Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) shuffled his senior staff Thursday in an effort to better manage the unwieldy House, shifting his most senior aide away from day-to-day oversight and promoting a popular veteran adviser to the chamber’s top staff job.
Barry Jackson, a Boehner confidant since his first House race in 1990, is stepping down as chief of staff and taking the title of “senior counselor,” a post from which he is expected to play a more active role in the political planning for the fall campaign and strategizing for the momentous lame duck Congress in November and December. Taking Jackson’s post is Mike Sommers, another in the long line of loyalists to serve in what is commonly known as “Boehnerland.” Sommers, after graduating from Miami University in Boehner’s district in 1997, went to work for Boehner and only left his side for a brief stint in the George W. Bush White House.
Despite their shared longevity with Boehner, the two men have different managerial styles, and Sommers’s ascension may suggest a shift in how the speaker will run his inner circle.
“The decisions that lie ahead this year and early next year will have huge implications for our economy and the future of our country,” Boehner said Thursday in a statement. “This transition is about preparing fully for the responsibilities ahead, even as we stay focused on the week-to-week House agenda of removing government barriers to job creation.”
Jackson is widely regarded as a master tactician, running the drafting of the 1994 “Contract With America” and helping Boehner jump into the leadership team of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in just his third House term. He went on to the Bush White House and served as Karl Rove’s deputy for six years, eventually succeeding Rove as the top political adviser in the last years of the Bush presidency.
He returned as Boehner’s chief of staff in early 2010 after the death of Paula Nowakowski, the only other person besides Jackson and Sommers to serve as chief of staff to Boehner.
By the time Jackson headed back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2011, to be at Boehner’s side during high-level talks, he was so familiar with the surroundings that White House stewards served him his ever-present Diet Cokes without Jackson needing to ask.
Jackson’s strategic sense has, however, often led to clashes with other members of the current leadership team as well as rank-and-file lawmakers. While Boehner himself has espoused transparency and allowing the “House to work its will,” Jackson has long been viewed as a mandarin who delivers information to others on a need-to-know basis — and often, many felt that they learned well after they needed to know. Last summer, as Boehner engaged in an incredibly high-stakes negotiation with President Obama on a potential “grand bargain” on the debt crisis, Jackson kept all but one other senior aide in the dark as the speaker secretly slipped into meetings with Obama.
Completely out of the loop was House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), who was separately negotiating with Vice President Biden, and other members of the GOP leadership.
In the marathon negotiations that led to an April 2011 spending deal that shaved $38 billion off the annual funding bills, rank-and-file lawmakers were taken aback to learn that the deal was negotiated almost entirely by Jackson with the senior White House staff.
Sommers is viewed differently by other leadership teams and by lawmakers. He has a long relationship with Neil Bradley, the top policy adviser to Cantor, a critical bond at times the past few years as Jackson and his Cantor counterpart, Steve Stombres, clashed in private.
Popular among a leadership staff that has been at daggers drawn the past year, Sommers is expected to soothe those frayed edges. He is also considered an approachable figure for lawmakers who are not part of Boehner’s group of longtime lawmaker-friends. This could lead to a better day-to-day handling of the chamber, which has often seemed unruly since 87 GOP freshmen arrived in January 2011.
Sommers, however, is no shrinking violet politically. During Boehner’s tenure as minority leader, Sommers and Bradley came up with the idea of using a procedural tactic — known as the “motion to recommit” — to effectively become amendment votes even if Democrats had refused to allow any GOP amendments. Together they crafted politically painful votes for Democrats, punctuated by the GOP linkage of a gun-rights provision to a bill that would have granted voting rights for the delegate from the District.