Three of the six living speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives gathered at Transylvania University on Friday to honor one of their predecessors, Henry Clay of Lexington, and discuss the challenges of that job then and now.
For 90 minutes, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, talked and joked with his predecessor, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her predecessor, J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican who quit Congress in 2007.
Pelosi told the packed auditorium that Clay believed in a strong legislature to keep presidents in check, and he thought Congress, not the president, should set national policy
"Could you please tell the president that?" Boehner quipped.
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This year marks the 200th anniversary of Clay's election as House speaker, where he served from 1811 to 1820 and brokered the Missouri Compromise on slavery. Later in his career, he was secretary of state and then one of history's most celebrated U.S. senators.
Clay's colleagues elected him speaker on his first day in the House. Boehner and Pelosi needed 20 years. This prompted Friday's moderator, CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood, to ask, "Does it make you feel like a loser?"
"A slow learner," Boehner said.
Clay won the speaker's gavel so easily because it didn't, at that point, mean very much.
Clay is credited for transforming the speaker's office into a position of power, largely by appointing his allies as key committee chairmen and sending important legislation their way to be handled as he saw fit. An accomplished lawyer, he also was a skilled debater on the House floor.
"Before Clay, speakers were primarily parliamentarians issuing rulings on points of order and determining who held the floor during debates. They did not vote except to break ties and did not engage in debate," David and Jeanne Heidler wrote in their 2010 biography Henry Clay: The Essential American.
The three speakers present Friday said the office still has great power, but it should be used judiciously. Members of the majority caucus have their own beliefs and interests, and they may resist doing what the speaker wants, they said. And the speaker — although a partisan leader — cannot entirely ignore minority caucus members who want to promote their own bills and amendments, they said.
"Everyone who's ever held that job has to make a decision about how far to push the process, how far to squeeze the institution," Boehner said.
Hastert, who was speaker during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said that catastrophe brought both parties together in Congress, if only briefly. In short order, he said, the USA Patriot Act was passed to give the government more law-enforcement authority, and terrorist insurance policies were underwritten so reconstruction could begin in New York.
Then the 2002 election cycle began and the bipartisan moment passed, Hastert said.
"Americans want to see our government work," said Hastert, now a lobbyist and corporate board member. "They want to see Congress work. They want to see real production. Being speaker, you have to make that happen."
The speakers said they agreed on some factors currently whipping up partisanship in Congress and discouraging the sort of compromise for which Clay became famous.
Those factors include a 24-hour news cycle driven by conflict and a blogosphere dominated by extreme political views; members of Congress who no longer live in Washington or spend time together on their chamber floors, forging friendships across the aisle; and campaign-finance reform that inadvertently reduced the role of political parties, which tend to be practical, in favor of ideologically focused interest groups.
Still, the speakers said, Clay's era had its share of bitterness. Clay's legacy was building consensus in Congress during the 19th century and keeping the country united despite slavery and other divisive issues — a herculean effort that collapsed a few years after he died in 1852, leading to the Civil War.
"Then as now, people had their differences. They had duels!" Pelosi said. Boehner pointed out that a House member once beat a senator with a cane in the Capitol.
Friday's tribute, with Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Lexington, in the audience, was the culmination of Lexington's first Henry Clay Week, sponsored by the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation and the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship. Dozens of students from across the country spent the week in Central Kentucky studying political science and Clay's legacy as part of it.