January 17, 2013

Republicans have now twice allowed legislation to move through the House with an unusual coalition of Democrats and a relatively small group of Republicans. What should we make of it?

The Capitol (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)
The Capitol (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

As Congressional scholar Sarah Binder points out, these appear to be classic “rolls” — the House majority was defeated. And yet … maybe not. After all, as Binder points out (and David Karol and Frances Lee discuss), in both cases Republicans could easily have shot down the bills by voting against the “rule” which must pass in order for the measure to reach the House floor in the first place.

Thus we have what Ashley Parker reports as “the Vote No/Hope Yes Caucus” — Republicans who want items to pass, but only without their vote.

The thing is that this is very familiar territory when it comes to Congress; there’s nothing even remotely new or unusual about members wanting things to pass over their “no” votes. It’s not coincidence that lots of things, from the Clinton budget in 1993 to the Affordable Care Act during the 111th Congress, passed by the narrowest margins.

I’d also note that one could break it down a bit more … does this caucus actively want  the measure to pass, or is it more accurate to say they don’t care either way? If they do want it to pass, is it on substantive terms (because they really want the policy at issue) or political ones (because they don’t want their party to be blamed for spiking popular legislation)? If push comes to shove and they had to choose, which would they be willing to give up — their votes, or passage? And have they so signaled to party leaders?

What’s really important about the current Republicans, and what very much differentiates them from the Democrats, is the direction most members of Congress look for cover. Democrats invariably wanted to be perceived closer to the center than their policy preferences would otherwise indicate; Republicans, however, appear to be terrified of allowing any visible difference between themselves and the biggest extremists of their party.

That’s what seems to be driving GOP voting in general, and in particular in these two cases. It’s important to realize that in this respect, the parties really are very, very different. And any strategy for getting things through Congress — as well as any assessment of who is to blame for the crisis-to-crisis House style — should begin with exactly that difference.