The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nancy Pelosi turns 75 today. She’s still the most effective leader in Congress.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks to the media during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill on Feb. 27 in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Here's a little secret about Congress: Nancy Pelosi remains the leader that inspires the most fear among her colleagues.

It's worth thinking about Pelosi's current role in Congress — and her legacy in that chamber — as she celebrates her 75th birthday today. She's been in Congress since 1987 — she won a special election to replace the late Rep. Sala Burton — and has spent the past 14 years as a member of the Democratic House leadership — including four years, from 2007 to 2011, as the first female speaker.

Pelosi, never one for deep introspection publicly, hasn't reflected much on either her career or her landmark birthday beyond what she'd like for a present.

(Random fact: Pelosi also asked for a pool table for her 70th birthday. Someone get that woman a pool table!)

That's where I come in.

Most people who write about Pelosi focus on the resume points I ticked off above. Her role in congressional history is already secure as the first woman to hold the gavel.  This picture is going to be in every congressional history book. Ever.

But I would argue that Pelosi's last five years in Congress are often overlooked when it comes to assessing her abilities as a pol. Anyone can be regarded as effective when they're on top; people who can continue to lead when times are bad are the true standouts.

And, by any measure, the past five years have been some of the worst of Pelosi's time in Congress. She watched as Republicans claimed 63 seats and the House majority in 2010 by running against her (and President Obama).

Then four years later, Republicans were at it again — benefitting from an unpopular president to solidify their majority into the party's largest win since World War II. And, only this week, a local affiliate in San Francisco ran a piece headlined: "As She Turns 75, Pelosi’s Odds Of Regaining Speakership Becoming ‘Terribly Unlikely’."

Amid all of these losses, Pelosi has weathered a steady stream of chatter — both from reporters and even from some members of her own caucus — that her retiring (or at least stepping down as minority leader) might be the best thing for the party. I, for one, have repeatedly (and wrongly) written Pelosi's political obituary following the party's losses in 2010 and 2014.

Through it all, Pelosi has said very little publicly — you'll notice that's a recurring theme here — but through aides has made clear that she is staying on as the top House Democrat because she simply doesn't believe anyone else can do the job. “She’s got an amazing reservoir of goodwill in the caucus. Who can do what she can do? The answer is nobody,” Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who served as chief of staff to Pelosi’s predecessor, Dick Gephardt, told WaPo's Paul Kane back in December

Most people assume Pelosi's uniqueness — and the reason she believes she can't go anywhere just yet — is entirely predicated on her fundraising ability. She raised $100 million for the party and its candidates in the 2014 cycle and, according to her allies, has raked in $430 million since she came into leadership in early 2002.

And, it is true that no one in the House Democratic caucus — or, aside from New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, any other congressional Democrat  — can raise money in the quantities Pelosi can. But to focus solely on Pelosi's fundraising ability is to miss the true story of the past few years: her iron grip over her caucus on contentious legislation.

While the divisions within Boehner's conference tend to draw most of the media attention, the reason those fissures are so damaging to the Republican leader is because Pelosi has demonstrated an uncanny ability to keep her caucus from throwing even a few votes Boehner's way. The most recent example was Boehner's attempt to pass a three-week extension of funding for the Department of Homeland Security, a move aimed at buying time to quiet conservatives' concerns with a funding bill that didn't include the repeal of President Obama's executive actions on immigration. The measure failed as 52 Republicans rebelled to vote "no," joined by all but 12 Democrats. Boehner was forced to put a "clean" DHS funding bill on the floor (one without any mention of Obama's executive actions) and that passed with the votes of every one of the 182 Democrats in attendance.

That same basic game plan has played out time and time again since Boehner took over as speaker four-plus years ago.  Boehner tries to find a solution that will win over a majority of the majority.  Tea party conservatives revolt. Pelosi holds her caucus in line, refusing to throw Boehner any sort of lifeline.  Boehner is forced to either pull the legislation before it ever makes the House floor (i.e. "Plan B" on the fiscal cliff) or watch as he is publicly embarrassed by losing the vote.

Now, Pelosi hasn't kept her caucus in line by sheer force of personality. Her fundraising ability matters (a lot) when it comes to making sure members don't even think about rebelling. So, too, does the fact that while the House Democratic caucus has shrunk in the wake of losses in 2010 and 2014, that shrinkage has made its membership even more dominated by liberals. (The ranks of moderate and conservative Democrats sitting in Republican-leaning districts were absolutely decimated by those two elections.) Pelosi is a revered figure among the liberals in Congress (and nationally) so, in a weird way, the problems the party has experienced in House elections since 2010 has made her more rather than less powerful within the ranks of House Democrats.

Smart politicians, of course, not only adapt to ever-changing circumstances but find ways to make it all work in their favor. That's the story of Pelosi over these past few years. Most politicians — particularly those with their place in history already set — would have walked away amid the troubles she and her party have been forced to navigate since 2010. Pelosi, by contrast, has added an overlooked-but-it-shouldn't-be chapter to her congressional career. She remains the most feared — and therefore, most effective — leader in either party in Congress.