Given the sorry state of affairs, finger-pointing is rampant, and there is a broad consensus that the blame lies in the laps of tea party Republicans. This right wing within the Republican Party has been unapologetic in explaining that shutting down the government and leveraging the debt ceiling are the most effective strategies available to them for pursuing their long-term vision of a radically smaller government. And their belief in this strategy might well be justified. The tea party advocates a vision of American society that is strongly rejected by a healthy majority of Americans, and the tea party doesn’t have the votes to get its way, even in the House, where they are a minority. Extreme positions require extreme tactics, and it is difficult to see what better strategy might be available to the tea party than taking hostages and demanding ransoms.
But if the tea party has neither the public support nor the legislative votes, how can they really be blamed for this mess? The U.S. House, unlike the Senate, operates using “majoritarian” rules that allow majorities to defeat determined minorities. Of course, there are a variety of House rules that put brakes on this majoritarianism – like the speaker’s influence on which bills can come to the floor for a vote, the ability of committees to bottle up bills, the ability of the Rules Committee to limit consideration of amendments, and the power of the majority party leadership to determine coveted committee assignments. These rules help the majority party obtain legislative outcomes that are closer to the majority party’s center of gravity than to the center of gravity in the House as a whole.
At the end of the day, however, the House rules allow a majority to do whatever it wants, and thus to resist a majority party that becomes too extreme. A majority can submit a bill, force it out of committee, and determine the amendment and voting rules on the floor. Taking on the speaker, committee chairs, and the majority party caucus is far from frictionless – the procedures can be cumbersome, such as the delays associated with committee discharge petitions, and challenging one’s own party can be personally costly to the individual legislator who does so. But if a majority wants something in the House, they can get it, independent of what the speaker, committee chairs, or the majority caucus prefers.
Given this institutional setting, the reason we ended up in such a mess over the last few weeks is not because the tea party is extreme. And it’s not because of anything Speaker John Boehner did or did not do. None of this would have happened if more moderate Republicans had not caved to extreme pressures within their party and instead had exercised their procedural rights to force a more centrist outcome in the House.
Although there was much hand-wringing about the direction of the Republican Party after the 2012 election, in this era of polarization, many would argue “moderate House Republican” is an oxymoron. But in fact there are moderates in two respects. First, there are House Republicans who are “ideologically” moderate in the sense that they represent relatively moderate districts. There are 28 members representing districts where Obama received more than 48 percent of the vote in 2012, 18 where Obama received more than 49 percent, and 13 where Obama received more than 50 percent of the vote. All of these members are badly out of line with their district sentiment if they pursue anything but a moderate agenda, and one would think they risk losing their seat to a Democrat if they move too far to the right. Second, there are “process” moderates. These are Republicans of various ideological persuasions who understand that American institutions are designed to require compromise between three branches of government. In early October, 22 such House Republicans committed publicly to supporting a “clean resolution” – that is, to allowing an up-or-down vote on whether to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling . Of these, eight were in rather safe Republican seats (where Obama received less than 46 percent of the vote) and one other was in a district where the president received less than 48 percent of the vote. So no matter how one counts, there were plenty of Republicans with which the Democrats should have been able to work. But these Republicans never bucked Speaker Boehner or the majority caucus. Instead, they let the House wreak havoc, and they are the ones who truly deserve the blame, because they could have marshaled the votes for a sensible solution but did not.
With the new agreement signed into law by Obama, we are basically right back where we were not long ago. The tea party will again be able to try to leverage the debt ceiling to move policy in a direction that is unacceptable to the Senate and the president. We haven’t seen anything suggesting they will soften their approach. But the House Republicans who don’t like the direction the right wing has pushed their party can pursue a different course. If they don’t start using their power to do so — negotiating with Obama and the Senate to achieve a reasonable compromise and asserting their procedural rights in a timely fashion if Boehner and committee chairs do not cooperate – we will soon be back where we were a few days ago, with likely even worse consequences than before.