After much tumult and drama, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has finally been elected as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. And while most observers are understandably focused on the many challenges that lay ahead of Speaker Ryan and this congress, it’s worth taking a moment to recognize the significant accomplishments of Ryan’s predecessor, now former Speaker John Boehner. While presiding over the largest Republican majority since the 1920s, Boehner enacted three pro-growth free trade agreements while promoting more American jobs, passed job training reform, student loan reform, VA reform, Medicare reform and enacted new tools to fight human trafficking. But the most lasting accomplishments of Boehner’s legacy was his boldly ending earmarks in 2011 and the passage of the Budget Control Act later that year, which capped discretionary spending saving taxpayers trillions. And all of this was achieved in just the last four and a half years with a liberal Democrat in the White House.
In passing the Budget Control Act of 2011, Boehner achieved the first real entitlement reform in nearly two decades, saving taxpayers some $2.9 trillion over ten years. This alone is the most significant spending reduction in modern history, and more than what was secured by President Ronald Reagan when Tip O’Neill was speaker. Boehner protected 99 percent of Americans– families making less than $1 million per year–from a permanent increase in their taxes and passed the first ten-year House-Senate balanced budget plan since 2001. Just on its own, this seismic shift in the trajectory of federal spending in the long term is a historic achievement of major significance.
The other major fiscal and cultural shift was Boehner’s brave ban on earmarks. Ever since his 1990 election, Boehner never sought or accepted any earmarks. And for decades, he was one of very few who refrained from the bipartisan activity of “bringing home the bacon” i.e. stuffing annual spending bills with costly and often wasteful projects requested by powerful campaign contributors and parochial interests. Leadership, on both sides of the political aisle, would lard-up major spending bills with such project dollars as “sweeteners” to entice otherwise responsible rank-and file Members to vote for bloated spending bill after spending bill.
When Boehner was elected speaker in early 2011, he could have followed in the footsteps of previous speakers and bought votes by handing out millions of taxpayer dollars for various pet projects or withheld these cherished dollars to enforce conference discipline. But Boehner stood on principle, and despite the fact that doing so would greatly diminish his own political power, he ended earmarking entirely. As stated, for decades he had foresworn this wasteful practice, and as speaker he selflessly seized the opportunity to foster reform. He also knew that Republicans lost their majorities in 2006 in part because of a backlash over runaway spending and the explosion of earmarks in spending bills such as the highway bill of 2005 which included thousands of earmarks including the now notorious Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.
Year after year since 2011, Boehner has held the ban in place despite constant pressure from within the GOP caucus, Democrats and special interests to once again to open the gates to the bipartisan feeding frenzy of earmarking spending bills. Lobby firms specializing in securing earmarks have been forced to seek honest lines of work. But nothing is forever, and the temptation of earmarks remains very much alive. The CATO Institute’s Dan Mitchell once called earmarks “the gateway drug to big government addiction” and sure enough, some Republicans and Democrats have continued in their effort to restore earmarking spending bills. After the 2014 elections, Alabama Republican Representative Mike Rogers, offered an amendment to the House Republican Conference rules to end the ban on earmarks. Boehner opposed the amendment, spoke against it, and thankfully the band remained in place. Should Congress ever backslide and return to including earmarks, this would only serve to usher increased pork-barrel spending and the appearance of, if not actual, corruption.
On the heels of His Eminence Pope Francis’ historic address to a joint session of Congress, Boehner abruptly announced his departure from Congress triggering a chain of events culminating in the election of Paul Ryan as the new Speaker of the House. Boehner’s dramatic departure, however, should not overshadow the significant accomplishments under his leadership of the Republican majority. In 2006, Republicans lost their majorities in part because of the explosion in federal spending. Speaker Boehner’s most important legacy is emphatically fixing that problem by ending earmarks and passing the Budget Control Act, which has effectively capped discretionary spending. His successor should heed the lessons of 2006 and not return to business as usual.
Suhail A. Khan is a life-long Reagan conservative, a member of the Conservative Action Project and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, a Christian religious freedom think tank.