Majority of the majority

In an academic conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of the speakership of Joe Cannon, another Speaker who hailed from the Land of Lincoln made this declaration: “The job of the Speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of a majority of the majority … on each piece of legislation, I actively seek to bring our party together … I do not feel comfortable scheduling any controversial legislation unless I know I have the votes on our side first.” 

When Denny Hastert made that statement, it seemed like common sense to me. What’s the use of having a majority unless it runs things in the House?  

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There are times, of course, where it is darn near impossible to get all of the votes on one side of the aisle. Voting to increase the debt limit is one of those times. 

But Hastert’s rule is still a good one in its original form. It should always be the case that a Speaker brings legislation to the floor that garners the votes of a majority of a majority. That isn’t as radical as it sounds. It means getting half plus one. 

From an internal perspective, half plus one gives you the votes to keep your job. And it you have half plus one, it is doubtful that anyone will attempt to challenge you.  

In the late ’90s, some members of the class of 1994 grew increasingly frustrated with the Speakership of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich had been under constant attack from media and House Democrats over ethics issues, and those issues became more and more of a concern to constituents back home. Gingrich had also alienated some members of his leadership with his mercurial style and his penchant for making policy on the fly.  

One thing that Gingrich never did, however, was put legislation on the floor that went counter to the wishes of a majority of his majority. When rebels told Gingrich that they wanted him to step down, they discovered that he had far more support than they did, and the so-called coup was stopped in its tracks.  

John Boehner is a savvy political operator. He understands instinctively the principle of a majority of a majority. That is why he has fought so hard to defend the prerogatives of his Republican Conference and why he backed away initially when he found out that his members just weren’t ready to embrace a “grand bargain.” 

The debt-limit deal will not make every Republican happy. Not every Tea Partier is going to vote for it. Some conservatives will call it a sellout.  

But to the rank and file who make up the bulk of the Republican Conference, Boehner’s work works for them.  

It cuts enough discretionary money that constituents back home will notice it. It doesn’t have any tax increases in it, which satisfies the anti-tax crowd. It holds out the promise of further entitlement cuts further down the road, which should make the bond markets more comfortable. And best of all, it really angers Obama’s political base of left-wingers.  

In these days of fierce partisanship, it is awfully hard to find an artful compromise in the House of Representatives. There are few centrists on either side of the aisle, and they certainly don’t have enough votes to drive the agenda.  

That means that a Speaker has to find a way to build a coalition starting with his political base to protect his own job, and then working in either direction, either the left or the right, to get the votes to win.

Boehner has crafted a deal that should please a majority of his majority. No matter how much some on the far right might not like it, his job is secure.

Feehery is president of Quinn 
Gillespie Communications and 
spent 15 years working in the 
House Republican leadership. He is 
a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com.