Boehner’s Overthrow and the “Then What?” Problem

Boehner’s time as Speaker may be limited. Yesterday Tim Alberta reported on substantial conversations to replace Boehner. This morning Brian Buetler verified that these talks are not particularly covert. According to several accounts, House Republicans are not hiding their dissatisfaction with the leadership. However, as both articles mention the plan suffers from a “then what?” problem. Conservatives’ discontent with Boehner is obvious but they have no consensus replacement.

The successor problem is important. However, it’s unlikely to play a role in determining whether Boehner stays or goes. Naming a successor is ideal but more often than not it isn’t a prerequisite for effectively displacing a sitting speaker.

Here is why. Historically, sitting speakers have avoided electoral confrontations on the House floor. When rumors emerge of a potential coup they have been far more likely to remove themselves before any potentially embarrassing results occur. Thomas Brackett Reed (R-ME), David Henderson (R-IL), and Newt Gingrich (R-GA) are all notable examples. Each stepped down from the speakership amid serious rumors of an overthrow. (To a lesser extent Carl Albert was also facing pressure to step aside, though he announced his retirement from the House in June, well before the rumors reached a critical mass) The only speaker to buck this trend was “Uncle” Joe Cannon (R-IL). In the 61st Congress Cannon ran and again won the speakership despite plans, hatched members of his own party, to deny him the position. However, his tenure was short lived. A year later the Republican Insurgents stripped Cannon of his authority, effectively overthrowing him as Speaker.

Politics is obviously not governed by historical law. Despite popular idioms, we are not always bound to repeat the past. However, these rumors follow some very familiar historical trends. Rumors of Reed’s overthrow began in 1895, four years before his retirement in 1899 to “go make some money.” Speaker Henderson (1899-1903) endured calls for his job throughout his four-year tenure. And Gingrich began facing coup rumors early in his second term in 1997.

Boehner currently finds himself in a similar position. Of course this is speculative. The rumors could die down and Boehner’s coup could never materialize.  However, given Boehner’s refusal to schedule bills that even remotely endanger their 2014 electoral chances and conservative’s discontent with that meager legislative schedule, it appears unlikely the rumors will dissipate.

As Beutler points out the conservative’s plan suffers from uncertainty. Historically, however, this has almost never prevented forced retirement. Is Boehner’s speakership safe absent a challenger? Not by a long shot.

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Will McCutcheon Decision help the House Majority?

To say the Republican majority has struggled with the influence of outside groups during the past two congresses is to put it mildly. These groups have stymied progress on major legislation, counseled members into bad strategic stances with serious economic and political consequences, and generally frustrated House and Senate compromise. From the government shutdown, Hurricane Sandy relief, and the various debt limit bills, these groups have made Speaker Boehner’s job very difficult.

Two big factors make House leaders’ job in the 113th Congress more difficult than in previous years. The first is the ban on earmarks. The second is the growth of outside money in politics. The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision may ameliorate, to a degree, the influence of outside money by potentially making parties more powerful fundraisers. Will this have a huge effect on House politics? The likely answer is some, but not much.

The 2010 Citizens United decision allows outside groups to raise and spend money more easily than formal party organizations. Rather than develop vast networks of small donors, these groups could raise huge sums of money from only a few individuals. By easing fundraising barriers, their influence in Congress grew because they could credibly threaten sitting members of Congress. They became better suited to bolster or challenge members that did not share their views.

Citizens United also somewhat trivialized traditional fundraising techniques. For example, in 2010 Tom Marino, a candidate mired in scandal allegations, was able to unseat incumbent Chris Carney. While 2010 was a wave election bringing 63 new Republicans to the House, Marino probably should not have been among them. Throughout the campaign Marino trailed Carney by well over a million dollars in fundraising and spending. Yet over the last 2 months of the campaign the ratings shifted from Carney’s favor to Marino’s. Outside groups were able to step in just before the election, close the funding gap and give Marino enough help to pull off the upset. Prior to 2010, this was a virtually impossible scenario. Large funding gaps were difficult to overcome in the final months of an election, even with support from the party. However, today outside groups and Super PACs play a much more central role in elections. In this sense, Citizens United skewed factors that normally forecast candidate success away from traditional predictors like candidate and party driven campaign fundraising, and toward outside influence.

