Why John Boehner Won't Hold a Vote to Reopen the Government

A sign alerting visitors that the National Gallery of Art is closed stands outside the building as it remains indefinitely closed on Oct. 1 in Washington Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

John Boehner could get out of this mess today. As House speaker, he can bring any bill he pleases to the floor. Like any bill, a continuing resolution to fund the government without gutting Obamacare would need 218 votes to pass. This morning Bloomberg News reports that at least 13 Republicans would vote for such a bill in defiance of the party’s right wing. Add Boehner and the House’s 201 Democrats, and the nation is just two votes shy of reopening the Lincoln Memorial.

Boehner is not doing this because we’re not watching a fight between Democrats and Republicans. It’s not even, really, a fight between the Tea Party caucus and the rest of the Republican party. The government shutdown is the real consequence of three decades spent trying to answer a metaphysical question: What is a party? John Boehner is stuck with an understanding of party discipline that may no longer be relevant—or even good for the Republican Party.

For most of the 20th century, the most powerful people in Congress were committee chairmen. They could hold bills up or bring them to the floor for a vote. In the 1970s, political scientists, looking at how Congress worked, didn’t believe that parties much mattered. Each member had a single vote and a unique set of incentives. (If you’re into the history of political science, there’s some background on this here [PDF]).

Party discipline was less important because it wasn’t possible to enforce. Interests within parties were too varied. Since the early 1980s, however, political parties have become more homogenous. Once you can get a whole party to agree on something, party discipline becomes possible. Once it’s possible, you can wield it as a weapon.

When Democrats controlled the House in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Speaker Tip O’Neill forced the chair of the Rules Committee to answer to the speaker’s office, an arcane change with far-reaching consequences. The speaker—the leader of the dominant party in the House—began writing the rules for debate on every piece of legislation. After the mid-term elections of 1994, the parties became even more homogenous, and the new GOP Speaker, Newt Gingrich, continued the work of asserting party control. Where committee chairs had been passed down by seniority, Gingrich began appointing younger chairmen loyal to him and the leadership.

Then Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker during most of George W. Bush’s presidency, took this demand for loyalty to party still further. The Hastert Rule, an informal edict not codified in any book and yet still rigorously adhered to today, instructs the speaker not to bring any bill to the floor that does not have the support of the majority of the majority. The rule was simply the logical end of a long-term trend. The party—both parties—had become more important than the House’s bills. Even a passable bill, if it doesn’t pass with the consent of the party, is not worth passing.

Speakers have violated this rule in the past. John Boehner did it several times in the summer in order to get anything done. He knows, however, that every time he divides his own party on a vote, he endangers his position as speaker. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein pointed out in June, Boehner is not constrained by the Hastert Rule. He is constrained by the realities of the speaker’s dais.

But there is nothing in the Constitution about the role and relative power of the political parties. Congress does not have to continue where O’Neill, Gingrich, Hastert, and Nancy Pelosi have taken us since 1977. Outside Congress, the Republican Party has been having trouble figuring out how to broaden its appeal. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, an enterprising Republican, got behind immigration reform this summer, but a similar bill couldn’t get the support of the majority of the majority in the House; Rubio ran up against the Hastert Rule.

The simplest way for the Republican Party to broaden its appeal might be the same as the way out of the shutdown. Let the Tea Party Caucus be the Tea Party Caucus. That’s what its members were democratically elected to do. But don’t allow them to run the place simply because they wave the Hastert Rule. The party itself is already less homogenous than it was not long ago. Such party discipline clearly isn’t possible; it might not even be necessary. If Republicans let their party structure in Congress become weaker, they may find it not only easier to get things done, but easier to get a lot more Republicans elected.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.