Tag Archives: partisanship

On the Costs of Non-Strategic Uni-Partisanship

As a corollary to Nolan’s commendation of President Obama’s efforts at bipartisanship, I would suggest that the behavior of the Republicans during the stimulus debate may have created some longer term problems for the party. While in the short term the members of the minority party are likely to be commending themselves for flooding the cable news networks, seizing control of the “message” (albeit temporarily) surrounding the stimulus, and maintaining strong party discipline, let’s take a look at what will be left once the bill is signed into law: (1) Despite near total unity, the Republican party will have been unable to prevent the bill from passing; (2) The only Republicans who will have had a modicum of an effect on the bill’s content are precisely the same people that the party spent most of the Bush years marginalizing, moderate Republicans from the North East; and (3) the dominant narrative on bipartisanship will have been set by President Obama in his press conference: he (Obama) goes farther than any previous president to embrace the other side, but has been rebuffed by a dominant partisan culture; nevertheless, he’ll keep trying in the future because he’s the candidate of change. The net result: Obama looks like he is keeping to his bipartisan promises, the Republicans look obstructionist, and a bill that is almost entirely written by Democrats (with contributions from a few moderate Republicans) gets passed.

From a policy perspective, this can not be good for Republicans. So probably we should conceive of these tactics as primarily political, a kind of doubling down on the 2010 midterm elections by reestablishing the Republican brand in voters’ minds. But what is really likely to happen in 2010? While it is of course too early to know for sure, the simple mathematics of which seats are being contested in 2010 suggests that by far the most likely outcome is that the Democrats will hold on to their majority in the House and may even gain seats in the Senate. For example, the website fivethirtyeight.com ranks Senate seats in terms of their likelihood of changing parties: the top five are all Republican seats, as are 8 of the top 10. While past patterns suggest that the out of power party usually picks up seats in off-year elections, there is a non-trivial chance that after the 2010 elections Obama will have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a sizable (if even somewhat smaller) majority in the House. With this in mind, does the Republican party really want to spend all of this term putting its effort into unified opposition to the President?

The wild card in all this is of course the economy. Perhaps economic conditions will deteriorate to such an extent that voters will be throwing Democrats out of office left and right in 2010. (But as an aside, do the Republicans really want to look like they are rooting for a continued deterioration of the economy?) But perhaps the economy will make voters react with even more venom than usual against parties that are viewed as being obstructionist in a time of national need. We just don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but it is probably something the Republican party ought to consider as the legislative term moves forward.

I Request Permission to Revise and Extend My Remarks

My post yesterday on the Democratic leadership’s reform of the motion to recommit turns out to be somewhat misleading, albeit in a way consistent with my original argument. The change that the House adopted yesterday is somewhat more subtle than the one suggested by my post (my fault for not reading the proposed rules changes that were posted on the House Rules Committee website).

The actual rule change eliminated the opportunity for the minority to make a motion to recommit (MTR) a bill with amendments to committee with instructions to report promptly. The right of the minority to instruct the committee to report forthwith was retained. The difference is that the promptly instruction removes the bill from the floor for committee consideration quite possibly permanently (and therefore kills the bill) while the forthwith instruction keeps the bill on the floor where the amended proposal is then voted on for final passage immediately.

The Democratic leadership argued that this change was necessary because the promptly MTRs were killing legislation not only because of the delays caused by pulling the bill from the floor but also because committees often did not want to report the amended legislation. Moreover, they argued that many such MTRs were poorly drafted and/or were simply symbolic campaign fodder.

Nevertheless, many of my reservations about the rules change remain. If as the Democratic leadership claims that the promptly MTRs are an effective tool of the minority, the reform still circumscribes the role of Republicans and moderate Democrats in the legislative process. The distinction that the Democratic leadership made about constructive and obstructive roles in the legislative process is opaque if not inconsistent. The threat to kill a bill is about the greatest negotiating leverage a minority can have to make constructive changes to legislation. If too many bills were killed by promptly MTRs, perhaps it is because the Democratic leadership failed to recognize and accept that leverage.

I also have questions as to whether the reform will have its intended effect. First, the Democratic leaders have other tools at their disposal to mitigate the effects of MTRs to report back promptly. As Jason Roberts points out in the piece I linked to, an MTR is subject to amendment. It seems that all the Democratic leadership needed to do was propose an amendment to the MTR striking “promptly” and inserting “forthwith.” If their protests about the nature of the Republican chicanery are true, such an amendment would pass. Second, forthwith MTRs can probably kill just as many bills. If the problem with promptly MTRs is that committees will not want to report the amended bill, will not it also be the case that the leadership will want to pull many of the successful forthwith MTRs from the floor?

Ultimately, my bottom line is the same. The solution to excessive partisanship in the House is not to tolerate increased concentration of authority within the majority party leadership.

P.S. Special thanks to Keith Krehbiel for helping me navigating the parliamentary thicket.