Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pelosi Had an Easy Job This Time

During and after the vote last night, numerous pundits and passers-by were praising Nancy Pelosi, contrasting her "ability" to keep her caucus unified with the chaos on John Boehner's side of the aisle. Here, for example, is Ian Millhiser:
Nancy Pelosi controls 198 votes in the House.
John Boehner controls 87.

Nancy Pelosi was an excellent Speaker -- as I've said, I rank her second only to Tip O'Neill in the modern era, and that's giving him points because he had to figure it out for the first time (since he was the first of the true modern Speakers; the reform era ran from 1959 to 1975). So this isn't anything against her.

But really: House Minority Leader is one of the easiest jobs in Washington. Keeping her party unified against an obviously losing strategy by a small minority of the most unpopular Republicans? C'mon, that's no achievement. You know who was able to lead an absolutely unified party? John Boehner, in 2009 and 2010. He hasn't suddenly lost his touch; it's just a different, and much harder, job.

And I apologize for taking the wording of a tweet too seriously, but neither Pelosi or Boehner or any other leader "controls" votes in Congress. Not in any kind of strong sense. We're talking about 435 independent, autonomous actors. Yes, Speakers have some influence on what individual Members do (far more than Senate party leaders do), but it only goes so far. They start to go very far from what the party wants, and..well, ask Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich how long a Speaker lasts who tries to "control" too much. Indeed: one of the reasons Pelosi was highly successful as Speaker is that she didn't attempt to be the dictator of the House.

Again: nothing against Pelosi. She was excellent when it counted. But this is all evidence not for Pelosi's skills and Boehner's lack of skills, but that structural things matter more than individual skills in many cases.

Boehner's problem isn't that he's a poor Speaker. His problem is that he has 232 Republicans, and a good 50 to 100 of them want no distance between themselves and Louie Gohmert. If Nancy Pelosi had been forced to deal with 50 to 100 Members who wanted no distance between themselves and Dennis Kucinich (or Cynthia McKinney), and if Kucinich and McKinney defined themselves in large part by establishing a distance between themselves and the "Democratic establishment"...well, that's a much harder job than she actually had. And that's only the beginning of the structural differences.

One more time: Pelosi was an excellent Speaker. But her skills just don't explain much of what's been happening in the House this month.


  1. Nice post. One quibble: a couple times you have used Gohmert as your rightwinger example, but he was only the 116th most conservative Member in the 112th Cong using DW-NOM, and he's about the same in the 113th using Jackman's Ideal points. If you want to use a well-known Texan, Hensarling is much more (statistically) consistently conservative.


    1. It wasn't a reference to his conservative cred as much as his vocal support of the GOP strategy. Gohmert was perhaps rivaled only by Ted Cruz in his vehemence in this last battle.

    2. I suspect there's something screwy about Gohmert and DW-NOM, sort of like how the ratings systems IIRC had difficulty handling Russ Feingold.

      And, yes, not only his voting record, but his high-profile rhetoric.

  2. Blocking legislation is far easier than passing legislation. The Republicans, by conditioning the end of the shut down and avoiding default on passing legislation (i.e., defunding ACA, spending cuts, etc.), made Pelosi's job relatively easy. It's a distinction that Johnathan Cohn gets in his post on this topic.

  3. Anyway, it is silly to think that only the 87 who voted Yes were pro-Boehner. There were plenty of the 144 "No's" who were perfectly satisfied that the measure passed, as long as it was not with their votes. In fact, Boehner himself may be glad that some of them voted No, if it saved them from having a Tea Party primary challenger.

  4. What I would really like to know, is how many of these 87 yes votes were there before this 16 day shutdown began? Peter King kept on saying there were 25 to 30 who never showed up and I just assumed he couldn't count, but maybe there were there all long but were too afraid, or just wanted to see how this all played out. Because surely they could've pressured Boehner to pass the clean CR by voting against him some rules committee votes or against some of the earlier CR's with defund Obamacare attached. Also how many of the 144 no votes are the truly crazy caucas, or are ones who don't want any separation from them (vote no, hope yes crowd).

    Also of interest is if these 87 yes votes start exerting more influence in the party conference, by threatening to vote with Democrats to defeat legislation that is too far right and start reigning in the far right caucus. Because I would think that Boehner would want to do that, especially seeing the GOP's poll numbers after this debacle. I guess we shall see.


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