Thursday, February 17, 2011

More on That Open Rule

Yesterday's item supporting John Boehner's use of an open rule on the 2011 spending bill (and by the way, see a very similar, but I think slightly better, item published right at the same time from Ezra Klein -- great minds, and all that), elicited some very interesting comments and a Barry Pump post. The general theme is: instead of congratulating the Speaker for choosing an open rule, the more helpful task is to figure out why, and what it tells us about what's happening in the House. I think that's correct, and so here's a second go at the topic. (Quick recap: the open rule allows lots of amendments; recent Democratic and Republican majorities in the House have almost always used some form of closed rule for most bills, which allows the majority party to dramatically limit and control which amendments will be offered).

I'll start with Pump, who follows up on my suggestion that closed rules and other leadership devices have made the House appear more partisan than it would be if Members had more choices:
A bigger question I have is whether this sort of issue matters at all. Even if agenda control is masking the number of potential cleavages (beyond party/ideology), members are still signing on to that agenda control. The median voter, at least, could demand open rules and play both parties until she got one. Polarization, then, manifests itself in procedure rather than policy per se. (This argument is consistent with Sean Theriault's findings.)
In the case of today’s votes on H.R. 1, Speaker Boehner may not have had much of a choice in allowing an open rule for the bill’s consideration. Bernstein would be falsely praising Boehner for allowing an open rule when in fact it’s the chamber’s median voter who demanded it of the Speaker.
Political scientist Matt Jarvis, in comments here, argues that two interpretations are consistent with what we see. One is that the open rule, and the subsequent voting across party lines, is basically for show, with everyone realizing that the real game will be in conference once both chambers act. The other possibility, however, is similar to Pump's speculation: as Jarvis puts it, "Boehner doesn't have control." If that's the case, he's used an open rule only to avoid defeat on a rules vote if he tried to choke off the ability to offer some of these amendments.

I'll give one other possibility, which is suggested by Stan Collender's very interesting comments about the possibility of a government shutdown -- for Collender, it's all about the demonstration effects:
[T]he House GOP leadership may have to agree to a shutdown to show the tea party folks that they are willing to do it.  They also need to show that the Republican Party will suffer real political pain from everyone but tea party supporters by shutting down the government.  As Bill Hoagland implies with his quote, the inability of the House Republican leadership to temper its tea party types last week on the continuing resolution is as strong an indication as you can get that it needs additional leverage over that faction of its caucus and the likely negative political reaction to a shutdown may be the best/only way it can get it.
For the CR, this logic would imply that Boehner's real goal in using an open rule could be twofold: to show hard-liners that they don't have the votes for many of their most aggressive spending cuts, and at the same time to show them how easily the GOP can lose control of the chamber if rogue Members insist on their personal preferences instead of sticking with the party. Surely, if Boehner believes that a shutdown would be very damaging to the GOP in general and to his ability to remain Speaker in particular (and indications are that  he does believe those things -- as in my view he should!), then finding some way before the final crisis to defuse some of the intensity of budget-cutters who have a lot less leverage than bravado would be a smart move. If, of course, it works.

I think that's four or five possible explanations, some compatible and some not, for the open rule, and that's not counting the one that I (and Klein) emphasized yesterday, which is simply that the Speaker is fulfilling a campaign promise. I wouldn't discount that, either. So: which one is correct? I don't know! I think this is one of those cases in which we just have to watch and see what happens as the year goes along (and as additional reporting tells us more about what's happening behind the scenes). What I think is fair to say at this point, however, is that the House promises to be quite interesting this year, and I'm going to try to shift some of my attention over there.

1 comment:

  1. If they got rid of all the republicans, the government would be fine. Fire yourself - Boner!


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