Boehner to Reid: “Go F—— Yourself”; Why Party Cartels Matter

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 01: Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (C) walks through Statuary Hall before entering the House Chamber to oversee a vote on ‘fiscal cliff’ legislation during a rare New Year’s Day session January 1, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Your funny reporting of the day:

It was only a few days before the nation would go over the fiscal cliff, no bipartisan agreement was in sight, and Reid had just publicly accused Boehner of running a “dictatorship” in the House and caring more about holding onto his gavel than striking a deal.

“Go f— yourself,” Boehner sniped as he pointed his finger at Reid, according to multiple sources present.

An amusing anecdote, but what’s at issue here is deadly serious—party cartel domination of the House of Representatives. The Senate had already passed a bill providing for a one year extension of Bush-era tax rates for people earning less than $250,000 a year. Harry Reid was trying to bait Boehner into allowing an open floor vote on that measure, hoping that a handful of House Republicans would join with the overwhelming majority of Democrats to pass it. But that’s now how the House works.

The House operates on the “majority of the majority” principle, aka the Hastert Rule, that the Speaker only moves legislation to the floor if most of the members of his or her caucus support it. So even if Nancy Pelosi’s majority in 2007 rested on members with pro-gun or socially conservative views, pro-gun or socially conservative legislation still couldn’t pass because House Democrats wouldn’t allow it to come for a vote. While the Senate is largely run by its pivotal members, the House is essentially run as a party cartel—by the leaders of the majority party on behalf of the views of the majority party.

This rule isn’t sacrosanct. The McCain-Feingold bill passed in violation of the principle, and eventually so did the fiscal cliff bill. But even in those cases, the majority caucus makes a strategic decision to let itself get rolled. House Republicans didn’t like the McCain-Feingold bill and didn’t want to vote for it. But ultimately they didn’t want to be the “bad guys” who were holding it up. So they allowed it to pass, counting on either the Bush administration to veto it (which they didn’t) or the Supreme Court to largely undo it (which sort of happened) and away we went. But even though the principle can be violated on occasion, we should expect it to be upheld in general. Not just because Boehner likes it that way, but because there’s no obviously superior alternative to it as a general rule of procedure. The predecessor to the Speaker-and-caucus centric House cartel dynamic was a weird kind of super-empowerment of the Rules committee that allowed it to arbitrarily bottle up proposals. 

You could say, as Reid did, that any given Speaker should just be more statesmanlike on any given issue and let the damn bill come to the floor. But clearly routinely ignoring the preferences of your caucus membership is not a viable option for a caucus leader. Another option would be to de-center the Speaker and make the House more like the individualistic senate except with over 400 individuals, a prospect that should make sensible people shudder.