Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Control in the House

Via Ezra, Naftali Bendavid and Patrick O'Connor have an interesting article about incoming Speaker John Boehner in the WSJ that is somewhat helpful in its reporting, but unfortunately gets important things wrong about the House.

There are really a couple of dimensions that are important here, and the article doesn't separate them.  One is about centralization, and the question of how influence is apportioned under the rules between two different hierarchies in the House: the party leadership, and the committee system.  This is quite important, and does indeed vary tremendously between Speakers, with (to generalize a bit) Newt Gingrich and Jim Wright at one extreme, Tom Foley and Denny Hastert at the other, and Tip O'Neill and Nancy Pelosi successfully finding the sweet spot in the middle.

A second question, very separate from the first, is about the relationship between the majority and minority parties. Incoming majority parties in 1995, 2007, and now 2011 have pledged a variety of protections for the new minority party, such as the ability to offer amendments on the House floor and various types of open government.  However, once the rush of events begins, majorities invariably backslide on these promises.  That's not to say that there are no important reforms in this area, or that specific measures are irrelevant.  But the fundamental nature of the modern House is majority party rule, and that's not going to change any time soon.

The two questions are related a bit, in that a Congress in which committees are more important is probably a Congress that gives relatively more opportunity to minority party Members.  But in an era of partisan polarization, that's only going to be marginally true.

So the dimension that gives Speaker Boehner real choices to make is party leadership vs. committees.  There, it's wrong to lump Gingrich and Pelosi together (as Bendavid and O'Connor do).  Gingrich, who tried to centralize power in the Speakership, faced frequent and early revolts within his party, and once his special claim to electoral brilliance was exposed as a fraud the party rapidly ended his leadership career.  Pelosi, who opted for a much more balanced approach, has never faced a real internal threat.

To this point, Boehner seems to me to be following the O'Neill/Pelosi path.  Over time, that's not apt to lead to more openness or more rights for Democrats in the Republican House.  But it has proven to be the path that has the best chance of keeping Republican Members happy.

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