That electoral influence has affected politics within the Republican majority. In recent years, Members have paid closer attention to the key vote alerts sent by outside groups. And at times this has pulled the majority coalition in different directions. In the 113th Congress these groups have actively opposed several leadership priorities, thwarted leadership strategies, and some have started “Fire Boehner” whip lists on their websites. In many ways Citizens United made “getting 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow,” as Speaker Boehner put it, much harder.

That said, campaign funding is only one piece of a broader change in leadership politics. Over the past few years leaders have lost critical tools needed to build coalitions. Prior to 2011, earmarks and campaign contributions were the carrots in the leaders’ pockets. Since then, earmarks were banned and direct campaign contributions were weakened by the growth and quantity of outside money. As a result, leaders’ tools have become more punitive. Rather than sweetening deals, they must rely on negative consequences. Rather than giving something to members, they are more often taking something away. For example, rather than creating jobs in members’ districts through pork-barrel projects, members are threatened, committee assignments are stripped, a member’s bill may be pulled from the floor schedule, and their proposed floor amendments may not be made in order on the floor. In other words members are threatened with less legislative and political influence. This is not to say that these strategies are altogether new. However, today they are the few remaining tools left to the leadership. In this light it may come as no surprise that leaders’ relationship with their rank-and-file has chafed over the past 3-4 years.

So while some expect the McCutcheon decision to empower party leaders, it is not likely to have a big effect. First, the decision affects campaign funding but only slightly. Leaders can coordinate with national party organizations to spread money around more generously. However, caps on contributions to individual candidates still exist. The decision will likely bring outside spending and formal party spending into better balance. However, outside group spending is not going away. And at times, the party may have to fight those groups to keep incumbents loyal to the leadership. It’s likely the party will still lose some of these battles.

These changes will likely have the greatest influence on “middling Republicans,” those not in the Tea Party camp but nonetheless influenced by outside group threats. It’s possible that many of these lawmakers will gravitate closer to the leaders over the next few years. However, as mentioned above, that is hardly a guarantee.

On the other hand, members closely aligned with Tea Party groups are unlikely to suddenly change fundraising strategies, find new money networks, or cozy up to lawmakers they routinely challenge or undermine in public. In other words, don’t expect the Tea Party coalition to suddenly start jumping into Boehner’s wheelbarrow as a result of McCutcheon. Their independence from the leadership will be significant in congresses to come. And without the cooperation of this group, Boehner lacks a majority. So, on many issues, we will likely find ourselves in the same place.

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This Quiet House

This past week the House passed by voice vote the SGR patch, or “doc fix,” setting Medicare physician reimbursement rates. This means we don’t know how individual House members voted. Given the significance of the legislation, this was an unusual departure from normal floor process. It was even more unusual that no member, Republican or Democrat, motioned for a recorded vote. In other words, the first step in a two-step process was not even taken. There was zero attempt to put the votes on record.

It is too early to cite a definitive reason for such voting tactics,  but it increasingly looks like an attempt to help members avoid being “scored” by outside groups. The SGR patch did not have an offset, which means that it added to the deficit. While key-vote alerts did not go out prior to last week’s vote, it is feasible that most majority members did not want to go on record in case these groups decided to score the vote after the fact, as they did on the flood insurance bill.

This past February there was a similar instance on the bill to raise the debt ceiling, which passed with only 28 Republican votes. For years, outside groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth – the most effective groups pressuring members – have warned members about voting for these necessary hikes. For the past few years members avoided negative scores by allowing the bill to come to the floor, by voting yes on the rule, but then opposing the bill on final passage. In February, some groups (e.g. Red State) became frustrated by what they saw as the Republicans’ complicit support for the debt hikes and decided to score the vote on the rule. So Republicans and Democrats agreed to voice vote the rule. This allowed Republicans to avoid damaging votes on scorecards and Democrats the opportunity to take credit for passing the debt ceiling hike.

