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Understanding how Congress Works

Capitol Buidling Dayime2The final vote on the fiscal cliff deal in the House was “257-167, with 217 votes needed for passage. Democrats voted 172-16 in favor while Republicans votes 151-85 against.”

Such a vote would indicate substantial Republican opposition (after all, 63% of the caucus voted against the bill).

But, should we understand this outcome as one of massive Republican opposition?

No–not if we understand how the House of Representatives works (something that the press corps appears not to do, to be honest).

First, let’s consider that for a bill such as this one to reach the House floor, especially in the waning days of a given Congress, requires that the bill to be taken off the legislative calendar out of order, and for this to happen a Rule has to be crafted and voted out by the Rules Committee, and that Rule has to be approved on the floor of the House.

In other words (and in a simplified explanation):  standing procedures in the House require that legislation has to come off of the various calendars (different calendars for different types of legislation) in the order in which they are placed on those calendars as they are voted out of committee.  As such, for legislation to make it to the floor, especially at the last minute, all other bills that have made it out of committee would have to be dealt with first.  However, all bills are never dealt with and important/complex bills are almost always well down the list.  As such, a special Rule has to be made to allow the given piece of legislation to come to the floor out of order.  Every major bill reaches the floor in this fashion.

One of the key reasons that the House is a chamber dominated by the majority party is because the Rules Committee, and the floor, are (by definition) controlled by the majority party.  If the majority party wants a bill off the calendar and onto the floor, that bill can be extracted.  If the majority party does not want a bill on the floor, that bill is never reaching the floor for a vote.

(As an aside, there is no such mechanism in the Senate—no majority control of the agenda because of the ability of a minority of 41 votes or more can block any bill, with some exceptions, from reaching the floor).

This brings us to the fiscal cliff bill that was voted out of the Senate, and passed by the House, seemingly over the objection of the majority of Republicans.

But did they?

The Rules Committee passed a Rule that went to the House Floor on January 1 (H.Res 844) which passed on the floor of the House 408-10 (with 14 not voting).     The Republican Caucus voted 232-2 (with 7 not voting) for the rule—that’s 96% of the entire caucus voting for the rule and they knew that voting for the Rule meant that the bill would pass.  Again:  without that rule there would have been no vote on the bill.

So, despite what the reporting says (or what the final vote was), the Republican caucus in the House voted for the Senate version, and overwhelmingly so.  If one understands the way the House works (and the member who voted for the Rule knew exactly what they were doing) understands what happened here.

Writing at the Monkey Cage, David Karol and Frances Lee make a two key points given the above facts.

First, different votes are made for different reasons (and the press, and therefore the public, misses this fact):

Long ago David Mayhew told us that much of what Members of Congress do is “position-taking.”Their votes, like their speeches, are largely for public consumption. Collectively, their votes shape public policy. Yet an individual legislator knows that her vote will seldom decide the fate of a given bill. It will however contribute to the shaping of her image. Given that the individual Member of Congress controls his vote but does not control the outcome of legislative battles, he often has reason to vote based on how he would like to be seen. Often the positions a legislator wants to be seen to support and the policy outcomes he favors are closely aligned. Yet when the two diverge he has political reason to vote for what he wants to be seen to favor, rather than the legislative outcome actually he favors. This is especially so, Mayhew argues, because legislators are usually judged on the basis of the positions they take, not on policy outcomes.

The behavior of GOP legislators in the cliff episode is much more understandable as an exercise in position-taking, which laypersons might call “posturing.” The overwhelming GOP vote for the rule suggests that Republican legislators were reconciling conflicting goals. In this case Republican Representatives did want to avoid a certain policy outcome. They wanted to prevent the fiscal cliff, but they still did not want to be associated with voting for a tax increase. The way to achieve this was to keep their hands clean of the negotiation, even at the cost of greatly reduced influence over the deal, and then to allow the bill to pass largely on Democratic votes.

Second, the votes in question helps reveal actual preferences:

The evidence suggests that, contrary to some media reports, House Republicans cared far more about limiting tax increases than about limiting spending. After all, it was limits on tax increases, not concessions on spending, that sealed the deal—a deal that nearly all House Republicans accepted, their votes on final passage notwithstanding. Yet the key factor in explaining their behavior was not a policy preference, but a position preference. Many House Republicans were more focused on avoiding being seen to vote for any tax increase than on minimizing the actual tax increases that were destined to occur. The result of their individual position-taking choices led to higher taxes without spending reductions.

Indeed.

The evidence continues to pile up that the most important policy preference within the Republican Party is on keeping taxes as low as possible, not spending, not the deficit, not the debt.  The rhetoric is that spending in the issue (such as Leader McConnell’s repeated insistence on MTP this morning that spending is our biggest problem) is not honest.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Argon says:

    No–not if we understand how the House of Representatives works (something that the press corps appears not to do, to be honest).

