Gridlock in recent years between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill has led to increasing focus on the intricate process used to move major legislation through Congress. In 2009-10, Democratic leaders wielding significant majorities in both chambers encountered major hurdles in passing Obamacare (formally the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act). Now, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both Republicans, preside over slimmer majorities and face even greater trouble moving items on their agendas through Congress.
Congresses from the 1950s through the George W. Bush administration displayed political tendencies fundamentally different from those we see today. Commonly, important bills would pass with the support of most of the majority party joined by a healthy slice of the minority party. A small number of the most ideological members of the majority would vote “no”, as would a larger group of their colleagues on the other end of the political spectrum. For example, in 1965, legislation to establish Medicare pushed by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson passed with significant Republican support. Fully half of the House Republican caucus voted in favor of the bill, and 40 percent of their Senate counterparts did the same. A similar proportion of Democratic lawmakers supported the first set of President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981. By the time Bush’s tax cuts faced congressional approval in 2001, inter-party cooperation remained, though in a less convincing manner: 24 percent of Democratic senators and 13 percent of Democratic representatives supported the bill.
In stark contrast, since the Obama administration it has become standard practice for majorities in Congress to not seek votes from the other party. For example, when Obamacare came to the floor during Obama’s first term, no Republicans in either the House or the Senate voted in favor of it. A similar scenario played out this year, when House and Senate Democrats universally opposed the Republican plan to repeal and replace the health law.
These voting trends reflect changes in the way political parties within Congress operate. Kathryn Pearson, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, writes that “congressional reforms over the past three decades have increased the power of party leaders. As a result, leaders have an arsenal of potential tools that enable them to exert party discipline by rewarding loyal members with resources and opportunities.” She finds that changes to congressional rules have channeled power away from individual committee chairs and towards party leadership, resulting in more top-down control.
Party leaders exert enough influence over their moderate members that few now cross the aisle in votes, even if their individual ideologies would suggest otherwise. As the current minority party, Democrats find this control especially easy to obtain because they must only convince their members to oppose legislation, rather than to support new policies. Opposition brings with it support from the base and little political uncertainty, thereby roping in moderates who might otherwise side with Republicans. The GovTrack ideology analysis, one measure of Congress’ political spectrum, suggests that there are a number of Democrats who fall farther to the right than the least conservative Republican in their chamber. This is particularly visible in the Senate, where 10 Democratic senators from states that supported Trump in 2016 will face reelection in 2018. GovTrack posits that five of these lawmakers—Sens. Nelson, Tester, Heitkamp, Donnelly, and Manchin—are more ideologically conservative than Sen. Collins, the least conservative Republican. Democrats from red districts or states have an electoral incentive to support items on the conservative agenda, but so far Democrats have voted in unity on almost all controversial measures.
The most fundamental problem current Republican congressional leaders confront is that the party’s majorities are slim, making it exceedingly difficult to achieve goals with Republican votes alone. In the House, the defection of one major ideological faction can stall a bill. The conservative Freedom Caucus and centrist Tuesday Group both took their turns at blocking the GOP health plan from advancing, and it long seemed that any concession to one would simply push away the other. The math is even stickier in the Senate, where McConnell has only a two-vote majority. Any three Republicans can band together to sink a bill.
If Republican leaders have any doubt about their ability to move an effort through Congress, they must pursue the votes of the most centrist Democrats. Seven, five, or even one vote could be the difference between a legislative victory and a frustrating internal squabble. The mere possibility of getting Democratic votes would give Republican leaders more elbow room. Though pressure from Democratic leaders and interest groups to stick with the party is certainly intense on moderates, there is obviously room for movement: three Trump-state Democratic senators voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, in arguably the most significant vote of the current Congress to date. While we will never know whether they would have provided their votes had they been the decisive factor in the confirmation battle, their support undoubtedly strengthened the Republican position.
Gaining any measure of bipartisan support will, of course, likely involve concessions from Republican leadership to centrist Democrats. However, one would expect these concessions to be relatively similar to those that party leaders already have to give to centrist Republicans, some of whom are, as noted above, farther to the left than the Democrats of interest. The gains from adding members of the minority to the “yes” column range far beyond simple votes, and would almost certainly outweigh the cost to the conservative agenda.
The first such benefit would be the possibility of avoiding the budget reconciliation process, which decreases the quality of bills by limiting policy options. Reconciliation allows Senate leaders to pass legislation with only a simple majority of 51 members, rather than the 60 who are normally required to end debate on a bill and proceed to a final vote. With only 52 Republicans in the current Senate majority, leaders must use reconciliation to pass bills on which they do not receive Democratic support. However, as the Tax Policy Center notes, invoking reconciliation bars any provision that does not directly modify the budget, and disallows bills that would increase the federal deficit outside of a 10-year window. Thus, a proposal allowing the sale of insurance policies across state lines is ruled out, as is any revenue-decreasing tax reform that does not expire after a decade. These limits impair the construction of optimal bills.
In addition to procedural benefits, expanding affirmative votes beyond the Republican caucus would protect the Republican Party from major political fallout. Any large overhaul of federal law, especially on healthcare, is bound to attract significant public attention. Though Obamacare was fundamentally flawed to begin with, it turned into the massive political liability that it did partially because Republicans could make a simple and effective pitch against it: every single Republican (and quite a few Democrats) voted against it, and therefore it must have been a radical proposal lacking the support of the American public. The GOP was able to put total responsibility for the bill on the Democratic Party, and thus the latter suffered the consequences of its unpopularity in the following elections.
Political science professors Seth Masket of the University of Denver and Steven Green of North Carolina State University note that “Democrats paid a substantial price for party unity in the 111th House of Representatives… health care reform was a particularly costly vote, with [Affordable Care Act] supporters running six to eight percentage points behind bill opponents” in the 2010 midterm elections. Obamacare became an easy political target; data from The Cook Political Report indicates that Republicans ran 1.3 million ads against it in the four national elections after its inception—13 times as many as Democrats published to defend it. Democrats failed to get the votes necessary to disrupt the partisan narrative of the bill, and they paid the electoral price.
The Republican congressional leadership should exercise great caution when electing to seek only Republican votes to pass bills. At best, this strategy is a risky bet on the ultimate success and popularity of the legislation: all credit or blame will lie with the GOP. At worst, it could stall the leadership’s entire legislative agenda as party infighting and complex reconciliation processes leave bills without the support to pass. Securing some number of Democratic votes provides procedural and political benefits that could well outweigh the policy cost of acquiring them. As leaders of a unified Republican government, Trump, Ryan, and McConnell should consider the merits of this tradeoff before starting any legislative effort.
Stephen Phillips is a sophomore from New York, New York, prospectively majoring in the Department of Molecular Biology. He can be reached at email@example.com.
“Briefing Book: What Is Reconciliation?” Tax Policy Center. Urban Institute and Brookings Institution. Web. 25 July 2017.
GovTrack. Sponsorship Analysis. Raw data. Web. 25 July 2017.
Masket, Seth E., and Steven Greene. “When One Vote Matters: The Electoral Impact of Roll Call Votes in the 2010 Congressional Elections.” U.S. News and World Report. Proc. of Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago. 2 Apr. 2011. Web. 25 July 2017.
Pearson, Kathryn. “Party Leaders’ Increased Power and Incentives to Exert Discipline.” Party Discipline in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2015. 19-52. JSTOR. Web. 25 July 2017.
Walter, Amy. “The Political Cost of Obamacare.” The Cook Political Report. 19 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 July 2017.
Photo by Gage Skidmore (with changes made) under CC BY-SA 2.0 License