There have been eight speakers since Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn died in the office he held for 17 years, and while some of them have been very memorable, such as Tip O'Neill and Newt Gingrich, and others extraordinarily consequential, such as Nancy Pelosi, none has truly driven American history.
In January, Republican John Boehner will be two heartbeats from the presidency, and should disaster befall the country, the nation would be in capable hands if tragedy thrust him forward.
The question is, such unprecedented and unhappy circumstances aside, does Boehner aspire to mark American history as more than an answer to a trivia question, more than did Carl Albert and John McCormick, Dennis Hastert, Jim Wright or Tom Foley? If Boehner does, this will be the week that he starts out on that path.
Boehner is a tough, wily and underestimated son of Ohio, one of 12 children, a product of Catholic schools, a Bishop Moeller Crusader through and through.
He is said to be loyal to his friends and to the traditions of the House, and last week he promoted three long-serving Republicans to the leadership of three committees where various sets of reformers had hoped to see new faces for a new era.
Tea Party activists are outraged and, worse by far, the Pledge to America that Boehner and his colleagues promulgated on a House Web site as binding on the Republicans of the current House seems to be in shreds because of the "tax deal" that turned into a Christmas tree with ethanol and windmills under its branches.
Now Boehner faces a choice. He can in good conscience declare that the deal he agreed to has been buried under a mountain of pork and that, upon further reflection, he ought not to have gone along with it in the first place because of the explicit, specific provisions in the Pledge to America he captained and is now in a position to advance.
Boehner can make a stand as memorable as the one he took on Feb. 13, 2009, when he dropped 1,100 pages of an unread stimulus bill on the floor of the House and denounced the process that produced in near-secrecy such a deficit-driving monster.
There are enormous risks to that course. Markets could be unsettled and even sell off for a few days. The president will denounce Boehner as untrustworthy, and the Washington Post, the New York Times and Politico will repeat the charge without examination of the White House's capitulation to the spending frenzy demanded by Democrats as an additional bit of blackmail necessary to prevent the biggest tax increase in history.
The replacement legislation in the new Congress might take weeks to forge though the 23 Democratic senators facing re-election in 22 months will not block for long the tax relief that the president and his senior advisers have all admitted is crucial to the nation's economic growth.
Boehner can choose this week to reaffirm what he and the GOP leadership have said over and over again for the past two years: We cannot stay on this path. The new speaker can, with the country's attention fixed on him, use that moment to warn the country that the fiscal cliff is real and that we are at its edge, perilously close to taking a turn marked Greece and Ireland.
If John Boehner does the right thing this week, a speakership not yet begun will already have made a profound mark on American history.
Examiner Columnist Hugh Hewitt is a law professor at Chapman University Law School and a nationally syndicated radio talk show host who blogs daily at HughHewitt.com.