John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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More on the Majority of the Majority

Posted on January 19, 2013
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I have been thinking a bit more about Denny’s Hastert’s famous dictum on the majority of the majority.

It is still a very good guideline for how to keep the job of Speaker of the House.

But it requires some more refinement.

For most of his tenure, Hastert ruled as Speaker when George W. Bush was President.

When you have a President of your own party, you damn well better deploy the majority of the majority philosophy.  There were plenty of things that Bush wanted to do that weren’t exactly popular with the Republican base.  He got some of those things done, and other things were put on the shelf.

For example, the President pushed hard for No Child Left Behind and for the Medicare Modernization Act.  Neither of those legislative items made conservatives happy, and indeed, they are usually held up as examples of big government Republicanism.

On each vote, though, Hastert got the majority of the majority to vote with him.  In fact, without a majority of the majority, neither would have passed.

Bush also wanted immigration reform and Social Security reform.  On immigration reform, conservatives balked when the Senate Republicans came up with a compromise, and it ended up being snuffed out by the House leadership.  On Social Security reform, the President launched a election-style campaign to convince conservatives and moderates about the efficacy of such a plan, but Hastert himself, knowing that the plan had no chance in the House, killed it.

The most problematic bills every year turned out to be the more controversial spending bills.  Hard-rock conservatives had gotten in the habit of voting against all appropriations bills when they were in the minority, but the leadership back then didn’t want to have to rely on Democratic votes to get them passed.  For Hastert, the price was inevitably too high.   So Tom DeLay and his whip team would add controversial riders to those bills to make them sexier for conservatives to vote for.  The strategy had mixed results, and often, the Republicans had to rely on old-fashioned pork to get the bills passed.   It wasn’t, in the long run, a winning strategy, but it stayed consistent with the majority of the majority philosophy.

When Nancy Pelosi became the Speaker, she faced several problems of her own when facing George W. Bush.  She wanted to immediately end funding for the war, as did the majority of her majority, but that proved to be impractical.  She ended up scheduling a vote to keep funding for the war, but she voted against it.

She decided that while she had no choice but to be responsible as Speaker, she could keep her ravenous liberals happy by voting with them.

There is a very good reason why Speakers of the House have a tradition of not voting, except when they really have to pass important bills.

That means that they don’t have to tip their hand one way or the other.  They can let the House work its will and let members make their own decisions.

Hastert voted rarely, but sometimes, like on the prescription drug bill, his vote was necessary to put it over the top.  That’s what happens when you have a tight majority.

Pelosi voted far more frequently than previous Speakers.  She even voted for herself for Speaker, which never, ever happens.  But I guess she wanted to show her liberals that she was with them, even when the final results turned against her and her majority.

For John Boehner, the choices aren’t that much fun.  He wants to be with his majority whenever possible, but he has to give cover to his guys when they vote to pass legislation essential to the effective running of the government.

In the final analysis, if the Republicans can’t stay united, they will weaken the hand of their Speaker and make it harder for them to achieve their legislative and political objectives.