Warning to Next House Speaker: Risks Go With Rewards

There are lots of good things about being elected Speaker of the House.

You are third in line for the presidency, right after the vice president. You get to fly around the world on military charter flights. And the office comes with an excellent view.

Nancy Pelosi
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Nancy Pelosi

But there’s one huge drawback: Speakers of the House tend to leave office in defeat or disgrace—or both.

Nancy Pelosi was elected speaker in the wake of the 2006 elections, but her fate is unclear going forward. Inside the Beltway, it is widely assumed that she would step down from leadership or even resign from Congressif there are huge Democratic losses on election day.

Of course, she could fight on as Democratic minority leader: The much smaller Democratic conference elected this year may also be much more liberal, too.

That’s because the 2010 Democratic losers are likely to be the more moderate Democrats in swing districts, not liberal stalwarts in safely gerrymandered districts. The liberals may end up being more inclined to support Pelosi than the defeated members, who won’t get a vote.

If Pelosi were to step down, she’d be mirroring the decision of her Republican predecessor, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who resigned from leadership after his party lost the majority in the 2006 election. He served as a back-bencher for a time before quitting Congress altogether.

Before him, Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped down after Republicans lost seats in the 1998 elections and the fiery Georgian had been politically damaged by the impeachment of Bill Clinton, an ethics investigation and marital difficulties.

Gingrich succeeded Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat whose own Washington State district was wrested away in the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress.

Republican Representative John Boehner
Republican Representative John Boehner

And Foley had succeeded Speaker Jim Wright, who stepped down in 1989 after an ethics investigation and a series of Democratic scandals that set the stage for the 1994 Republican wave.

You see what I mean?

John Boehner, the Republican congressman from Ohio who is in line to become Speaker of the House if Republicans prevail on Tuesday, arrived in Washington in 1991, so he’s watched the spectacle of the speakership up-close for decades. He likes to tell colleagues that he knows the “good, the bad and the ugly” of the speakership history.

If he ascends to the big job on Tuesday, he’ll need to use all that experience to avoid the fates of five of his predecessors.