Former Sen. Larry Craig and former Congressman Richard Stallings – two elder statesmen in Idaho politics – were in the middle of the fray during another time when the speaker of the House left office in mid-term – but in different roles.
Stallings, as a Democrat serving under then-House Speaker Jim Wright when he resigned in 1989, was blaming Newt Gingrich and Republicans for orchestrating the scandal against Wright. Craig, a Republican congressman at the time, was a member of the bipartisan ethics committee that essentially brought down the speaker, who resigned in May of that year.
Craig and the committee had a clear-cut case against Wright. The 69 ethics charges brought against him included accepting lavish gifts and profiting from a book he wrote. Stallings continues to maintain that Gingrich was responsible for Wright’s undoing, but acknowledges that Wright ethically stepped over the line.
Wright’s resignation turned out to be a big break for Stallings. Rep. Tom Foley of Washington State was elevated to the speakership and some good things began to happen for Stallings’ 2nd Congressional District.
“Foley understood my situation completely, and he was very kind,” Stallings said. “I was able to get funding for a hydro plant at Island Park. I didn’t get the time of day with Wright, but Foley understood the issue and knew public power. He helped me on a number of issues.”
Stallings served under one other speaker – Tip O’Neill, who was in office after Stallings’ narrow, and surprising victory, over George Hansen in 1984. All three speakers had much different personalities.
“O’Neill gave me a pass,” Stallings said. “He told the whips to leave me alone, because I came from such a difficult state. He wasn’t going to put any pressure on me on any of my votes.”
Wright felt that Stallings, as a Democrat, had certain obligations to the party. “I got crossways with him a couple of times, and that didn’t help me.”
Stallings felt a sense of relief when Wright left his post, probably similar to Congressman Raul Labrador’s sentiments about Speaker John Boehner’s departure later this month. In a column I wrote last week, Labrador heavily criticized Boehner for pitting different GOP factions against one another and leading by fear and intimidation. He called Boehner a “20th century speaker of the House living under a 20th century environment.”
As Stallings did in 1989, Labrador welcomes a change at the top. The Idaho Republican thinks he can be more effective under new leadership, and especially if the new speaker takes steps to unite the party.
Craig, who as a young congressman in the 1980s had his own battles with a passive Republican leadership, understands Labrador’s position.
“Raul came to town with a group that was angry and frustrated over spending levels, the growth of government and the Obama administration. He wanted to get things done that were outside of what Boehner thought of as governing,” Craig said.
As Craig sees it, a new speaker’s immediate challenge will be to bring the conservative and moderate factions together.
“If divided, we are no force against Obama,” Craig said. “We need five or six things that show the difference between a Democratic president and Congress versus a Republican president and Congress.”
In the meantime, Craig said, Republicans need to go through the exercise of governing, such as getting budgets completed. A government shutdown, with Republicans holding majorities in both houses of Congress, “would be feudal at best and destructive at worst.”
As for Congressman Mike Simpson, his political world also will change when Boehner leaves office. Boehner and Simpson are close friends and Simpson has been one of Boehner’s closest allies, as well as a leading critic of the conservative Freedom Caucus. Simpson got plenty in return for loyalty, especially on western issues.
“Because of their relationship, not only did (Boehner) listen to Mike, but he helped facilitate some of the things Mike wanted to do in Idaho,” Craig said. “When you are willing to work with leadership, then leadership will work with you.”
Simpson, a former Idaho speaker of the House, is well versed on how to play the leadership game, and is well positioned to carry on. It will be interesting to see what happens to Labrador, who seems to always find a way to make things interesting.