Normalizing the Abnormal

Ashely Parker and Jeremy W. Peters write in NYT today:

A major source of Mr. Boehner’s limitations as speaker is simple math. Republicans control 232 seats, and 218 are required for a majority when there are no vacancies, meaning that in most instances, he can afford to lose only 14 Republican votes.

I am disturbed at this bland equation of being a Speaker of the House of Representatives with being the leader of only one’s own party within it. Boehner isn’t trapped by “simple math”, he is trapped by his decision not to function as a true Speaker of the House, which would involve drawing votes from both parties at least some of the time. By failing to point this out, the NYT story is normalizing Congressional behavior that is in fact well outside the historical norm.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

9 thoughts on “Normalizing the Abnormal”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for highlighting this.

    I wonder if part of the problem here isn’t the “majority of the majority” formulation, which is really ambiguous. It _sounds_ like it should mean “it goes forward if more than half my caucus approves,” but in practice it’s always meant “nothing happens unless I get a majority based only on my party’s votes.” That’s “majority made up only of the majority party.”

    This is another of Gingrich’s cockamamie importations of parliamentary notions into our system, ie the majority party works its will. In the context of how our parties and system worked at the time it was already crazy, but now there’s no more earmarking, so the party doesn’t have that leverage, and the party doesn’t control enough money to count either, now, compared with the bottomless moneybags over at Heritage Action and other interest groups. Even business doesn’t have the sway it did because they don’t mobilize the troops or money for primary campaigns. So now we have a gooper house of representatives where the majority is supposed to work its will but the party lacks almost all ability to whip its members. It’s partly Boehner, but it’s also in good part this structural stuff.

    Altogether a really fine mess, and reporting like that does nothing to help people understand what’s been going on.

    1. I wonder if part of the problem here isn’t the “majority of the majority” formulation, which is really ambiguous. It _sounds_ like it should mean “it goes forward if more than half my caucus approves,” but in practice it’s always meant “nothing happens unless I get a majority based only on my party’s votes.”

      This is a really important point. Maybe we should say a majority based only on the majority instead.

  2. For a recent perspective, how many important House votes from 2009 to 2011 did Pelosi require some (R) votes for passage?
    I don’t recall any notable ones where the (D)s supplied <50% of the votes, with some (R)s making the rest.

    Granted, it was not a split government situation, where compromise or capitulation are the options. It seems weird to expect a bill to have most it's support from one party in the House, and most of it's support from the other party in the Senate.

    1. Actually, a number (I suspect all) of the supplementals for the Irag and Afghanistan misadventures were passed with Republican votes.

  3. I wouldn’t have a problem with a highly partisan leader in the legislature, if we didn’t also have a bicameral legislature. If the legislature were unicameral (such as, for example, if we got rid of the Senate), then we wouldn’t have the situation where one party can blame another for the legislative result.

    Of course I’d also like to see a minimal set of legislative rules imposed, which the majority isn’t allowed to change, e.g. that minority members are allowed to put proposals on the floor.

  4. With compromise the fulcrum of our body politic, current reporting such as the one offered by Parker and Peters is asinine on its face, and ignorant in regards to our national heritage of regular order!

    What fools there are disguising themselves as journalists these days!

  5. Actually, for the House Speaker to act as an agent of his or her party’s caucus alone is so normal that all political science research that I know of assumes that this is what speakers always do. Perhaps there are some die-hard normative political theorists who claim it’s not what they *should* do, but nobody assumes that this part of Boehner’s behavior is at all extraordinary. (Jonathan Bernstein’s *A Plain Blog About Politics* is particularly good on this.)

    I think the problem goes deeper, to the preferences of GOP Congressmembers themselves. The members of previous House majorities took for granted that it was in their party’s interest, and in the interest of the country–assuming, as should be natural, that the party’s interest is a subset of the national interest–for some legislation to be based on cross-party compromise. This was ever more the case the more urgent the public business involved. But a substantial proportion, possibly more than half, of the current Republican House majority doesn’t believe this. It’s so committed to the exclusive rightness of its own ideology that it regards every compromise as a betrayal of principle. That’s why it prefers to risk disaster than to do the public’s business under regular order.

    Given that orientation, there’s very little Boehner can do to promote compromise without endangering his position and clearing the way for a new Speaker who would be even worse. Don’t blame Boehner. Blame his troops.

    1. I’d agree that a lot of it is rank-and-file doing what’s in their own best interest, mostly, and that their understanding of that interest has changed. But it’s also leadership and how they’ve set things up since Gingrich. Because iirc, he orchestrated the Contract with (on) America for a nationalized and ideological midterm campaign, and once he got the gavel he changed the way committee chairs were chosen– not by seniority, but for ideological and personal loyalty to him. Then he purged a number of old warhorses who’d done too much logrolling and had no loyalty to him (Bud Shuster, for example, drummed out after publicizing of indiscretions with a former staffer and replaced by the very Gingrich-loyal son). That sent a pretty powerful message about political interest to members, as I’m sure the whipping around the impeachment vote did.

      Plus at that time he and lieutenants also controlled the campaign money that the K St project was set up to raise, and let’s not forget that he also had a rule that his members couldn’t be lobbied by any firms that had even one Democrat. So the money and lobbying access and party purity even of lobbyists were all tied, and Democrats’ funding was supposed to be cut off by various strategems like changes to political contribution rules for unions, attacks on trial lawyers’ income, etc. The propaganda element was there too, because it was Gingrich who got the foreign-national broadcast ownership rules changed for Murdock. It was all of a piece, very British (more British than the British, really), very centralized. And as I remember, Delay was no slouch in this category either when his turn came.

      A lot changed over these 20 years in many regions and districts too, for a lot of reasons but probably with talk radio and Fox influence pretty central. These changes have done a lot to make politics about ideology for a good slice of the voters who actually care in one way or another about politics broadly conceived– culture war, cultural politics, was very useful that way, politicized many more things in that very useful way. Also a very European and very centralizing tendency. Opposition to (by which I mean demonizing of and concocting the most outrageous distortions and lies about) one or a few leading Democrats has also worked well for them, whether Clinton, Pelosi, or Obama.

      Just thinking out loud here, but the centralizing tendency and pressure worked very well for the gop until Citizens United blew the whole project. It opened the floodgates for special interest money that didn’t owe anything at all to the party and didn’t need the party as its conduit. I credit DeMint for seeing this possibility very early on, working even before the ruling to set up his own faction inside the senate but now controlling the sluice gates for mighty torrents of money that really are taking over the running of what’s left of the party. So the monster is now eating the creator, and that’s what ordinary members are feeling now when they refuse to stand up to the small rump of real nuts.

      So I guess my main reaction to the tracing of this shift of opinion and practice is that it may have been gradual, but a certain group of people actually made the decisions and took the actions to make this pattern work, basically planned at least the earlier stages. I don’t know if this could have been done during the Cold War, but now that we have no opposing superpower, what is there left to make a sense of self-restraint seem like a good idea to the DeMints of the world? I don’t see anything.

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