In a recent essay, I evaluated President Trump’s claim that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) “will go down as the absolute worst Speaker of the House in U.S. history!”
By comparing her record to those of her most regrettable predecessors, it became clear that Pelosi does not belong in the worst-ever conversation.
How, then, does she compare to the best Speakers in American history?
As Speaker from 2007–11, Pelosi mitigated the damage done by the 2007 Financial Crisis, engineered recovery from the Great Recession, and passed Obamacare. Since reclaiming the gavel in 2019, she has passed 400 liberal bills, renewed NAFTA, blocked Trump’s border wall, and impeached the most corrupt president in US history. (For more detail, see “Is Nancy Pelosi the Worst-Ever Speaker of the House?”)
Does all of that qualify Pelosi as great? To find out, we must review the achievements of her greatest predecessors.
Frederick Muhlenberg (1789–91, 1793–95), the first Speaker, helped President Washington organize the first effective federal government. Muhlenberg’s House passed the Bill of Rights, organized the federal judiciary, and created the Departments of State, Treasury, and War (now Defense).
More controversially, Muhlenberg found revenue to help Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, fund a bankrupt government saddled with massive Revolutionary War debt. Since 1754, the 13 colonies/states had bitterly resisted paying taxes to a central government. Muhlenberg, Washington, and Hamilton made Americans grow up, kick down, and stop flaking on foreign and domestic debts. They did this by enacting a protective tariff, levying an excise tax on whiskey, and launching the First Bank of the United States to provide effective financial regulation.
Henry Clay (1811–14, 1815–20, 1821–23) got off on the wrong foot by foolishly rushing the country into the ill-advised War of 1812. But then he worked with Presidents Madison and Monroe to reconcile Hamiltonian policy with Jeffersonian ideology, passing the American System, a package including high tariffs to accelerate industrialization, federally-funded transportation infrastructure to promote internal trade, and the Second Bank of the United States, to revive effective financial regulation.
Galusha Grow (1861–63) supported President Lincoln. Grow raised the tariff and slapped an income tax on the rich to fund the Civil War, then passed the Homestead Act, started the trancontinental railroad, and launched agricultural and technical colleges across the West. All in just 2 years. Unimpressed, voters in his Pennsylvania district ousted Grow in 1862.
Schuyler Colfax (1863–69) picked up where Grow left off as Lincoln’s right hand in the House. Colfax funded Union victory in the Civil War, in part by authorizing the printing of sound paper money and reviving federal financial regulation with the Legal Tender & National Banking Acts. He passed the 13th Amendment to end slavery everywhere in the United States.
After the Civil War, when President Andrew Johnson let ex-Rebels restore white supremacy in the South, Colfax called bullshit. The Speaker passed Reconstruction legislation empowering the US Army to protect black civil rights in the South, including the 14th Amendment, which banned racial discrimination. Finally, Colfax impeached Johnson for clear violations of federal law; unfortunately, a gutless Senate acquitted the president by just one vote.
Champ Clark (1911–19) worked with Woodrow Wilson to slash the tariff, enact a progressive income tax, provide financial regulation through the Federal Reserve system, and pass the 17th Amendment, empowering voters to elect US Senators directly (instead of letting state legislatures corrupted by bribes give Senate seats to millionaires). Clark’s House later passed the 18th Amendment (Prohibition), a popular measure that made it politically possible for Congress also to pass the 19th Amendment (Woman Suffrage).
Clark personally opposed US entry into the Great War, but let the House vote overwhelmingly to back Wilson in fighting a war to end all wars and make the world safe for democracy.
Then, to his enduring shame, the Speaker also passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts. These measures criminalized free speech, enabling mass arrests of antiwar activists and leftists — including Rep. Victor Berger, a Wisconsin Socialist—and to the deportation of noncitizen radicals during the ensuing Red Scare.
Compounding that shame, Clark led Congress in overriding Wilson’s veto of the racist and nativist Immigration Act of 1917. This law forced prospective migrants to pass a literacy test, and expanded the ban on Chinese immigration to cover all of East Asia (except the Philippines — then an American colony — and Japan, which limited emigration to the US under the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement).
Finally, Clark failed to support antilynching legislation.
Clark led like a Champ on political and tax reform, and belatedly on woman suffrage. Unfortunately, he tarnished that legacy by being a total chump on civil liberties, immigration, and race. On balance, he barely rates as a good Speaker.
Henry Thomas Rainey (1933–34) served just 15 months as Speaker, but in that time, he helped Franklin Roosevelt launch the New Deal. This began with a record-breaking blitzkrieg of legislation in the administration’s First 100 Days, including several rapid job creation programs, including the Federal Emergency Relief Agency, the Public Works Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Also in the First 100 Days, Rainey and FDR…
- Helped farmers with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration
- Began reviving manufacturing with the National Industrial Recovery Administration
- Promoted economic development in the country’s poorest region through the Tennessee Valley Authority
- Ended the nation’s worst-ever financial crisis and prevented future crises with the Glass-Steagall Banking Act
- Helped Americans avoid foreclosure with the Home Owners Loan Corporation
After the 100 Days, Rainey’s House continued to crank out New Deal legislation. In June 1934, Congress created the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate the stock market and avert future crashes.
The next week, Rainey’s House passed the most powerful economic recovery and job creating bill of the entire New Deal: The Reciprocal Tariff Act of 1934, which authorized the president to make free trade deals. High Republican tariffs had helped cause the Great Depression and had greatly slowed recovery. FDR’s free trade deals did more to foster recovery from the Depression than all of his other New Deal programs combined. Reciprocal tariff reductions continued to drive US and world economic growth after World War II, helping make the last 75 years the most prosperous and peaceful in human history.
21st-century Democrats would do well to remember that free trade is a New Deal program.
In the summer of 1934, Rainey died of a heart attack, probably traceable to legislative overexertion.
John McCormack (1962–71) rivaled Rainey for legislative productivity. After passing the 24th Amendment to ban racist poll taxes, McCormack worked with President Lyndon Johnson to end Jim Crow, wage War on Poverty, and build the Great Society. This included…
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning racist and sexist discrimination
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965, ending racist voting restrictions
- The Immigration & Nationality Act of 1965, ending racist immigration quotas
- The Civil Rights Act of 1968, forbidding housing discrimination
- Head Start, preschool for low-income kids
- Title I, federal funding for low-income kids in public schools
- Federal financial aid (loans and grants) to cover college tuition for kids from poor and middle-class families
- Medicaid, federal health insurance for the poor
- Medicare, federal health insurance for elderly
- The Clean Air Act of 1963 and many other environmentalist measures
- Public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts
- The Gun Control Act of 1968
In 1968, McCormack & LBJ showed fiscal responsibility by raising taxes to defray Vietnam War spending. They passed an unpopular income tax surcharge that turned the federal deficit into a budget surplus. Since then, every Congress and president has run bigger and bigger deficits, except during Bill Clinton’s second term.
Back to Pelosi
Clearly, if Pelosi aspires to be one of the greatest Speakers ever, she has her work cut out for her. It would require a truly massive Democratic win in 2020, large majorities in the House and Senate, and an activist president committed to bold progressive action — but smart enough to know that politics is the art of the possible. Such a president would meet people where they are, inspire them to aim high, fight the good fight, and craft sensible policies to revive the American Dream. The only candidate in the Democratic field who fits that description is Senator Elizabeth Warren.