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 of Representatives, 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 on the House floor to his bold participation in the conservative offensive that led to huge Republican gains on November 2, Boehner has burnished his image as someone who can be trusted to lead the new Republican House into the many battles that lie ahead.
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 attacks on free markets the Obama administration may hatch. 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 Rep. Joe Barton, elected to Texas’ 6th district seat in 1984. Since then, during his ascendancy in 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, about to deliver exactly the wrong message to a country looking to make sure Boehner “gets it” as much as his recent tone suggests.
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 party plus six years as ranking member if not? Or is it a constantly running meter, encompassing in Barton’s case his tenure as chairman and his current status as ranking member of the minority party?
Barton’s party will return to the majority in January as the 112th Congress begins, 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 occupied both chairs knows that there is a world of difference between chairman and ranking member status.
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 the matter immediately.
And that is exactly what he should do.
The most likely alternative is Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, elected from Michigan’s sixth district in 1986. He is an affable and popular member, with a praiseworthy record of constituent services in a part of Michigan that clearly admires his moderate views.
But up against a White House and a 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, Texas plant is in his district.
But those are small dents in the armor of an overall record that glows with examples of standing up for the hardest tests for conservatism. I do not want to believe that Speaker-to-be Boehner would shrink from the prospect of offering up the boldest opposition his party can in the face of a wounded yet combative army of Democrats.
Whatever Speaker-to-be Boehner needs to do — from accepting Barton’s interpretation of the tenure rule or issuing a waiver to allow him to serve as chairman — that is precisely what should happen.
Millions of voters with high expectations are watching.
Mark Davis is the host of the most popular radio talk show in Dallas-Ft Worth, TX on WBAP, and a columnist for the Dallas Morning News.