious House Intelligence Committee, which helps members develop national security expertise. “The choice was between (Intelligence Committee Chair Mike) Rogers ripping my head off once and Bachmann ripping it off every night on television for God knew how long. So, I took my lumps from Rogers, and Bachmann took her seat on the committee.”
Boehner adds that the move turned out well. “The funny thing is, Michele Bachmann turned out to be a very focused, hard-working member. … She showed up to the committee, did her homework, and ended up winning over her fellow members with her dedication.”
However, the larger theme of Boehner’s book is about the difficulties of leading. He says, “A leader without followers is just a man taking a walk.”
He writes, “The key to getting a majority lies in a few dozen ‘swing districts.’ So no, we are not going to see some massive Republican or Democratic majority storm into Congress ready to usher in a conservative or liberal utopia anytime soon. And that means whoever is in charge is still going to have to find common ground with the other side to get things done.”
Boehner doesn’t see Donald Trump as the major cause of the national debt increasing $3 trillion even before the pandemic hit. Congress must approve all spending and every tax cut. He sees many of the so-called hard-liners on the right as charlatans. Referring to Sen. Ted Cruz, former chair of the House Freedom Caucus Mark Meadows and former Trump director of the Office of Management and Budget Mike Mulvaney, who complained about deficit spending when in the minority, but went silent in the majority, he writes, “Most of these guys weren’t about principles. They were about chaos and power.”
At the same time, he doesn’t spare the Democrats. He writes, “The hard-left lunatics have become the center of gravity in their party.”
“’The Squad’ on the left (which includes Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar), meanwhile, has a policy agenda – a radical one that smart Democrats know is (a) unrealistic, (b) unworkable, and (c) alienating to the rest of the country. Democratic socialism just isn’t going to play. But these people command a large social media and press following, so (Speaker Nancy) Pelosi has to argue with them about tactics and policy. Which is a hell of a spot for her to be in. By the way, I can tell you with absolute certainty she knows they are a bunch of kooks. Unlike them, Nancy lives in the real world.”
Boehner remains optimistic that the United States will get through this polarizing time. However, it appears that the crazies are on the ascent on both sides of the aisle, so don’t expect good governance in the immediate future.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at email@example.com.