On Monday, July 21, IVN contributor Joshua Alvarez examined how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has abused his power to “fill the tree” — clog the limited number of amendment slots with his own amendments — in order to block Republican proposals. There is convincing evidence that the Senate is the greatest source of legislative dysfunction: in 2013, only 16 of the 72 bills that President Obama signed into law originated from the upper chamber, and there are currently 338 bills passed by the House that are awaiting the Senate’s attention.
Nevertheless, one cannot discount how House obstructionism has exacerbated congressional inaction.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) — in his own role as the lower chamber’s legislative gatekeeper — has a different yet effective method at his disposal to quash Democratic ideas: he can simply refuse to schedule their bills for a vote.
Speakers of the House may use what is unofficially called the “Hastert rule” (though in 2013 a faction of the GOP petitioned to formalize the rule) by which the Speaker only brings a bill to the floor if he anticipates that a majority of his party will approve it. This practice, which ensures that the Speaker remains in good standing with those who brought him to power, also makes cooperation with the Democratic-controlled Senate less likely and facilitates legislative gridlock.
Speaker Boehner has not only used this rule to reject bills from House Democrats, but also to deny Senate bills a vote in the lower chamber. The immigration reform bill written by the “Gang of Eight” and approved by the Senate in 2013, for instance, was never taken up by the House.
Boehner’s intransigent stewardship of the House can be traced back to a crucial meeting of GOP leadership shortly after President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. According to Robert Draper’s authoritative and tragicomic chronicling of the House, Do Not Ask What Good We Do, more than a dozen members of the Republican Party (sans Boehner) met at a high-end restaurant in the District to decide how to sabotage the Democrats’ agenda.
During their meeting, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — who was recently promoted from whip to House majority leader after Eric Cantor’s primary defeat — is quoted as saying, “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”
Since that fateful gathering, Boehner has been instrumental in keeping Democratic bills off the floor using the Hastert rule. Several major pieces of legislation, such as the law banning gender and sexual discrimination in the workplace and the extension of emergency unemployment compensation, have cleared the Senate but have not been considered in the House.
However, the speaker has also kept bills off the floor to appease the tea party wing of his caucus and to prevent partisans from having to make difficult choices on controversial legislation that could hurt their re-election efforts.
During the debates over the fiscal cliff, for instance, when the expiration of tax cuts coincided with the triggering of automatic spending cuts and threatened to plunge the country back into a recession, the speaker tabled the “Plan B” option that would have kept most of the tax cuts in place and increased taxes only on millionaires.
“I’m not interested in passing something with mostly Democrat votes,” Boehner said in December 2012.
Though the bill likely had enough supporters in the House pass a floor vote, Boehner dumped it. Conservative advocacy groups, such as the Club for Growth, announced that they would carefully watch the roll call and would notice who supported a tax increase when deciding which candidates to endorse in the future.
In an even more extreme demonstration of House obstructionism — and in contradiction to Boehner’s promise to return to “regular order” or normal and transparent legislative proceedings – the House Rules Committee approved a rule change that kept Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) from bringing up a vote on a continuing resolution (CR) that would have averted the government shutdown.
The proposed “clean” CR, which did not include the provision to defund the Affordable Care Act, likely had enough support in the House. However, the rule change gave only the house majority leader (then Cantor) the authority to bring the resolution to the floor.
On occasion, Boehner has risked his popularity — and his speakership — by bucking the Hastert rule and bringing bills to a vote without the support of a majority of his party. For instance, he offended the conservative caucus by approving an expansive relief package to the victims of Hurricane Sandy and by allowing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
And when Boehner brought up a bill that did ultimately avert the fiscal cliff, yet lacked the support of the Republican majority, Boehner caught flak from former speaker Dennis Hastert himself, who upbraided Boehner for defying the wishes of the House members who brought him to power in the first place.
“When you start passing stuff that your members aren’t in line with, all of a sudden your ability to lead is in jeopardy,” Hastert said. “All tax bills and all spending bills, under the Constitution, start in the House. When you give up that responsibility you really give up your ability to govern, and that is the problem.”
House-watchers have observed that many of Boehner’s “establishment” allies are either retiring or in danger of losing primary challenges – a demographic change that may explain the apparent rightward shift in the speaker’s governance, such as moving forward with a lawsuit challenging the president on his executive overreach.
While it is uncertain how these dynamics will change in November, or whether Boehner will stay on as speaker, it is difficult to imagine how the upcoming 114th Congress could exceed the record-setting dysfunction of the current 113th — unless it can one-up the current House and vote 55 times to repeal or radically amend the Affordable Care Act.