John Boehner Can’t Make The House Work

The semi-surprise failure of the appropriations continuing resolution in the House of Representatives yesterday is in part just the latest in a series of vote-counting errors from the GOP leadership going back to TARP. But I also think it highlights something important about the way the House of Representatives works.

On paper, the House is just a bunch of people and a bill that a majority of them support can pass. In practice, it doesn’t work that way. One party or another controls the House, and typically the majority party works as a cartel and attempts to deploy the constitutional powers of the House as a whole on behalf of just itself. One way of articulating this was former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s “majority of the majority” principle, which meant that only bills supported by most Republicans would come to the floor whether or not they had majority support. That kind of extra-constitutional principle makes a huge difference. If House Democrats had governed on a “majority of the majority” basis in 1981–82, Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts never would have gone through. But “majority of the majority” voting is still consistent with the idea that the majority party’s ideas need support from the minority to pass. Recent salient examples include the 2003 Medicare bill which would have failed without the 16 Democratic votes it got, the 2008 TARP bill, and even the 2009 climate change bill.

Since coming in as Speaker, Boehner appears to have repeatedly tried to alter the terms of the cartel dynamic into one where he wants to move bills that 218 Republicans support rather than bills that most Republicans support and that have 218 backers. His caucus, however, isn’t disciplined enough to make this work while at the same time the House Democratic minority is disciplined enough to force these kind of embarrassing moments. Given that at the moment nothing that passes the House can become law absent a big bipartisan compromise with the White House, I don’t think any of this has had a great deal of practical importance. Still, it’s worth keeping tabs on these developments because as institutional norms evolve it’s sure to matter sooner or later. I see this, broadly speaking, as part of the grinding breakdown of American political institutions. The system is too polarized to have regular cross-party voting on legislative initiatives, but not disciplined enough to make party line voting work.