House vs. Senate: Parallel Universes, Lost in Space

Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, during an interview at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

House Speaker John Boehner’s embrace this week of the “Hastert Rule” spotlights the parallel universes his chamber and the Senate have evolved into — worlds in which the operative political dynamics virtually ensure stalemate.

Here are the utterly contradictory bottom lines:

In the Senate, bipartisanship has become a requirement to pass anything approaching major legislation. That’s because the once infrequently used procedure of requiring 60 votes in the 100-member chamber — a so-called super-majority — to proceed on legislation now is invoked routinely.

It’s the Republican Senate minority that turned that tactic into a standard tool over the past few years. But it’s only natural to assume that the Democrats will rely on it next time they find themselves on the short end in the chamber. And it’s unlikely either party will be in position to run roughshod over the other anytime soon —  it was more than 30 years ago that one of them laid claim to more than 60 Senate votes. The Democrats lost that advantage in the 1978 election, and for the most part the ruling party has functioned with 55 or less seats since then.

The upshot — the fate of important bills in the Senate for the forseeable future will continue to rest with just a handful of lawmakers whose party is in the minority but whose backing is essential for the majority to get anything meaningful done.

As the need to reach across the Senate’s political aisle has grown, though, on the Capitol’s other side it not only has become frowned upon, on key issues it is often shunned. That’s what Boehner drove home when he told reporters on Tuesday that he won’t bring an immigration bill to the House floor unless a majority of the chamber’s 234 Republicans back it.

This “majority of the majority” edict took root under Republican Dennis Hastert, the one-time high school wrestling coach who served as speaker from January of 1999 to January of 2007.

Boehner, speaker since 2011, hadn’t been as wedded to the practice as Hastert was. Still, his endorsement of it for the immigration measure signals a willingness to adhere to it as a regular order of business — as many in his caucus are clamoring for.

If those lawmakers get their wish, here’s what that means in the 435-member House — 117 Republicans are all it takes to block action, nor only on immigration reform, but the fiscal challenges that loom in the fall.

Let’s drill down deeper into the numbers. Almost all of those 117 votes can come from 14 Southern and border states, where Republican House members total 110. Throw in the seven more from the Republican redoubts of Kansas and Nebraska and voila. There you have it, the representatives of 16 states — none from the Northeast, Upper Midwest, Southwest or Pacific Coast — are empowered to thwart significant movement on pressing concerns.

Summing up for us, longtime congressional observer Norman Ornstein, in an e-mail, termed the situation “as close to true gridlock as we have seen at least in our lifetimes.”

Ornstein recently co-authored the aptly titled book: “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”

Steve Bell, a longtime aide to former Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico who now works for the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, put it this way to us:

“I think we need George Washington to return for a day or two and have a serious talk with both the executive and legislative branches … kind of a behind the woodshed talk.”

If only.


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