    The press probably understand but admitting that would work against “The Narrative” which they are attempting to set up which can often by at odds with reality. Look, they’re selling a product and that product has to fit in small sized package because of various constraints. But reality is not always such an profitable item nor does it always package well into discrete packets. So “The Narrative” of easy, partial explanation was invented…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  2. Andre Kenji says:

    The rhetoric is that spending in the issue (such as Leader McConnell’s repeated insistence on MTP this morning that spending is our biggest problem) is not honest.

    Not only that. McConnell talks as if politicians spends money with themselves, not with services valuable to voters.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Thank you, Steven. That’s why I keep harping, largely to deaf ears, on the importance of reform in Congress’s committee system and/or seniority rules. The real action in the Congress is in its committees, not in the posturing in the floor votes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. Coop says:

    The evidence continues to pile up that the most important policy preference within the Republican Party is on keeping taxes as low as possible, not spending, not the deficit, not the debt.

    I think this is true, but I wouldn’t conclude the Republican focus on taxes isn’t related to their concern over spending or the debt.

    Most Republicans genuinely want to roll back the Great Society and most New Deal reforms. That is their ultimate goal. But politically they can’t actually eliminate these programs; it would be too unpopular. To get around this, they’ve adopted Milton Friedman’s “starve the beast” strategy. Keep taxes low in order to shrink revenue as a percentage of GDP (this is Norquist/ATR’s stated purpose). The short term effect is to explode deficits, but in doing so they hope, in the long run, that Americans will come around to slashing spending on these programs to resolve the fiscal crisis. When McConnell goes on TV and complains about the size of our debt, it’s all a part of this political calculation.

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  5. @Coop: But isn’t the main motivation in cutting the welfare state the reduction of taxes?

    I just don’t see any evidence that their stated priorities (the debt) comport with their actual goals.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  6. Coop says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes, but only to the extent low taxes are conducive to the conservative vision of a good society. Conservatives obviously think some level of taxation is necessary.

    If taxes were everything, and spending and the debt were irrelevant you wouldn’t have Republicans focusing on cutting so called “entitlement” spending to the degree they do. E.g. Republicans actually want to cut medicare, medicaid, social security to the extent they can get away with it. They pushed cuts to SS and Medicare during the fiscal cliff negotiation. The Ryan plan proposed substantial Medicare cuts with widespread Republican support. Welfare reform in the 90s had widespread Republican support. They want to get rid of the minimum wage, or least limit it. They also have no problem with higher rates on low income households – they call it “closing loopholes and deductions.” Another example – I personally think the widespread conservative outrage over Obamacare had little to do with the taxes, and mostly to do with the program itself.

    There are plenty of conservative positions that go way beyond reduction of taxes, reflecting a vision of society that low taxes help achieve.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. C. Clavin says:

    Actions speak louder than words.
    Republicans grow government and spend money like drunken coked out AWOL Texas Air National Guardsmen.
    They aren’t interested in governing. They are only interested in keeping the taxes of their wealthy constituents as low as possible…and controlling the reproductive rights of American women.
    For proof you just have to look at their actions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  8. @Coop: I would note that they talk a lot about making these cuts. When, however, when they had the chance, have they pursued actual cuts?

    The most recent candidates campaigned on restoring “cuts” to Medicare in Obamacare.

    The GOP did not pursue a grand bargain in 2011

    The GOP could have gotten guaranteed cuts to entitlement via the fiscal cliff.

    The largest increase to entitlements prior to Obamacare was Medicare Part D (a GOP initiative in a GOP-controlled Congress).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. Coop says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    They’re limited politically – partly by Democratic opposition, partly by their own constituency.

    But I don’t think the fact that they haven’t been successful in achieving a lot of these cuts is evidence that they wouldn’t enact them if they had the political power to do so.

    The GOP could have gotten guaranteed cuts to entitlement via the fiscal cliff.

    I disagree. They were willing to agree to certain cuts (e.g. raising Medicare age, chained CPI), but there was too much Democratic opposition in the Senate to actually make them happen.

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  10. @Coop: The sequester would have resulted in automatic cuts.

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  11. john personna says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It is an “insert magic” plan. Cut taxes, magic, lower spending.

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  12. john personna says:

    @Coop:

    But I don’t think the fact that they haven’t been successful in achieving a lot of these cuts is evidence that they wouldn’t enact them if they had the political power to do so.

    So in that construction, do they know they don’t have the political power to do cuts?

    Do they hope that in some near future voters will turn against spending?

    If they think things will be solved by capping Medicare and Social Security they might be hanging onto a fantasy, rather than a plan. As the population ages, it shifts toward recipients of those programs.