While interest group scorecards were originally intended to keep members honest they are beginning to have the opposite effect, pushing members into unsustainable policy positions. As Jon Bernstein points out, these groups are forcing the House into a position where responsible policymaking is pretty much impossible. Even modest compromises are scored, making it difficult to foresee the potential for any substantial policy revisions. While some argue outside groups’ influence has waned, Thursday’s events suggest they are far from unimportant.


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Tradition v. Partisanship: Holds in a Post-Nuclear Senate

Originally posted for the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown.

Since roughly the 1950s, “holds” have been a staple of the Senate landscape. Though they can’t be found in the Senate rulebook or precedents, holds have played an important role in Senate operations. At times, holds have delayed or killed legislation, as well as executive and judicial nominations.  They also have been used to extract concessions. For example, senators use holds to bring their bills to the floor, to secure amendments, or as bargaining chips with the executive branch (particularly useful on executive branch nominees).

Ever since the Senate used the nuclear option on judicial and executive nominees, there has been a debate about whetherholds on nominations are dead and why. While they are not completely dead, the nuclear option drastically reduced their effectiveness from both a negotiating and delaying standpoint.

Why? A hold is effectively a threat to object to unanimous consent or to filibuster a nomination. Once a hold is made known, it is the majority leader’s prerogative to honor the hold or move ahead. The majority leader is the primary agenda setter in the Senate, so it is his decision. There are a lot of factors to consider, but time is the most important.  The majority leader has to weigh the importance of the nomination against the amount of time it will take to overcome the dilatory tactics that accompany trying to overcome a hold.

This means holds are effective on some nominations but not very effective on others. For example, holds on minor nominations – i.e., a district court judge or low level executive branch nominee – are particularly effective. It is unlikely the majority leader will want to spend a week of Senate floor time trying to overcome dilatory motions on a minor nomination. On the other hand, there is little chance the majority leader would honor a hold on a major nomination. Some positions are so important that the Senate must consider the nominee, regardless of the stalling tactics employed. For example, Janet Yellen, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, would be considered, or at least voted on, regardless of the number of holds placed on her nomination.

In both senses, the nuclear option drastically reduced the effectiveness of holds. With only 51 votes required to invoke cloture, nominees can be considered and passed with only majority party votes.

What does this mean? As a tactical tool, holds are now much weaker. For one, there is no longer any need for the president or majority leader to consult with the minority leader on important nominations. In the pre-nuclear Senate, Republicans had significant negotiating power on big-time nominations like Yellen. It was significant enough that if they wanted, they could have denied cloture on Yellen and forced Obama to find another nominee. Today, the majority can effectively ignore the minority’s wishes and push ahead. Second, the Senate can now also move with ease to appoint nominees to more minor judgeships and executive branch positions. So even for nominations on which holds were considered the most effective, their utility is now drastically reduced.

This is where I depart from Jon Bernstein’s take. Yes, Republicans placed holds on almost all judicial and executive branch nominees. However, the effect of the nuclear option uniformly reduces the validity of a hold. The threat no longer carries the same weight. Not only will they not produce negotiating leverage, they also will not obstruct Senate operations to the same degree. The minority’s ability to prevent action, and therefore gain concessions if they wish, was undermined in a fundamental way. And as a result, the Senate has less reason to reach back to its tradition of bipartisanship.

The caveat is that this is temporary. Next Congress, the compromise that reduced debate time on more minor executive and judicial nominations will end. And as @Mansfield2016 points out, the minority could force 30-hours of debate on all nominations. This could have a huge effect. It is unlikely that the majority leader, whoever that may be, has 1) the followership in the respective caucuses to force all-night sessions on a routine basis or 2) the desire to use days of floor debate on lower level nominations, forcing the Senate to delay action on other bills or nominations.

In sum, the nuclear option has likely produced short-term relief for a president trying to fill the executive and judicial ranks. However, it has come at the expense of norms that encouraged the parties to interact. The next Congress will test whether the Senate is moving closer to a majoritarian type of institution.

