Why Frank Underwood’s coup wouldn’t have worked

February 26, 2013

This post spoils a medium-sized plot point midway though the Netflix drama, "House of Cards." If you don't want the spoiler, stop reading. You've been warned.


Rep. Frank Underwood and his chief of staff plot in "House of Cards." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix)

A key moment in "House of Cards" comes when House Majority Whip Frank Underwood pulls off a very complicated — and very quick — coup that involves Underwood threatening to unite the Congressional Black Caucus and a handful of House Republicans to vote for a new speaker of the House.

It's a scheme that you would think you'd see in the real Congress more often. Why wouldn't the minority party, knowing it doesn't have the votes to elect its own speaker but it does have the votes to swing the election to a friendly speaker from the majority, use its leverage strategically? Why, instead, do they futilely throw their votes away on a standard-bearer from their side if the aisle? Political scientist Seth Masket explains:

The main problem is that Underwood's bluff would not have been remotely believable in real life. The idea that whole Republican caucus would join together to back a Democratic candidate for Speaker? That basically never happens. I checked in with a bunch of congressional experts (well, two: Greg Koger and Jeff Jenkins) on this and confirmed that the last time the majority of one party backed a Speaker candidate from the other party was 1839. Voting for Speaker is the defining partisan act for any member of the U.S. House; people who vote for a candidate of another party usually do not last long in the chamber.

Now, I should note that this occasionally happens in state legislatures, but not inconsequentially. For example, Republicans took over the California Assembly by one seat in 1994. Outgoing Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) brokered a deal in which Assemblywoman Dorris Allen (R-Orange County) became Speaker with every Democratic vote and one Republican vote — her own. How did Republican activists in her home district react to the fact that their member was now Speaker, the first Republican Speaker in decades and the first female Speaker in the state's history? They recalled her. Conspiring with Democrats was enough to destroy her political career.

All of this is to say that legislative parties do not operate in a vacuum, and members of Congress (even prominent legislative leaders) can't manipulate them at will without expecting significant consequences from party activists outside the chamber. These sorts of stunts generally don't work. Other members know that, which is why people don't usually try to pull these stunts in the first place.

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Brad Plumer · February 26, 2013