We voted without you. For your own good. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

The House Republican Mess

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Did you see what happened yesterday in the House of Representatives? Yup, another example of a dysfunctional Republican Party.

Every year, Congress has to pass a "doc fix" because Medicare reform back in the 1990s set the reimbursement rate for doctors too low. The House this year had been working on a permanent fix, but failed to find budget offsets that Republicans could agree on. Then it failed to find offsets even to pay for a one-year fix. So Speaker John Boehner and the Republican leadership held an unannounced voice vote on a one-year fix -- with no means of paying for it. Under House rules, it doesn't take many people to demand a recorded vote, but opponents either weren't on the floor or didn't notice, so the bill passed.

This procedure -- a vote without prior notice to interested members - was correctly characterized as "sneaky" and "tricky." It's certainly unusual. Republican Louie Gohmert pledged to monitor the House floor so that it can never happen again.

So what do we learn from it?

First, it's highly unlikely that Republican leaders would have taken this step without the (unspoken) support of the overwhelming majority of their conference. There's a reason leaders almost always alert members to what will happen on the floor; it's one of their most basic tasks. The fact that the leadership proceeded without warning suggests that most Republicans were perfectly happy not to be on record on this vote.

Second, it demonstrates both the contempt Republican leaders have for the Gohmert gang (perhaps a couple dozen Republicans who consider themselves pure conservatives and often refuse to join their party) and the fear mainstream conservatives have of voting against the gang. Most mainstream conservative Republicans behave as if they are forever one vote or one accusation away from being labeled a moderate or RINO. This fear gives the least responsible folks in the Republican conference enormous leverage, especially when "must-pass" legislation comes up. Gohmert and friends simply establish impossible conditions for getting their votes, then every other Republican is forced either to reject this "true conservative" position or risk failure on the House floor.

The dysfunction leads to efforts to rig votes so that most of the conference achieves what it wants without appearing to break with "true conservatives." Thus yesterday's trickiness.

Everyone seems to win. Boehner and the leadership stay popular with members, mainstream conservatives avoid a tough vote without angering powerful constituencies (doctors in this case) and the Crazy Caucus earns another grievance badge. There's just one small problem: This dynamic makes developing responsible policy pretty much impossible.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net