Some have suggested that the dynamics of the recent “fiscal cliff” vote and the vote on Hurricane Sandy relief signaled a new and more positive era in the way that Capitol Hill operates. To that idea, it must be said: Don’t hold your breath. More likely they were two anomalies involving circumstances that required a majority of the minority party’s votes in the face of widespread majority-party opposition.
Two of the major trends over the past 30 years in the House of Representatives have been the emergence of the “majority of the majority” doctrine and the way that the minority party defines itself.
As Hastert (R-Ill.) said on a recent radio show, “Here is the problem. Maybe you can do it once, maybe you can do it twice, but when you start making deals when you have to get Democrats to pass the legislation, you are not in power anymore.”
The second phenomenon has been the transformation of the role of the minority party in the House. Prior to the late 1980s, the minority party did not cast itself as a fiercely oppositional force, instead trying to help govern from its minority status. Since that time, the minority party in the House, Democratic or Republican, has settled into the role of a true opposition party — making the majority party produce most, if not all, of the votes on difficult pieces of legislation. This has led to a situation where voting in the House more closely resembles a parliamentary system, with the parties voting as solid blocs.
This arrangement has worked to the benefit of both parties: the majority party produces legislation that is in keeping with the “majority of the majority” doctrine while keeping the minority party’s policy role to a minimum. The minority party is able to articulate policies that contrast with the majority, as well as force vulnerable majority members to cast politically difficult votes.
So what happened during the fiscal-cliff crisis? Both parties started out in their traditional postures, with Republicans looking to pass a bill with a majority of its members and Democrats lining up in opposition. What changed the dynamic was that, while Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerHouse markup of ObamaCare repeal bill up in the air Conservatives to Congress: Get moving Boehner: ObamaCare repeal and replace 'not going to happen' MORE’s (R-Ohio) natural inclination was to look to his party for the votes to pass the bill, it became clear that a majority of the Republican Conference would not support any bill that approved the expiration of any of the Bush-era tax cuts — not even his own “Plan B” proposal.
BoehnerJohn BoehnerHouse markup of ObamaCare repeal bill up in the air Conservatives to Congress: Get moving Boehner: ObamaCare repeal and replace 'not going to happen' MORE needed almost all of the votes to come from his side because of unified Democratic opposition to the various Republican plans and solid support for letting rate cuts on high-income earners expire. Failing to marshal 218 Republican votes and unable to pick up any significant Democratic support for the Republican offerings, he had no option but to look to Democrats.
The fiscal-cliff bill passed the House with 172 Democrats voting for the bill and 16 voting against. House Republicans overwhelmingly rejected the bill by a vote of 151-85.
What helped crystallize these two dynamics into this unique result was the confluence of the expiration of the tax cuts, the self-imposed crisis of sequestration and the general perception that calamity would follow if nothing was done. Because something had to be done and the votes weren’t there on the Republican side, Boehner had no choice but to turn to Democrats for the votes.
Will the dynamic repeat itself? Possibly. But the early comments on both sides of the aisle about the looming debt limit and sequestration deadlines show that each party is still too entrenched in the “majority of the majority” and “oppositional party” models to hold out much hope for any meaningful systemic change.
Crawford is a senior government relations adviser at King & Spalding. He served as Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) chief of staff and in various positions on the House Rules Committee.