Understanding how Congress Works
(As well as party behavior).
The 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.
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.