A Different Path to Finding a Majority (Robert Coon On Politics)

by Robert Coon  on Wednesday, Mar. 5, 2014 1:52 pm  

Robert Coon

When the U.S House of Representatives passed a "clean" debt ceiling increase last month, it was the first time since 2009 that Republicans agreed to raise the debt limit without attaching spending reduction provisions or other legislative priorities. 

That’s a notable political development given House Republicans’ persistent — and worthwhile — effort to reign in spending. But it was how the votes came together that was significant, and a strategy that has also been used by leaders in the Arkansas House of Representatives in recent months.

In the U.S. House, Speaker John Boehner’s departure from the unwritten "Hastert Rule" sent a strong signal to Congress and the public at large that he’s willing to work across the aisle to overcome gridlock on this and possibly other high-profile issues despite significant opposition from his own party. 

The Hastert Rule, a governing principle named after former Republican Speaker Denny Hastert of Illinois, is based on the idea that floor votes should only take place if the majority of the majority party favors the legislation. While some argue that the Hastert Rule is a good policy that ensures that the controlling party in the House holds closer to its core principles, others say that a simple majority of members represents a true majority and ultimately the will of the people.

In this particular case, it was a group of 193 Democrats and a paltry 28 Republicans who voted to pass the debt ceiling increase, with 199 Republicans and 2 Democrats voting against it.   

It wasn’t the first time during his speakership that Boehner set the Hastert Rule aside – he’d done so to pass several other controversial bills, including the Fiscal Cliff legislation, Hurricane Sandy aid, and legislation ending the 2013 federal government shutdown. But it was one of the lowest percentages of the Republican caucus that he’d ever been able to marshal, garnering only 12 percent of his caucus.

But while Boehner traditionally holds to the principle of the Hastert Rule, departing from it as the exception and not the rule, he’s also been known to publicly distance himself from the idea that he’s required to follow it. In fact, last year Boehner told The Washington Post that, "It was never a rule to begin with…. my intention is to always pass bills with strong Republican support." 

Boehner’s loosely defined idea of "strong Republican support" and his willingness to bypass the majority of his caucus leaves the door wide open for House leadership to find a new path to majority in order to tackle a number of high-profile issues in the coming months — like reforms to immigration, taxes and entitlements — that might not have widespread support throughout the House Republican caucus.

Certainly this approach won’t become the norm in the House; putting the tactic into practice too often would likely result in a (successful) mutiny against House leadership. But limited, strategic use of it to prevent gridlock or show definable progress on issues important to voters back home could be advantageous.

Interestingly we’ve seen a similar approach right here in Arkansas in recent months with the passage of the "private option." During the General Assembly’s 2013 regular session, House leaders were able to craft a coalition of 48 Democrats, 1 Green Party, and 13 Republicans in order to pass the Health Care Independence Act of 2013, which expanded the state’s Medicaid program through a "a private insurance option for 'low-risk' adults." Opposition to the private option rested on 37 Republicans — a clear majority of their caucus, but a minority of the body as a whole.

As we’ve seen at state and federal levels, reaching across the aisle and working with members of the other party to attain legislative goals can be an incredibly effective strategy. But it’s not without risk. 

Following the recent clean debt ceiling vote, a number of notable conservative groups like the Tea Party Patriots and the Senate Conservatives Fund slammed Boehner, saying it was time to "Fire the Speaker" and that "John Boehner must be replaced as Speaker of the House." And there have been more than a few rumblings in recent years about potential coup attempts from within the House Republican caucus as a result of his actions. But so far, notwithstanding a few bumps and bruises, Boehner has endured. In Arkansas, some of the same political sentiment has been aimed at House Speaker Davy Carter, a Republican, as a result of his efforts to pass the private option.

Individual legislative victories aside, it’s ultimately the ability of legislative leaders to survive over the long haul that might be the best indicator of whether this new approach to finding a majority — one that transcends party ideology and tradition — is a viable strategy that can continue to be effective.  

But should leaders like Boehner find themselves victim of an overthrow, this new path will likely be closed for the foreseeable future.

(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, La. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)



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