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Voting Against the Debt Limit Is for Losers Redux

A few minutes ago, the House voted 221-201 to approve a “clean” debt limit increase.  What’s interesting about this—aside from all of it—is that this is yet another violation of the so-called “Hastert Rule” which says that party leaders ought to keep bills off the House floor that divide the majority (more specifically, where a majority of the majority party ends up on the losing side of a roll-call vote).  With only 28 Republicans voting for the debt limit increase, this is certainly a violation of said rule.

What follows is a re-blog of a post from October modeling votes for and against the debt limit.  What we find in the data is that debt limit votes are non-ideological (despite the “principled” arguments from conservatives).  Rather, they are very clearly partisan votes, with the party controlling the White House typically voting for raising the debt ceiling while the opposing party typically votes against it (hence the conclusion that voting against the debt limit is for losers).  I’ll take a look at the most recent vote tomorrow and see if these conclusions hold in light of tonight’s vote.

The full post is available here.


For this post, I examined three distinct roll-call votes in both the House and Senate on raising the debt limit. Notably, the votes examined in this post are “clean” in the sense that there aren’t extraneous provisions included in the bill.  Most importantly, the votes occurred during three district periods: (1) in 2009 when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, (2) in 2004 when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, and (3) in 2001 when both parties controlled Congress.  The bills are 111 HR 4314, 108 S 2986, and 107 S 2578.

Here’s the results of a logit analysis (1 vote for increasing the debt limit, 0 vote against).  I tested three independent variables: if a lawmaker was in the majority, ideology, and chamber.  In the 107th Congress, Democrats are coded as the minority given that the President was a Republican.  This helps us apply the results to the current Congress.


Who votes for increasing the debt limit?  Lawmakers in the majority.  In other words, voting against the debt limit is for losers!  Specifically, lawmakers in the majority have an 89% probability of voting to raise the debt limit.  By the way, this applies to both Democrats and Republicans.  Notably, Barack Obama voted against raising the debt limit when he was in the Senate while Mitch McConnell and John Boehner voted to increase the debt ceiling when they were in the majority.

What about ideology?  Despite the conventional wisdom that conservatives are “fiscally prudent” and are more likely to oppose increasing the debt limit for principled reasons, there’s no evidence of that.  Conservatives vote to increase the debt limit just as often as liberals.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the results are the House and Senate differences.  Controlling for the above, we see that representatives are less likely to vote to increase the debt ceiling than senators.  Why would this be?  Well, senators are insulated from public opinion because of their staggered six-year terms.  Voting to raise the nation’s borrowing limit is unpopular.  Thus, representatives have more to fear in voting to raise the debt limit than senators for the simple reason that they’re constantly up for reelection.

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Why Americans “Tune Out” the State of the Union

With the State of the Union just a few hours away, the political science blog-o-sphere is all abuzz.  The essential reading list includes:

  • Can presidential speeches sway public opinion?  Jonathan Bernstein weighs in here.
  • Does the State of the Union help a presidnet’s approval  “No,” according to John Sides.
  • Seth Masekt opines on the media spectacle that is the State of the Union, and notes the symbolic yet important role that Congress plays.
  • And Ben Lauderdale wins “chart of the day” with his graph of the ideology of State of the Union speeches from 1986-2012.

I wanted to address a different question: Is the State of the Union facing an existential threat?

I was asked this question recently, and my answer is generally “no.”  In short, while presidential speeches have witnessed a general decline in viewership of late, the State of the Union still commands considerable media attention.  For example, last year’s SOTU was watched in almost 25 million households according to Nielsen.  Monday’s Grammys, which captured “big ratings,” had a comparable audience, while Wednesday’s episode of American Idol was watched in about half the number of households as last year’s SOTU.

Nonetheless, State of the Union viewership is in decline.  It’s important to note that a general decline in presidential speech viewership began sometime around the early 1980s, so the cause is likely systemic than transitory.  Thus, I’m skeptical that the SOTU drinking game is a long-term solution.  The question is therefore: Why the overall decline in presidential speech viewership?

In an APSR article published in 1999, Matt Baum and Samuel Kernell examine two plausible hypotheses.  First, declining viewership could be a function of political disaffection with the presidency.  In the present context, perhaps fewer people will watch tonight’s speech because they simply disapprove of Obama.  Second, Baum and Kernell hypothesize that with the advent of cable television and greater programming options, more Americans are simply changing the channel.

