After several weeks of relatively little legislative activity, we got a great look at the voting procedure for the US House this week. In just five days, members of the House recorded more than 110 votes as they considered a host of amendments to the continuing resolution [CR], which is the bill that’s keeping the government funded until the actual budget gets passed. Over at A Plain Blog About Politics, Jonathan Bernstein has some interesting perspectives on the topic (here and here). In particular, he points out three things.
1) Quite simply, we have never seen amendment activity on a CR like this before. This is because under Speaker Boehner, the Republicans are considering the bill under what’s called an “open” rule. That is, members were allowed to offer amendments to the bill while it was on the House floor. This runs counter to the prevailing norm of considering important legislation under a “closed” rule, thereby limiting the number and types of amendments offered, ultimately reducing the risk of any last minute revisions to the bill’s content.
2) While the outcomes of some amendments were decided strictly along party line votes, we actually get some interesting variation on the coalitions who lined up against one another. For example, the vote to cut funding for the F-35 jet engine was an amendment to the CR, and as Jordan showed earlier this week, partisanship was not the deciding factor on the issue.
3) The rationale for allowing an open rule on this bill is up for some debate.
a) It’s possible that Boehner is making good on an early promise to be more open in House procedures (Politico has a great story from this vantage point here).
b) Alternatively, as Matt Jarvis points out in the comments of Bernstein’s first post, real decisions about the budget will be made in conference committee, when the differences between House and Senate versions are hammered out. So, all the voting in the past few days has really been about establishing a starting point for negotiations.
c) Perhaps the bill was considered under open rule because Boehner wasn’t able to corral his party and get a closed rule for the bill. Rachel Maddow (here) is probably the most animated proponent of this view as she suggests that Boehner didn’t have a choice on what rule applied to the bill because, simply, he’s doing a really bad job as Speaker.
While I agree with parts of all three points, I don’t think Boehner is doing a particularly poor job (certain gaffes notwithstanding). Rather, I think he’s having a hard time wrangling the Republicans because anyone would have a hard time organizing this group. Instead of cracking whips, twisting arms, and administering The Treatment to rank-and-file members, even the strongest party leaders only have a finite amount of political capital to make members do something against their will.
Moreover, I don’t think that John Boehner is coming from a position of strength as a party leader. The theory of conditional party government (summary here) argues that party caucuses only afford power to their leadership when they are sure that they have similar policy priorities. If the caucus members don’t think that the Speaker shares their priorities, they will not vote to give him far-reaching power, lest they be forced to vote against their own interest. We’ve already seen the Republicans lose on bills that they brought to the floor a few times this session – this indicates to me that the leadership doesn’t have the same control over procedure that we’ve seen under Pelosi or Gingrich.
Given the heterogeneity among House Republicans, and the fervor among tea partiers in particular, Boehner was wise not to expend his political capital on this bill. Certainly, there are amendments that he’s not crazy about, but the result is one that he can live with. His party has passed along a bill that should appease most deficit hawks, he’s accrued a few brownie points for adopting a more decentralized atmosphere (even if it wasn’t necessarily up to him), and all the while, some freshman Republicans got a little more seasoning as they cut their teeth on the amendment process. In the end, this whole thing is going to wind up in conference committee anyway, so there’s relatively little about this that is permanent. In that sense, the Speaker has done just fine for himself given the hand he’s been dealt.