Who Will Obama Be Bargaining With In The 113 House?

An underrated issue looking at the legislative agenda in the new year is the question of who’s actually decisive in the House of Representatives.

This is perhaps best explained by analogy with the United States Senate. Over there it’s clear that what you need is a coalition of 60 Senators to pass bills under the normal process. That means the 55 Democrats plus 5 moderate Republicans, or else the 45 Republicans plus 15 moderate Democrats. Sometimes big leader-to-leader agreements happen, but legislation often occurs on the basis of minimum winning coalitions. The Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, for example, was overwhelmingly opposed by the GOP but Scott Brown, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe made a separate peace with the Democrats and it passed.

This kind of thing isn’t unheard of in the House of Representatives, but it’s not possible in the modern era.

Back in the day it was. The Reagan Revolution was enacted in 1981 by the GOP minority joining with a dissident faction of Boll Weevil conservative Democrats to pass bills. But under modern conditions, bills opposed by the Speaker of the House almost never make it to the floor. If Reagan had to negotiate compromises with Tip O’Neill rather than with a minority of O’Neill’s caucus, he never could have passed some of his key 1981 agenda items.

Dennis Hastert formalized the new rules as the “majority of the majority” principle. For a bill to pass his House of Representatives, it needed two concurrent majorities—the support of both a majority of House members and the support of a majority of House Republicans. That had the effect of shifting the veto point in the House well to the right of the median house member. During the last congress, Speaker Boehner changed the rules again adopting the principle that he only wanted to move legislation that had the support of 218 Republicans which shifts the veto point way further to the right. That absolute majority principle is a common norm of procedure in parliamentary systems. Angela Merkel wants to pass bills through the Bundestag that can pass in principle exclusively relying on the votes of her own coalition. If you require opposition votes to pass your bills, your government is in constant risk of collapse. But those systems generally have fewer veto points outside the lower house of parliament so the practical impact isn’t as gridlockerific.

At any rate, the point is that these kind of things are at least partially under Boehner’s control and his decision-making about them is a huge driver of the odds of compromise. The House Republican majority isn’t that big. If Boehner allowed Boll Weeviling a lot of stuff could pass that won’t pass under the majority-of-the-majority principle, and there’s stuff that can pass under majority-of-the-majority rules that can’t pass under the absolute majority principle. Under the current rule, you’re asking Obama to bargain not with the median House member (a moderate Republican) or with the median House Republican (by definition a mainstream conservative Republican) but with essentially a member of the far-right fringe. That’s tough.