Baum and Kernell find no evidence for the first hypothesis: political disaffection has no effect on STOU viewership.  Additional research supports this view, finding that presidential approval is not a predictor of whether an individual watches a presidential speech (see a 2000 article by Reed Welch).  However, there is indeed considerable evidence that cable—and it’s greater array of programing options—has decreased the capacity for presidents to communicate “directly” to the American people. As they aptly put it: “What broadcast technology gave the president, cable technology appears to be taking away.”

I think it’s also important to point out the possibility that polarization is to blame as well.  It makes sense that Republicans are more likely to “tune out” tonight’s State of the Union while Democrats are more likely to “tune in.”  And there is, indeed, some evidence to support this view.  For example, in the same study cited above, Welch found that respondents who were on the president’s side of the aisle and referred to themselves as “strong” partisans were more likely to watch a presidential speech while independents and those on the opposite side of the aisle were less likely to tune in.  In short, it seems likely that the usual partisan filtering–evident in numerous studies of media consumption–has decreased overall viewership as our politics have become increasingly polarized.

Finally, while the State of the Union isn’t facing an “existential threat” in the aggregate, the decline in viewership does matter.  According to an JOP article by Garry Young and William Perkins, the increase in alternative viewing choices brought by cable has decreased the impact of presidential rhetoric on public opinion (though I think these effects are small in magnitude).  In addition, according to an AJPS article by Markus Prior, there is evidence that the growth of cable and increase in media choices has led to greater knowledge gaps between those who prefer “news” and “entertainment.”  Jonathan Bernstein notes that the SOTU matters because it helps reveal the president’s policy positions for the coming year (even if the president isn’t able to get those policies through Congress).  And finally, Matt Glassman has an excellent article on the symbolic importance of the State of the Union.  In short, the decline probably matters, just not as far as the president’s agenda or popularity are concerned.

Posted in Legislative Politics, Polarization | 2 Comments

Let’s Pump the Brakes on Congressional Approval Bashing

Let me start with this: yes, America hates Congress. With few exceptions Congress very rarely enjoys high job approval. Job disapproval is in some ways built into the institution’s DNA. However, recently it has been common for people to equate what they – rightly – perceive as poor legislative performance with poor approval. Research tells us this is only part of the case.

Scholars have shown Congressional job approval is influenced by a wide variety factors ranging from economic growth, to partisan conflict, to whether Congress has passed major legislation. Unsurprisingly, several studies show Congress’s job approval drops when the economy is doing poorly. Partisan conflict has also been shown to have a negative effect on congressional approval (Ramirez 2009). And perhaps most interestingly, congressional approval often drops after it passes major legislation.

gallup cong approvalBut there are also structural features that underlie the dismal state of today’s congressional approval. Several years ago scholars linked congressional approval to partisan affiliation. When both chambers are controlled by one party, partisans that identify with that party are more likely to approve of Congress. In the 1990s Republicans had a high opinion of Congress and the job it was doing. When Democrats held the majority, roughly 40 to 60 percent of Democratic identifiers and leaners approved of Congress. The graph above illustrates how trends in partisan approval track – fairly closely – control of both chambers.

Taken together, the last few years have been a perfect storm of congressional disapproval . The economic recession and a weak recovery coupled with high partisan conflict has certainly taken its toll. But exacerbating those underlying factors has been divided control of Congress. Neither party controls the majority in Congress. Therefore, partisan support that normally props up congressional approval when one party controls the institution is gone. If you include the low approval numbers of each party, it is easy to see why approval is dismally low.

If one party controlled all of Congress, it is likely approval would rebound substantially but not overwhelmingly. There are too many factors depressing approval – partisan conflict, weak economy, etc. – for it to reach the levels it enjoyed in the mid-1960s and early-2000s. But this knowledge does temper our opinion of those articles arguing that America hates Congress. Yes, the nation hates Congress. But in many ways, they really hate a Congress divided between the two parties.

Posted in Electoral Institutions, Political Behavior | 2 Comments