Nancy Pelosi spoke of combating climate change, ensuring college affordability, expanding access to health care, ending the war in Iraq. Newt Gingrich envisioned a balanced budget amendment, welfare reform, tax cuts, deregulation, term limits.

John Boehner promised … well, not very much. The 112th Congress, he said, will not “kick the can” or “fall short.” It will be “the people’s House,” a place where “we can disagree without being disagreeable to each other.” There will be an end to “business as usual.” And, oh yes, “honest debate and a fair, open process.”

If you programmed a computer to generate a speech laden with cliches, solemnly vowing to achieve the unobjectionable and all but devoid of substance, it would have come up with something approximating Boehner’s remarks.

A new House speaker’s remarks upon taking the gavel may be the ultimate in little-noted nor long-remembered speeches. Certainly, Boehner isn’t the first incoming speaker to peddle platitudes; these speeches are the appropriate moment for airy promises of bipartisanship. Humility never hurts. So perhaps saying almost nothing — and nothing that can come back to haunt you — is smart politics.

Perhaps, but I was underwhelmed. I’d probably disagree with much of Boehner’s agenda, but I would have preferred at least to have him share it. Listen to the Gingrich 1995 speech and you hear his restless intelligence and visionary conservatism. Listen to Pelosi’s from 2007, and you know the substance of what she wants to get done. Listen to Boehner’s, and you hear a lot about changing House rules: three days to read bills, smaller committees, a new openness to letting the minority offer amendments during floor debate.

Watch that last one, by the way. New majorities have a tendency to promise to treat the minority better than they themselves were treated — only to renege on that vow when it turns out, inevitably, to be inconvenient. Democrats failed to live up to their pledges of fairness to the minority after they retook power. I don’t doubt that Boehner is sincere in intending to perform differently, but I also won’t be surprised if the new House bosses turn out to be just as unfair as the old ones.

Since the closest Boehner edged to substance in Wednesday’s speech involved House rules, let’s focus on one specific change he mentioned. “Old rules that have made it easy to increase spending,” the new speaker said, “will be replaced by new reforms that make it easier to cut spending.”

Not exactly. The previous pay-as-you-go rule required lawmakers to find a spending cut or new revenue to finance any cut in taxes or increase in mandatory spending. (Such as, for example, the Medicare prescription drug bill that the previous Republican majority passed without paying for.)

The new, Republican pay-go rule only requires that spending increases be paid for — and then only with a spending cut. Tax cuts can whiz through the new House. In short, the Republican version of pay-go makes deficit spending much easier than it was before.

“Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress,” Boehner said. Yes, and removing a speed bump in the way of higher deficits isn’t a promising way to begin.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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