Three U.S. Speakers talk in Lexington of lessons learned from Clay and from experience

06/25/2011 07:43 AM

The last three U.S. House Speakers framed up Kentuckian Henry Clay’s contributions to American government and put into a greater context some of the arguments going on now in Washington during a forum in Lexington on Friday.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, told the man who took her spot – Ohio Republican John Boehner – that one of Clay’s overarching philosophies was the importance of the legislative branch. He would repeatedly point out that it was the first Article of the Constitution, Pelosi said.

“Mr. Speaker, the Speaker is the head of the majority party. See how this feels to you,” Pelosi said to Boehner, who was sitting to her right. “The legislative majority should shape government. Ergo the Speaker should coordinate and direct government’s course.”

“Would you tell the president that?” Boehner deadpanned. Watch the clip:

This comes as congressional Republican and Democratic leaders have struggled to come to agreements on how to cut into the nation’s debt, which has hit the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

Boehner said that is the greatest threat facing the country’s future, its people and the Congress.

“I’ve made this point perfectly clear to the president. This is the moment. This is the opportunity. One party would never deal with this problem – way too much political risk,” he said. “But we have an opportunity because we have divided government to stand together and solve the problem.”

Two of Boehner’s Republican colleagues – Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Sen. John Kyl of Arizona – walked out of negotiations with Democratic leaders and Vice President Joe Biden earlier this week.

“I’ve watched presidents and I’ve watched people look up at this problem as if they were looking at a mountain to see how tall it was and how steep it was – and kick the can down the road,” Boehner said. “Well guess what: We’re out road to kick the can down.”

Former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who preceded Pelosi as the top-ranking lawmaker in the House, talked about how changes in technology and money in politics have altered the course of Congress.

For instance, he said, the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law changed the emphasis on political parties supporting candidates.

“After that time … money was kind of flushed out or taken out of the parties, and it was put into groups either to the left or to the right,” he said. “I think that has caused a much more tougher personal situation.”

He also lamented how congressional lawmakers no longer spend time on the House floor talking and listening to one another, which he said used to be a key to building legislative alliances.

The event with Boehner, Pelosi and Hastert was the marquee program in a week to honor Clay, the Kentucky statesman known as the “Great Compromiser.” Clay served as a senator for four years before being elected to the U.S. House in 1811. His peers chose him as House Speaker on his first day.

Clay also had ties to Transylvania University, where the forum was held. Clay served as a law professor and on its board of trustees.

- Don Weber


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