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Copyright © 2013 jsd

Fracturing the Republican Coalition
John Denker

1  Recent Events

Let’s consider recent bill to fund Superstorm Sandy relief. Let’s look at the process that led to its passage. The vote in the House was:

                yea  nay   total
  Republicans    49  179     228
  Democrats     192    1     193
  total         241  180     421

This is a clear violation of the so-called Hastert rule, which says that the Speaker of the House should use his power to prevent the House from passing (or even voting on) a measure unless it enjoys support from a “majority of the majority” i.e. a majority of the members of the majority party. The rule is named for former Speaker Dennis Hastert, even though he inherited it from his predecessor, Newt Gingrich.

This rule has been violated only twice in 15 years, which is also twice in 15 days: once for the “fiscal cliff” vote on New Year’s Day, and once for the Sandy relief vote on January 15th.

If these violations of the Hastert rule are the start of a trend, it has tremendous significance. Mr. Boehner could decide he would rather work with moderate Democrats than work with the extreme elements of his own party. This would give him tremendous (but not unlimited) power to decide what would and would not be enacted.

2  A Hypothetical Constraint on the Speaker’s Power

One hypothetical limit to the Speaker’s power is the risk that the House Republican conference might mount an insurrection and remove him from the speakership. However, that is probably not as big a threat as it might appear, for a couple of reasons.

Violating the Hastert rule will fracture the party. A fracture makes it virtually impossible for anybody to replace the incumbent Speaker. It takes a majority vote of the House to get elected Speaker, but once he’s in, it takes a majority to get him out. Besides, it’s not clear that there is anybody else who is remotely qualified who actually wants the job.

More importantly, there is a theory going around that says Boehner is free to repeatedly violate the Hastert rule, within limits. That’s because only 50 or 60 of the House Republicans are completely crazy. The rest of them are only half-crazy. The half-crazies are content to see moderate legislation get passed so long as they don’t have to vote for it.

Note that the same logic explained why Senator Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling in July 2006. He was perfectly content to see the measure pass. He just wanted to make the other guys vote for it.

For most of these guys, the main thing they care about is winning the next election, so they can stay in office. Because of rampant Gerrymandering, most House Republicans represent safe red districts. Almost the only way they can lose is if they get primaried from the right. That makes them very leery of voting for moderate legislation, even if patriotism and common sense demand that the legislation should pass.

I call them half-crazy because I don’t think they would vote to destroy the world economy unless they though it was necessary in order to keep their seat.

We are talking about something that resembles a three-party system, consisting of the crazies, the half-crazies, and the Democrats. The Speaker can forge a coalition between the half-crazies and the Democrats, leaving the crazies on the outside, powerless.

3  The Ultimate Limit

The ultimate limit to the Speaker’s power derives from his need to defend his own seat in 2014. He needs to worry about a primary challenge from the Tea Party.

However, the controlling factor is not the Tea Party true believers. That’s because you can’t threaten war after the war has started. The Tea Party already hates Boehner. As discussed in section 4, he has evidently decided to let them know that they do not control the Republican Party, even though they think they do.

In fact, the Republican Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the plutocrat faction, i.e. the guys who are vastly more wealthy than Mitt Romney. The Tea Partiers get funded only so long as they do what the plutocrats want them to do. Occasionally there are mistakes, as when Christine O’Donnell won the Senate primary in Delaware in 2010, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. So I reckon that as long as Speaker Boehner does what the plutocrats want, he is safe. The grassroots crazies might mount a primary challenge, but it won’t attract enough funding to constitute a serious threat.

The real limit is this: If Boehner does something that offends even one plutocrat, he will be in jeopardy. The offended plutocrat will supply the money, and the Tea Party will supply the boots on the ground, resulting in a formidable challenge.

We can catalog some of the things that will and will not be allowed:

Issues where Boehner Can Work with the Democrats   Issues where He Cannot

The plutocrats do not want to see the world economy destroyed. They do not want the government to shut down or to default on its financial obligations.  

Most of the plutocrats don’t particularly care about social policy. For example, Sheldon Adelson is actually quite liberal on social issues such as gay rights.   The plutocrats are opposed to voting rights, especially when it comes to black, brown, poor, handicapped, young, and/or female voters.

  The plutocrats want lower income tax rates. They want distorted tax policies that favor investment income over actually working for a living. They bitterly oppose unions. Some of them e.g. the Koch brothers want to annihilate the EPA, because they want to internalize profits and externalize the harmful consequences of their activities.

So, perhaps there is reason to be optimistic that the government can continue to function ... if only barely.

4  Pecking Order

In a barnyard, there is a pecking order. Generally this does not involve very much pecking on a day-to-day basis, so long as everybody keeps to their place in the hierarchy. However, there will be a fight if anybody tries to move up in the rankings.

I mention this because for two years the Tea Party crazies have treated John Boehner (and lots of other people) like dirt. In December, Boehner decided he wasn’t going to take it any more. He did some pecking. He stripped four of the most truculent crazies of their committee assignments. They pecked back by almost denying him re-election as Speaker, and by undercutting his political power in humiliating fashion by defeating his “Plan B” motion. He escalated by discarding the Hastert rule.

This is not over. The Tea Party crazies came to town with a mission. If Boehner continues to allow cooperation between the Democrats and the half-crazies, it threatens the Tea Partiers with loss of mission, and they’re not going to tolerate that. They will spend all their waking hours looking for ways to regain influence.

5  Fracturing the Coalition

A political party is essentially a long-term coalition.

Any group with an extreme agenda can maximize their winnings by going as far to the extreme as possible ... up to the point where it fractures the coalition. At some point, the less-extreme members of their party would rather work with the other party than work with them. There is a tectonic re-alignment of the coalitions, and the extremists find themselves on the outside looking in.

This phenomenon – fracturing the coalition – is more-or-less the only thing that limits the extremists’ power.

After approximately four years of existence, the Tea Party has reached this point.

One way to regain power would be to moderate their positions, so that it would be easier for the other Republicans to work with them than to work with the Democrats. However, my guess is that they are not going to moderate much, not before the 2014 elections, and maybe not even then. At some point, if these guys are seen as being so crazy that they are ineffective, the voters might replace them with somebody less crazy ... eventually.

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Copyright © 2013 jsd