Monday, November 9, 2009

40 Passes, 39 Used: What's Wrong with This Again?

Why exactly is it wrong from the perspective of the majority party in Congress to have members of Congress defect on a high salience vote? Does this make any sense? From the current Republican perspective, yeah, it does make sense. The party of Lincoln is in the minority and needs every one of its members to stand their ground against anything the Democrats want to pass through the chamber and hope that at least 41 Democrats see it their way. To the credit of the Republican leadership in both chambers of Congress, they have been able to do this very well in 2009.

What I don't understand, though, is why some Democrats are complaining about the 39 strays on the health care vote (HR 3962) on Saturday night. So what? Very plainly, the majority party in the House controls the agenda. The leadership from that party is never going to bring anything to the floor that would lose; not on purpose anyway. Let's assume that's a given in the case of the health care bill that came to the floor over the weekend. The other given here is that the Democratic coalition (or cartel if we want to put this in the agenda-setting terms of Cox and McCubbins, 2005) has forty votes to spare. As the majority, you have a choice between 1) watering the bill down even further to get all your members on board or 2) strategically distributing those 40 votes (FHQ will call them passes from now own.) to electorally vulnerable members.

Knowing that it had the votes, the Democratic leadership allocated its passes to freshmen, those in Republican leaning districts or a combination of the two. Could the leadership have run up the score?* Sure, but it likely would have cost them. They'd either have to water the bill down now or likely watch as Democrats in close or Republican-leaning districts lose in 2010. As I see it, that's not a winning strategy. If you've got -- as a majority party -- some votes to spare, you have some wiggle room and an opportunity to provide some cover for at most 40 of your more electorally vulnerable members. On a high salience issue like health care reform, why not use those passes?

Well, Pelosi, Hoyer and the others among the Democratic leadership did. But they didn't use them all (by design, some have speculated -- FHQ agrees). They only used 39 (and actually ended up having two to spare because of Joseph Cao's late defection from the right side of the aisle). So sure, Democrats can be upset that they lost 39 votes, or they could be happy that the leadership didn't have to use their full allotment of passes and gave cover to some of their members at the same time.

What's wrong with that?

*Winning 218-217 is the same as winning 258-177: the bill passes. A wider margin would not have affected anything in the Senate. It would have been/will be close in the upper chamber regardless.

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