The breakdown of the GOP machine is particularly stunning because the House is supposed to be the chamber least susceptible to legislative chaos, in large part because the majority has the power to work its will, unlike in the archaic, filibuster-infested Senate.
What’s more, the tools of majority power were honed to a razor-sharp edge in the last GOP Congress, supposedly giving the Republican House leadership a tight grip on both the legislative process and its own members.
But the spectacular failure of “Plan B” – Speaker Boehner’s last gasp attempt to force a tax bill through the House – demonstrated just how much has changed since the glory days of Newt Gingrich and the Tom “The Hammer” DeLay. The rise of the Tea Party, which was supposed to restore the GOP’s power in the House, instead has split it, and pitted it against itself.
In the process, we've learned that the tools of majority control can also be used as suicide weapons. It’s a lesson worth deeper analysis.
The Speaker's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
To be sure, as a matter of policy the Plan B debacle wasn’t anything new: Boehner’s conference similarly sabotaged his efforts to cut a debt limit deal with the White House in the summer of 2011, and then vastly complicated what should have been the simple job of extending the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits at the end of that year.
But the political symbolism of what happened the week before Christmas is hard to overstate: On a do-or-die vote, Boehner’s own conference cut him off at the knees – or a somewhat higher spot on his anatomy – in the most public way imaginable.
I’m not a obsessive C-SPAN viewer, but I don’t recall ever seeing a speaker, Democrat or Republican, so roundly humiliated by his or her own party – although that might be because most have had the good sense not to bring legislative turkeys to the floor without first making absolutely sure they had the votes to pass them.
How could this happen?
Party Animal House: The Rise of Partisan Control
The standard explanation for congressional dysfunction is the extreme polarization of American politics, which supposedly has rendered compromise impossible. There are, however, a few problems with that story.
We have had periods of ideological polarization before – before the Civil War, for example, or around the turn of the last century. And yet the legislative wheels never ground to a halt in those periods. Indeed, it was a Northern backlash against repeated congressional compromises over slavery, not a lack of such deals, that put Abraham Lincoln in the White House and triggered the secession crisis.
My search for an explanation eventually led me to a 2006 book, Party Wars: Polarization and the Politics of National Policy Making, by Barbara Sinclair, a political science professor at UCLA. Her book helped me understand that the breakdown of the House is as much an internal institutional failure as a product of external polarization – although obviously the two are related.
In a sense, the crash of the GOP machine is the climax (or anti-climax) of a political process that actually began with the post-Watergate reforms of the mid-1970s.
Sinclair traces those reforms from their beginnings in the early 1960s, when liberal Democrats launched their protracted struggle against the Dixiecrat oligarchs who then dominated the House (the key committees in particular) by virtue of their immense seniority and their voting alliances with GOP conservatives.
The 1974 post-Watergate blowout finally gave the liberals the numbers they needed to overturn – or at least override – the seniority system, and make the key committee chairs directly responsible (and responsive) to the Democratic Caucus.
The way this was accomplished is strictly inside baseball, but the net effect was that the traditional “organic” institutions of the House – the committee structure, in particular – were subordinated to the party. Policy, heretofore set by committee chairs, who negotiated their own deals directly with their Senate counterparts and the White House, now flowed downward from the Democratic Caucus, via the party leadership:
. . . it fell to party leaders to see that legislation the party membership wanted was moved to the floor – and in a form that could command a floor majority and was satisfactory to most Democrats. Over time, leaders became more and more deeply involved in the shaping of . . . legislation.
To manage these duties, the leadership vastly expanded the whip system, to serve both as an in-house intelligence service and a control mechanism for obtaining votes. This, in turn, led to the creation of special legislative task forces – in essence, ad hoc committees, parallel to the permanent ones, but staffed by the party and answerable directly to the leadership.
The Party is Always Right
The mechanisms of Democratic Party control continued to expand through the 1980s and early 1990s. Sinclair’s contention – and I gather it is a controversial one – is that this growth set the stage for the GOP excesses that followed: In other word, there was far more continuity to the 1994 Republican “revolution” than Dems would like to admit.
