An Update on the House of Representatives

1/18/2013 02:59:00 PM
There are rumors flying that the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives is about to collapse. There are currently 200 Democrats and 233 Republicans in the chamber, with two vacancies--one in Chicago likely to be filled by a Democrat, and one in Charleston likely to be Republican. So, the balance will be 201 Democrats versus 234 Republicans. That means that if 17 Republicans break ranks, the Democrats are back in power.

To be clear, it won't be that simple. The party leadership won't allow an open defection of members like that. But reports indicate that many republicans have been lobbying essentially for just that, at least for a variety of Democratic issues, like honoring the debt. Ashley Parker calls them the "Vote No/Hope Yes" caucus. We've already seen several examples of their work: the fiscal cliff deal was enacted by the Democratic minority with only 49 republican votes, and the same has happened with the hurricane Sandy relief bill with only 85 republican votes. Let's be clear what is happening here: the Republican-controlled House is passing bills that almost all republicans want to be on record as opposing. That's highly unusual. We even have an informal rule against it, known as the Hassert Rule, which says that since the Majority Leader controls what bills go to the floor for a vote, bills that lack republican support should never go to the floor.

This is only possible because of fractures within the Republican party. Allow me to daydream a bit: the current stance of the GOP has become exceedingly extreme--they oppose tax hikes that the vast majority of americans, including a majority of republicans, supported; they oppose gun regulations that over 80% of the population, including most gun owners, support; they want to enact cuts to social security and Medicare that the vast majority of Americans, including most republicans, oppose; they don't want to honor payments of debts they already authorized; they do want to reduce discretionary spending to its lowest levels since before the Great Depression (and magically maintain defense spending at levels larger than the budget that funds it). Being on the wrong side of a lot of very popular issues creates opportunity for moderate Republicans: a small faction of just 17 of them could steal the show and form a coalition with the democrats. They could bargain in private with Pelosi over what they want to do during the next two years, what democratic proposals they want to kill, and probably get everything they want. In exchange, they form a "Coalition Caucus" with the Democrats, giving them a majority of 218 votes. They could agree to vote for Pelosi for Speaker of the House, or even get the democrats to promote one of the 17 republicans to that position. They'd be hailed by the media for their bold stance as Very Serious Moderates, and would have a series of legislative trophies to take home to their districts.

Republican leadership might try to punish these defectors, but it is not clear, at this point, that they can. Many of them are from Democratic districts where republican primary challengers are unlikely to win the general elections, which would only punish republican leadership further. And they'd have a series of legislative victories, possibly even democratic endorsements, to campaign on. On top of that, the Republican resources are stretched pretty thin, a consequence of the electoral defeat in 2012 and the decline of organized opposition to signature democratic measures like Obamacare, which had elected the Republicans in the first place.

Ok, time to quit dreaming. Congress is not a Parliamentary democracy, and there is no Nick Clegg waiting in the wings of the GOP. But if he was, he could become very powerful very fast in this environment.