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Big Winner in House Disarray: Ex-Im Bank

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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The Export-Import Bank appears to be back from the dead. Supporters put together a “discharge petition” to get a bill renewing it onto the House floor, and now have 218 signatures -- which means it will most likely be voted on and pass the House.

What happened? Most likely it's because the House Freedom Caucus radicals who opposed it overreached.

Recall that the Export-Import Bank went out of business because Congress didn't reauthorize it by the summer deadline. An overall majority supported it in the House, but Republicans refused to bring the bill up for a vote. And that was where it seemed to end, until now. 

A discharge petition is a mechanism for the majority of the House to override normal procedures and force a vote on something that has been bottled up in committee. Discharge petitions rarely succeed, even when a majority supports the bill, because, if members of the majority party sign on, it undermines that party's control of the House floor. 

Even in an age of party polarization, potential cross-party majorities exist on a lot of issues. For example, there were reportedly 218 votes -- a House majority -- available in the last Congress to pass the Senate’s immigration-reform bill before it was blocked. But the majority party -- the speaker, the leadership and the Rules Committee -- controls what gets considered on the House floor. And they can agree to consider only the items their party wants and no others.  

That’s the root of the “Hastert rule” -- a practice by which the members of the majority party agree to advance measures only if a majority of their party supports them. 

So why did Republicans sign the discharge petition this time?

The norm of supporting the party in procedural matters may be so weak right now that Republican supporters of the bank simply saw no reason to abide by it. After all, Freedom Caucus radicals have been threatening to defect on the floor vote for the new speaker -- the most important party vote there can be. So if they’re going to use their leverage to throw the House into disarray and make Republicans look foolish, why shouldn’t a different party faction use its own leverage where it can?

Emotion may also be at play. The one issue on which the House Freedom Caucus differs from much of the party is on the Export-Import Bank. On its list of demands to speaker candidates, the caucus includes opposition to the bank's existence. It may be particularly gratifying to frustrated mainstream conservatives and moderates to sign the discharge petition now, in the middle of the turmoil over the speaker caused by a small number of radicals who refuse to work with the rest of their party. 

Among the other things the insurgents are asking for is to reduce the power of both the party and the committees to control the House floor, and to open it up to minority factions of either party (see Molly Reynolds at Brookings for more details). 

It's an odd demand, because there's almost nothing the Freedom Caucus wants that is being blocked from consideration but that would actually become law if it forces a vote. But its members could offer plenty of amendments aimed at embarrassing mainstream conservative Republicans. And House Democrats could offer a number of measures that would also be tough votes for some of those mainstream Republicans -- on immigration, the minimum wage or Social Security, for example. Some might even pass.

So once again, the radicals are little more than a suicide squad that is constantly plotting against its own (proclaimed) interests.

  1. In fact, some scholars believe that control of the floor by the majority party creates the illusion that Congress is far more polarized along party lines than member preferences would make it. 

  2. It wasn’t ever exactly a “rule,” and it wasn’t unique to the speakership of Dennis Hastert; all majority parties in the House, at least since partisan polarization made it in their interest to do so, have used that norm.

  3. It's possible that some of their proposals (say, deep cuts in Medicare or Medicaid) might pass the House, but they would be blocked by filibuster in the Senate, and at any rate would be vetoed by Barack Obama. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net