The ‘majority of the majority’ doctrine

In an interview on PBS’s “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” last month, Lehrer asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): “So you see yourself as a leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives?” She replied, “Well, I’m the Speaker of the House …”

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That distinction is important and reflects Pelosi’s view of the Speaker’s institutional role. She has made clear from the beginning that she believes the Speaker should be the Speaker of the entire House rather than the Speaker of the majority party.

This approach is effectively a repudiation of Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) “majority of the majority” doctrine. That governing principle stated, in effect, that the Speaker only would proceed if a proposed action had the support of the majority of the party in control.

Members of the lobbying community intent on doing business as they did under Hastert’s rule should make note of this shift, and adjust their strategies to the current reality.

 There are many reasons why a “majority of the majority” doctrine makes political sense. Clearly, any leadership that regularly runs counter to the wishes of the majority of its caucus will find itself enjoying a very short tenure. On its face, there may be no inherent problem with a leadership following a “majority of the majority” doctrine. But there is a sticking point. When the “majority of the majority” doctrine is combined with a systematic effort to marginalize members of the minority party, bad things follow — a breakdown of the legislative process; radicalization of the members of the minority party; legislation that doesn’t reflect the broadest view and area of agreement.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the Democrats sought to promote an increasingly politicized legislative agenda and ensure its passage through, among other tactics, limiting Republican participation in floor debate. The move to curb Republican attempts to create political mischief (as the Democrats saw it) effectively shut the minority out of genuine attempts to legislate.

The instinctive response for any majority leadership is to try to control every outcome and protect its members. Often this is executed by micromanaging the rules under which bills are considered on the floor. When the Republicans obtained the majority in 1995, they ratcheted up this strategy, essentially excluding Democrats as a way of extending and exerting control outside of the legislative arena.

Fueling this trend has been the remarkably narrow margins between the two parties and a tendency for the party out of power to act as an oppositional, rather than a participating, minority. These trends are self-reinforcing. When the majority party thinks the minority party will only behave as a political, oppositional force, there is little incentive to negotiate with its members. If the minority party believes it isn’t being given the chance to participate in a meaningful way, what other option is there but to try and gum up the works?

 What can be done to break this cycle?

 The Speaker needs to remain steadfast in her view that her role is the Speaker of the entire House and make the “majority of the majority” idea a relic. The reality is, most of the time the majority of the Democratic Caucus will support what is being proposed and a majority of the Republican Conference will oppose it. That’s just the nature of the House and the legislative process.

 Past majority leaderships have often exhibited a “win at all costs” mentality. Indeed, any loss on the floor, no matter how insignificant, has been viewed as a failure of leadership. The current leadership has broken from that model and should continue to have a mature and nuanced understanding of control of the floor and the agenda — and reject the notion that any successful Republican legislative success is a defeat for the majority. Instead of treating any successful effort by the Republicans, such as a motion to recommit, as a failure of leadership, the majority has rightly opted to choose its battles.

 The minority leadership needs to develop the same nuanced relationship with the majority, engaging in the process when opportunities arise while playing the role of the opposition party when need be.

The majority leadership’s approach should be: “Play seriously and you’ll have a seat at the table. Choose to be obstructionists and we’ll use our authority and the rules of the House to advance an agenda without you.”

Except in very limited instances, lobbyists should not assume they can seek passage of legislation supported only by Democrats. In fact, the chances of their legislation passing will be greatly enhanced by finding some common ground, some legislative accommodation with members of the minority party.

Heading into the next election-year session of Congress, the only significant legislation that will have a chance of being enacted will be that which has the support of a bipartisan majority of the House.

Crawford is a senior government relations adviser in King & Spalding’s Government Advocacy and Public Policy Practice Group. He previously served as chief of staff to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) in her capacity as House Democratic Leader.