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Restoring Trust, Building Integrity

Former U.S. Speaker John Boehner says Washington has much work to do to win back the public

By: Tom Walsh

John Boehner, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, will deliver a keynote address at the 2018 Mackinac Policy Conference, headlining a discussion about developing trust in American institutions.

Boehner served as U.S. representative from Ohio’s 8th district from 1991 to 2015, rising to become Speaker of the House from 2011 to 2015. A Republican with a reputation for candor and a willingness to listen and compromise, he resigned his position due to opposition within the GOP caucus. Boehner recently discussed his career highlights, how to restore public trust, and the national political climate during an interview with the Detroiter.

What is your most important accomplishment and biggest disappointment during your time in Congress?

I dedicated my speakership to addressing the drivers of our nation’s debt. I think the most important accomplishment of my time as Speaker was that we consistently passed budgets that provided a roadmap to prosperity and made common-sense structural reforms to the programs that are currently on autopilot and have our children and grandchildren facing a future of debt.

President Obama and I had an agreement in place that would have been a signifi cant step toward achieving those goals if it had been enacted. The agreement fell apart because of political opposition, which we were both getting from our respective sides. That’s probably my biggest disappointment.

During your first term in Congress, you – as a member of the so-called “Gang of Seven” – were hailed as a “conservative reformer,” challenging leadership in both parties to attack improprieties in the House Bank and House Post Office. How was the “Gang of Seven” reform effort different than the Freedom Caucus two decades later?

The mission of the Gang of Seven was to make the House more accountable to the American people by changing the way it worked and getting rid of outdated practices that were eroding public confi dence in government. At the time, you had members of Congress bouncing checks at the House Bank; stamps-for-cash deals being made at the House Post Offi ce; and the House couldn’t even pass a routine independent audit of its books. The Gang of Seven was about cleaning up and modernizing Congress as an institution. On matters relating to the Republican policy agenda, we generally voted with our leadership.

You denounced the Affordable Care Act as something not done openly, with transparency and accountability, before its passage in 2010. Today, Democrats are making similar complaints about the GOP-controlled Congress. What will it take to re-establish transparency and compromise?

The House is much more transparent and accountable today than it was at the beginning of 2011, when I took the Speaker’s gavel. We made it much easier for legislative information to be accessed online, in real time, by the American public. Bills are now posted online at least two days before they come to a vote. Pork-barrel earmarks were banned. The House still has those practices in place. With respect to “compromise,” I’ve always believed the goal is finding common ground, without compromising on principle.

On the topic of education, you played a key role in writing the No Child Left Behind Act, compromising on details with Sen. Edward Kennedy and others. How do you see education policy evolving under President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos?
The No Child Left Behind process was about fi nding common ground and changing federal law to reflect what the public believed. President George W. Bush was elected in 2000 having promised to demand more accountability from the federal education programs that for decades had been throwing money at a problem with little results. I didn’t see anything conservative about continuing to spend billions in taxpayer dollars each year without a system in place to encourage accountability. As it turned out, liberals like Sen. Kennedy and Rep. George Miller weren’t any bigger fans of that practice than I or President Bush.

I was open about my belief that we needed to provide better options to parents with children in struggling public schools, including the right to transfer to private schools. I still believe the full range of options should be available to all students, and I think the current administration shares that goal.

You blame modern-day news outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC, along with social media, for pushing people further right and left. How much blame does the media deserve for hyperpartisanship?
Americans are bombarded by news and information, and they tend to gravitate toward the news outlets that reflect their viewpoints. This does, I believe, have the effect of pushing people into their respective ideological corners. Many Americans have grown distrustful of the so-called mainstream media because they detected a political agenda or bias running through the big TV networks and media entities and got tired of being told what they had to think or believe. I’ve always believed it’s up to our elected leaders to demonstrate that it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

How has President Trump impacted the Republican Party, the standing of the United States in the world, and the tone of public discourse? How can we restore trust?

President Trump is probably the most pragmatic person ever to occupy the Oval Office. There isn’t an ideological bone in his body. As I’ve said publicly many times, he’s only kind of a Republican. As you know, I’m with Squire Patton Boggs, the global law and public policy firm. In our 2016 post-election analysis, we predicted the Trump presidency might look a lot like the Trump presidential campaign: noisy, chaotic, occasionally divisive – but also, ultimately, somewhat effective. He certainly doesn’t do everything the way I’d do it, but the Republican Party, and the world, will eventually evaluate his presidency on the results.