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  • Matthew Green

The politics of governing with a tiny majority

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

Though Democrats are enormously relieved that the Trump presidency is coming to an end, the 2020 elections were also a disappointment. The party not only failed to win outright control of the U.S. Senate but also lost ground in the House of Representatives. House Democrats are presently on track to control 222 seats – just four more than the 218 they need for a bare majority.

In Congress, being in the majority is almost always better than being in the minority. As the political scientist Charles O. Jones noted in an insightful 1968 article, however, there are actually two kinds of congressional majorities – and with fewer Democratic votes to count on, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her party in the House will have some difficulties maintaining both.

The first kind of majority, procedural, is the majority needed to select a chamber’s leaders, committee members, and rules. A procedural majority is central to a political party’s ability to govern Congress, and a party that commands it constitutes what Jeff Jenkins and Charles Stewart call an “organizational cartel.”

The House governing party’s organizational cartel power remained unchallenged for many decades. Then, starting in the mid-1990s, small numbers of lawmakers from both parties showed a willingness to defect on the all-important vote for House Speaker (see chart below). Two years ago, Pelosi had to bargain with over a dozen Democrats and agree to limit her term as Speaker to ensure she had the votes to be elected to the speakership.

* = votes for Speaker that were held mid-Congress

Pelosi faces less rebellion within her ranks this time around. In addition, some Democrats who don’t want to vote for her, like Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), plan to vote “present” in the election for Speaker, which is not as problematic since, by practice, a candidate must win a majority of ballots cast “for a person by name.” Nor is there any indication that Pelosi needs to worry about the possibility of a cross-party coalition electing a compromise Speaker, as happens in state legislatures with narrow majorities.

Nonetheless, Pelosi has much less wiggle room than before, and there are still enough malcontents to undermine the Democrats’ procedural majority. Jared Golden (D-ME) and Conor Lamb (D-PA) reportedly plan to vote against her; some newly-elected lawmakers have not yet committed publicly to Pelosi; and another pair of Democrats, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have called for a change in the party’s leadership.

The conventional wisdom is that Pelosi will find a way to win. But it may require that she cede greater institutional influence to potential opponents, which could shape the politics of the next Congress. And even then, because lawmakers must be present on the House floor for the speakership vote, Pelosi must count on her partisan allies remaining healthy – a non-trivial concern during a pandemic.

If Pelosi is elected Speaker, she will have one major advantage that her predecessors (notably John Boehner) did not. Under rules of the House adopted in 2019, a motion to remove the speaker, known as a motion to vacate the chair, is not privileged unless “offered by direction of a party caucus or conference.” In other words, a handful of unhappy Democrats cannot by themselves replace Pelosi in the middle of the next Congress.

The other kind of majority identified by Jones, substantive, is the majority required to pass legislation. Substantive majorities are difficult to sustain, and doubly so if a party can only afford a few defections on every roll call vote. Does this mean that the next House will be paralyzed by inaction and Democratic infighting, or that Republicans will effectively control the agenda?

Neither paralysis nor GOP agenda control is likely. In a recent guest post, Josh Huder explains that legislative activity is seldom contingent on the size of a governing party because many bills in Congress pass with bipartisan support. (See the excellent new book by James Curry and Frances Lee for more on this score.) Huder also points out that Pelosi has considerable institutional power to build substantive majorities and ensure that only things that can pass (with just Democratic votes, if need be) will come to the floor.

Yet this does not mean that the Democrats’ narrower majority is inconsequential to their ability to sustain substantive majorities. In the current (116th) Congress, Democrats were “rolled” seven times (meaning a majority of Democrats voted against a bill, amendment, or motion, but it passed anyway) and “disappointed” eleven times (meaning that a majority of Democrats supported a bill or amendment but it still lost). Had Democrats held the same recorded votes with only a 222-seat majority, and no additional defections from the Republican Party, they would have lost over four times as often (37 rolls and an equal number of disappointments).*

Good policy can come from letting a cross-party majority work its will, but governing parties in the House guard their agenda-setting power jealously. As William Deatherage and I have argued, they also care a great deal about their productivity brand – their reputation for passing partisan legislation – and believe that the failure to pass even one major party bill will damage that brand. So, rather than risk their party’s reputation for productivity, Democratic leaders are expected to take a number of steps to avoid suffering additional floor losses.

What steps might they take? They can make some bills less progressive than they otherwise would be to appeal to moderates in both parties. They will doubtless insert earmarks and other goodies into legislation in exchange for votes. They will almost certainly tighten their grip on the floor agenda so that bills and amendments lacking a near-universal support of the Caucus (or unable to win over enough Republicans to overcome internal defections) never see the light of day.

In addition, Democrats may change the rules of the chamber to further cement their agenda power. Some have already proposed tinkering with the motion to recommit, a procedure which allows the minority to offer one amendment to a bill. This “last bite at the apple” may be offered with little warning, and it can be crafted in a way that peels off votes from the majority party. Indeed, Democrats have been especially vulnerable to GOP motions to recommit, which have passed over a half-dozen times in the current Congress. Republicans have understandably complained about the prospect of losing the unfettered right to make motions to recommit, but if Pelosi can muster a procedural majority to weaken it, she is likely to do precisely that.

In short, Pelosi and congressional Democrats can govern the House effectively with fewer seats, just as Republicans did in 2001-2 with a similarly small (221 seat) majority. But it will require a more moderate legislative agenda, more deal-making with recalcitrant legislators, and perhaps even new chamber rules for them to do so.

* This excludes supermajority votes (e.g. votes on motions to suspend the rules), so the number of Democratic defeats may be higher.

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