I wouldn’t go that far, but there’s no denying the post-Watergate reforms greatly strengthened the partisan majority and diminished the minority. Committee chairs grew far more reticent about cooperating with their GOP ranking members. Those who wanted to keep their committees hustled to demonstrate their partisan loyalty to the caucus.
But while the Democrats generally didn’t run their system along strict ideological lines (the party was too diverse at the time for that), the Republicans who overthrew them in 1994 intended to do exactly that.
In the minority, the GOP had been slow to let go of the old seniority-based order. In the heat of the Republican "revolution," however, they leapfrogged the Dems, and began to build a partisan machine with more overt authoritarian tendencies.
For example: If the Dems limited the role of the minority in House-Senate conferences, for example, the Republicans kicked them out entirely – or bypassed formal conferences entirely. Likewise, if the Dems made committee chairs answerable to the caucus, the GOP subjected theirs to Star Chamber proceedings:
Republican party leadership instituted a new procedure for the selection of committee chairs: chair aspirants were required to appear before the Steering Committee . . . They were put through rigorous interviews about their legislative and communication strategies and their proposed agendas.
By the early 2000s, with Denny Hastert as figurehead Speaker, and Majority Leader Tom DeLay as the power not-so-behind the throne, the GOP had learned how to use its majority powers to exclude the Democrats from virtually any meaningful participation in the legislative process.
Lenin and the Hastert Rule
The most important partisan tool in the GOP's kit (the same one, ironically, that now has the House paralyzed) was the so-called Hastert Rule, articulated by the Speaker in a 2003 speech. His job – his only job – Hastert announced, was to work the will of the majority in his conference:
On occasion, a particular issue might excite a majority made up mostly of the minority [party] . . . The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority.
What this meant (and still means) is that GOP leaders would not allow a bill to reach the floor of the House unless it has the support of a majority within the Republican Conference. Since all conference members are expected to back the leadership on key bills, the goal is to legislate with an absolute minimum of Democratic votes – and thus an absolute minimum of Democratic Party input.
There is a name for this kind of system, although it isn't an American one. The GOP's approach to running the House in the DeLay/Hastert years bore an uncanny resemblance to the official parliamentary doctrine of the Soviet Union, which was a bit of Orwellian jargon called “democratic centralism.”
As you can probably guess, democratic centralism as practiced in the USSR was extremely heavy on the centralism, but light on the democratic – 100% democracy free, as a matter of fact. It required Communist Party members to obey all party decisions once made, without question or dissent. Or, as Lenin put it:
Freedom of discussion, unity of action – this is what we must strive to achieve.
With a nod to Speaker Hastert, we could also call it the Lenin Rule, since he invented it in pre-revolutionary days, when he and the Bolsheviks were fighting for control of the larger Russian Social Democratic Party.
Lenin had a gearing problem, which is to say he wasn’t very popular. But, he realized that if he could persuade a dedicated cadre to follow his lead, and that cadre could convince a larger group (a Bolshevik majority of the majority) to obey them, he could control first the faction and then the entire party.
The experiment yielded rather meager results (the party soon fell apart) but met with much greater success when tried in the revolutionary Soviet that appeared in St. Petersburg in 1917. Lenin and the Bolsheviks first talked their way into command of the Soviet, used the Soviet to control the revolutionary forces loyal to it, then used those forces to overthrow the provisional government. The rest is history – really, really bloody history.
The Tea Party and the Hastert Rule: Busting the GOP Machine
Please excuse the long historical detour. But my point is that like the Lenin Rule, the Hastert Rule made it possible for a relatively small group of GOP loyalists to control a much larger legislative body. To wit: The GOP Steering Committee controlled a majority in the Republican Conference, which controlled the conference, which controlled the House.
But – and this is a big but – Leninist party control requires Leninist party discipline. And that’s awfully hard to maintain: impossible, in fact, in a deliberative body with even a modest degree of autonomy.
Even in their heyday (the post 9/11 Bush years) the House GOP leadership had to struggle to force members to toe the “majority of the majority” line. The classic example was the 2003 Medicare Part D debate, in which Republicans were told to line up and cast their votes for an enormous dose of federal entitlement spending.
When too many conservative members refused to obey, the leaders had to hold the floor vote open for an astonishing three hours, until enough arms had been twisted or bought to pass the bill, over near unanimous Democratic opposition.