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  13. john personna says:

    (Which is of course why the Republicans tried a rude “cliff” proposal. They’d keep benefits to the seniors, and then just reduce them for everyone below some arbitrary younger age.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Coop says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    True, but those aren’t cuts to the “welfare state.” Conservative political ideology is in support of growing the size of the military, but reducing “entitlement” spending.

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  15. Murray says:

    I have a dream.

    I dream that instead of inviting party leaders and pundits on their shows and let them talk bullshit, the Sunday hosts would focus on explaining things like you have in this piece.

    Of course this could only happen if said hosts were interested in journalism. Sadly they are mainly interested in pretending they have “access”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. Coop says:

    So in that construction, do they know they don’t have the political power to do cuts?

    Do they hope that in some near future voters will turn against spending?

    Voters are far more likely to favor spending cuts when there’s debt crisis, especially if you can get away with blaming that debt crisis on profligate spending.

    Another approach is to enact spending cuts that don’t appear to be cuts, like raising the age for eligibility, changing the index that the benefits are tied to, or switching to a voucher system.

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  17. Rafer Janders says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But isn’t the main motivation in cutting the welfare state the reduction of taxes?

    Partly. But partly they just really enjoy kicking the poor and defenseless in the teeth.

    I’m actually not joking here. They want people to suffer, because they think that suffering is somehow good for them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  18. Woody says:

    I’ve finally decided that distilled to its essence, conservatism ultimately champions humanity’s default society: feudalism.

    Noble Houses ruling over peasants, in league with a state-supported Church (which is run at the upper level by sons of noble Houses). Conformity within a strictly administered justice system for the serfs, while blithely going Captain Renault on elite malfeasance.

    This explanation satisfies the consistent alliance of social conservatives with so-called libertarians (as libertarians are horrified with state-induced penury but promote privately-induced penury).

    Deficits, laws, regulations, rights – so long as the noble Houses gain power at the expense of the demos.

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  19. gVOR08 says:

    Good post, Steven, which I would take as more evidence the debt ceiling crisis will be a dud. IIRC it used to be understood in congress that you might be allowed to vote as you wished on some bills, but you voted with leadership on procedural matters. Is this still true? If so, does a vote on the rule say much about individual members?

    This is always the problem with Republicans. Do they believe the nonsense they say, or are they just playing to a constituency they think believes it? This is complicated by their tendency to believe their own BS. When SS is passed, they opposed it because they thought it might raise their taxes and because it would be good for Dems politically. But they can’t say that in public – so it’s going to create dependency, it’s socialism, it’s theft from our children, whatever. Anything except, “It might raise my taxes.” After saying this for 70 years, destroying SS becomes a goal on its own. So is it about taxes or about destroying SS? What is the sound of one hand clapping? I don’t know. Does it matter?

    I think it really comes down to the donors. Are the Club for Growth (sic), the Koch bros, etc., etc, etc. driven by a pragmatic pursuit of lower taxes for themselves or are they ideological. Exxon seems fairly pragmatic, albeit short term oriented. In my limited personal experience, wealthy conservatives seem less than entirely rational about their politics. For examples, see the recent, notorious piece on the NR cruise.

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  20. wr says:

    @Rafer Janders: “I’m actually not joking here. They want people to suffer, because they think that suffering is somehow good for them. ”

    No, they convince themselves to believe this because it lets them feel good about making them suffer… but really, they just want them to suffer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  21. gVOR08 says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    I’m actually not joking here. They want people to suffer, because they think that suffering is somehow good for them.

    That’s their rationalization. They do it because they can and it gives them a sense of power and superiority. Orwell – “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. “

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  22. Andre Kenji says:

    @Coop: No, Republicans don´t want to cut “spending”. They say that in abstract, but their voting base is a very old voting base. So, they cut discretionary spending(That affects mostly young people), then they say that they give a voucher instead of Medicare to young people while saying that Medicare must be “preserved” for it´s current users and they don´t touch Social Security and Medicare, that accounts for 38% of the federal budget.

    If you are not willing to cut Social Security, Medicare and Defense you are not willing to cut spending.

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  23. @Andre Kenji:

    If you are not willing to cut Social Security, Medicare and Defense you are not willing to cut spending.

    Bingo.

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  24. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @gVOR08:

    This is always the problem with Republicans. Do they believe the nonsense they say, or are they just playing to a constituency they think believes it?

    Based on what Coop has been writing 5 or 6 times during this thread, I have to guess that “they” know the constituency believes it. But Coop, you keep drinkin’ that Kool-ade if you like the taste.

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  25. Rafer Janders says:

    @wr:

    True dat.

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  26. Rafer Janders says:

    @gVOR08:

    Again, agreed. Bullies gotta bully.

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  27. wr says:

    @Rafer Janders: Thanks. I wish I’d known gVOR8’s Orwell quote, because that really says it all…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0