The new dealmaking in Congress reveals an old truth: majority wins
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The recent healthcare compromise brokered by Reps. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) shows how much the legislative process frequently boils down to math. By solving a thorny numbers problem, the two men have put Republicans back on a still-difficult path to repealing the Affordable Care Act.

For most of the men and women who serve in Congress, the legislative process turns on ideology and the views of their constituents. For House and Senate leaders, however, it is just as often about math. Nothing passes the House without a majority. Most things can’t pass the Senate without a supermajority.


House Republican leaders are also under great pressure to find their 218-vote majorities primarily from within the Republican Conference. The “Hastert Rule,” named for the previous Republican speaker, is the principle that Republican leaders should only schedule votes on legislation that has the support of “a majority of the majority.”


What makes the math so hard is the necessary diversity of majority caucuses. Republican majorities are created in part by winning less-conservative marginal seats. Many Republican moderates represent swing districts. They are the self-described “majority makers.” House leaders can’t take the votes of these members for granted. At the same time, the House’s most conservative members  are frequently hard to coax into the “yes” column for different reasons. Getting to 218 votes is frequently hard.

About 50 moderate Republicans in the House are organized as the “Tuesday Group.” Nearly 40 of the House’s most conservative members are organized as the “Freedom Caucus.” With Republicans currently outnumbering Democrats in the House 238 to 193, just over 20 members from either of these two caucuses have the power to deny leaders the votes they need on legislation, assuming Democrats are also opposed. (A majority is currently fewer than 218 because there are four vacant seats in the chamber.) Moreover, unanimous support from either caucus is insufficient to make a majority, even in combination with all of the 150 or more Republicans who belongs to neither caucus. Republican leaders have to deal with both groups on every vote.

The Freedom Caucus has often been accused of “refusing to get to yes” on legislation. Indeed, a few of its members vote “no” by default, believing the federal government long ago exceeded its Constitutional mandate. In their own defense, many Freedom Caucus members insist they are willing to compromise — but not before leaders have fought for a more conservative approach. Mostly over tactical disagreements, some Republicans have thrown up their hands and written the caucus off as impossible to deal with.

This dynamic has empowered House Democrats. Former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE (R-Ohio) found himself going to Democrats on more than one occasion to get votes he couldn’t find in his own conference. This arguably cost him the speakership. Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHouse Ethics Committee informs Duncan Hunter he can no longer vote after guilty plea Duncan Hunter pleads guilty after changing plea Trump campaign steps up attacks on Biden MORE (R-Wisc.), however, pledged early on to work more closely with the Freedom Caucus and to fight for more conservative policy.

The difficult moderate-conservative Republican balancing act was very much on display as House leaders and President Trump worked to pass the American Health Care Act. Conservatives walked away from the table, but returned when they got some of what they wanted. Then moderates walked away. The vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, promised for seven years, was finally canceled on March 24. There was no apparent path forward. A frustrated President Trump said he was moving on to other things.

Unexpectedly, an opening came when Meadows, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, and MacArthur, one of the Tuesday Group’s three co-chairs, worked out a compromise on their own. Appealing to Republicans’ belief in federalism, they proposed allowing states to decide some of the thornier issues. This, and more program money, allowed the House to pass the bill on May 4.

Meadows is being praised by his conservative colleagues. At home, he has become a celebrity. MacArthur, on the other hand, has been criticized by some of his moderate colleagues. On May 23, he resigned as co-chair of an evidently fractured Tuesday Group after telling a reporter, “I’m going to continue to govern the way I believe the American people need us to govern. That means we engage with the Freedom Caucus. We engage with everybody.” More pointedly, he said “This unwillingness to engage with members of our own party is unacceptable to me.”

MacArthur earned the admiration of many by returning home after the vote to a town hall in the most Democratic part of his district and keeping a promise to stay and answer every question. The town hall lasted for five hours.

For years it has been believed that the Freedom Caucus “just can’t get to yes.” On the AHCA, they did get to yes, while others couldn’t. It remains to be seen whether this indicates a sustainable new dynamic. Either way, MacArthur and Meadows have a newfound stature in American politics. They discovered what has always been true: when members of Congress show their leaders a path to a majority, it is a good bet that their leaders will follow.

Gabe Neville, a longtime Republican congressional staffer, is now a senior legislative advisor in the Washington office of Covington & Burling LLP.

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