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Will Pelosi’s Power be Curtailed in the 117th Congress?

Photo by Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

By Joshua Huder

Democrats expecting to win 250-ish seats on election night were sorely disappointed: they lost a dozen or so seats, trimming their majority from 233 to 222, and currently have just five more than a bare majority. (IA-02 and NY-22 are under recount/appeal, temporarily reducing the majority threshold to 217). Will this hamstring Speaker Nancy Pelosi and make it harder for her to lead, as some have suggested?

The argument that Pelosi will be a weaker speaker is rooted in a belief that power in Congress is exercised by powerful leaders who marshal their legislative allies and confidently stride their majority coalition toward a bold vision, often articulated by said leader. In many ways this is an exaggeration as rank-and-file members have a greater say in the House’s policy agenda. Nonetheless, popular conceptions of leadership fashion Speakers as orchestrators rather than facilitators.

To be sure, with a smaller majority in the 117th Congress, Pelosi will have less leeway to manipulate the legislative agenda. In the current Congress, with a 233-member caucus, she has had a larger cushion to lose Democrats (usually moderates) on floor votes, and significant legislation like firearm background checks, decriminalizing marijuana, and expanding access to sustainable energy suffered defections, sometimes in substantial numbers, but still passed. But a smaller majority significantly shrinks that margin of error, and policies with even modest opposition within the caucus—from moderates or progressives—could stifle important party goals. Smaller majorities, in other words, constrain leaders’ agenda flexibility, and the crux of the problem for Pelosi will be crafting policies that both progressives and moderates can support.

That said, it is a mistake to conclude this results in a weaker speakership. For one thing, whether majorities are large or small, majority-only legislation rarely becomes law. Recent work by James Curry and Frances Lee demonstrates that Congress’s lawmaking record has remained predominantly bipartisan, even amid rising polarization and intense partisanship. Laws passing with a bare majority (e.g. the Affordable Care Act or the 2017 Tax Cuts) are the exception, not the rule. To the extent intra-party infighting restricts the House agenda, it will be primarily limited to message bills designed to exact partisan electoral advantages. Party branding and message matter, particularly with highly nationalized electoral politics and shrinking incumbency advantages. But much of the lawmaking in the 117th Congress will remain bipartisan.

Further, there are reasons to expect Pelosi to be even stronger in the 117th Congress. Regardless of the size of her majority, she will still wield considerable institutional power. The rules of the House and the caucus give the speaker as well as other leaders powers over the agenda, over information, and over scarce goods desired by lawmakers. Pelosi and other leaders are likely to use those powers to exert more influence, not less, when a particular bill is at risk of failure. Studies have shown that when policy priorities are under threat, party whips become more active, incredible proceduralmanipulations are employed, and political brokering, arm-twisting, and coercion reach their height. In other words, leaders are often at the peak of their institutional power under small majorities exactly because they must coordinate their coalitions and marshal slim majorities to pass legislation.

Determining the scope of the House agenda and building unity behind it will undoubtedly be a bigger headache for leadership in the new Congress. But small majorities highlight somewhat contradictory power expectations in the House. Pelosi’s leeway to determine the policy agenda may be more constrained, but narrow vote margins will encourage her employ immense institutional tools to usher those bills through the process. We are likely in store for one of the most brazen institutional speakerships of the last century, potentially setting a high-water mark akin to the “czar” Speakers of the early-20th century.

Power is not always the ephemeral ability to lead individuals. In the 117th, we will likely see the bare-knuckled institutional authority of a dominant speakership.


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