Which brings us, at last, to the heart of the problem – and it’s a familiar one for Republicans: math.
Even after the 2010 blowout, the GOP edge in the House was relatively thin – thinner than what Democrats enjoyed through most of their long years in power before 1995. This means a strict Hastert Rule (and the GOP leadership has allowed only a handful of exceptions) must always walk the knife’s edge.
A few stray defections are dangerous (as DeLay and company learned with the Medicare vote). But when an entire party faction, and a well-organized one at that, refuses to go along it can be catastrophic - as John Boehner and his team learned last week.
Organized party factions, in fact, are a poison to “democratic centralism,” which is why Lenin banned them. Factions challenge party leadership simply by existing, since they tend to reduce the leaders to just another faction, bidding for rank-and-file support.
As long as Democrats are reasonably united in their opposition to GOP legislation, the 55 some odd members of the Tea Party Caucus, plus their fellow travelers, are now in a position where they can credibly block a majority of the Republican majority – the power they exercised on Plan B. They might, under the right circumstances, even be able to muster their own majority of the majority – turning the Hastert Rule into a tool that can be used against the party leadership, not just by it.
As I said earlier, this has been the prevailing dynamic within the GOP’s conference for some time, but now it’s out in the open for everybody to see.
It probably was inevitable that it would come to this: DeLay and Hastert pushed the mechanisms of top-down partisan control further than they could reasonably be expected to go in democracy – or at least a semi-democracy. When the political environment turned hostile to the GOP, the machine finally blew a gasket, leaving John Boehner with the messy job of trying to patch it up. And he failed.
Yet another irony: Gerrymandering, which was supposed to fortify the GOP majority, instead has helped castrate it. Entrenched in their districts, most House Republicans are far more terrified of the party’s Militant Tendency (i.e. the teabaggers) than they are of GOP leadership – much less the general electorate. And with good cause, since their chances of losing a primary, while statistically low, are a lot higher than the risk of losing to a Democrat.
Dr. Strangelove's Revenge: A GOP Doomsday Device?
Schadenfreude is easy to come by. But sooner or later, someone is going to have to cobble together a House majority that can defuse the austerity bomb – or at least limit the blast radius – and raise the debt ceiling. I’m not certain it can be done. Even broken (or maybe because it is broken) the House GOP machine is starting to look like the real time bomb here.
The solution endorsed by every liberal pundit (and, I suspect, privately favored by the saner conservatives ones) is for the House leadership to ignore the Hastert Rule and bring a deal to the floor that can pass with Democratic support plus at least a sliver of the GOP: i.e., a minority of the majority.
But asking John Boehner to ditch democratic centralism at this point is asking a lot, even if he does win reelection as speaker. Much, if not all, of the GOP leadership’s legitimacy is tied up in the Hastert Rule – or, even more, in the mindset the rule represents.
As Sinclair points out, party discipline (under both Democrats and Republicans) usually has been exercised on behalf of party members, not imposed on them from above. For Boehner and company to break discipline now would be seen by many of their members as rank betrayal. While Boehner might survive, he’d be even more crippled than he is now (although admittedly, it’s getting hard to imagine a scenario where that isn’t the case).
Even if Boehner did release GOP members from their party vows, it’s not clear enough of them would be willing to do the nasty with the Dems – or that enough Democrats would be willing to do it with them.
Nate Silver, who’s been crunching the numbers (of course), notes that the near extinction of the conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats has left the GOP with a pitiful selection of potential dance partners if the deal brought to the floor leans too far towards conservative positions.
On the other hand, any deal that can attract a large number of progressive Democrats almost certainly will lose the entire Tea Party bloc – as well as the vast majority of GOP members who live in mortal fear of the Tea Party. Nate's bottom line:
“The difficulty is in finding any winning coalition of votes . . . this arithmetic problem could turn out to be intractable at some point.”
So this may be the way the world (or at least the House GOP machine) ends: Not with a whimper, but with a bang.
We maybe could hope that the threat of a major recession – combined, if the debt ceiling deal also goes south, with another global financial panic – will be sufficiently terrifying to the average GOP House member that it outweighs his or her fear of the teabaggers. But right now I’m not sure it would be the smart way to bet.
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