Two factual questions about US politics

I’ve been following recent U.S. politics with some interest. There are many things I do not understand, but which nobody seems to be certain about – there are at least a dozen theories about why the Republicans act as they do, for instance. But there are two things that I don’t understand in the news coverage that I think may be simply obvious to U.S. residents. So, perhaps you people can help me with them.

  1. I have read many times that there is a majority in the House in favour of a clean CR. So why don’t they vote on a clean CR and just pass it? Some of the articles I have read suggest that it is Boehner’s choice whether or not the House can vote on a law, but I can hardly believe that that is the case – it would mean that a single man has complete veto power over all laws. (And an even stronger veto than the president.)

  2. There’s a lot of talk about how redistricting in 2010 has ensured that (1) Republicans have more seats in the House even though they got less total votes than democrats, and (2) Republicans don’t have to worry about being re-elected, because they’re all in safe Republican districts, and can therefore be ideologically extreme. But it seems to me that those two claims are contradictory. The whole point of gerrymandering in a first-past-the-post system is that you try to minimise your margins of victory and maximise those of your opponents, so that you win more districts than you normally would. So for Republicans, it is ideal if a perfectly balanced state is divided into eight +5% Republican districts, and two +80% Democratic districts: they could win 8 of 10 districts, while only getting half the state’s vote. But that means that when you are redistricting, you are facing a trade-off: you can get more districts, but only by narrowing your margins of victory. So if Republican redistricting has been successful in getting them to win more seats, than surely that must mean that the average democrat is running in a more ideologically extreme district than the average Republican, and that rather than all Republicans being in deeply red districts, most of them should be in ever-so-slightly-red districts, thus pushing them towards moderate positions. Right? What we should be seeing are very liberal Democrats and moderately conservative Republicans, I’d say. At least, I do not understand how redistricting can both explain the fact that Republicans won the House and the fact that they are ideologically extreme, but I do see both these explanations used all of the time.

For your first question, this might be the best answer to your question that I’ve found. Certainly a lot of other people are perplexed as well.: … avity-here

For your second question, it’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. But one of the keys is that MOST house seats are considered “locks” for the incumbent, Democrat or Republican, regardless of their political stripe or ideology. The rate of retention for seats is something ridiculous ( A lot of this has to do with money–being able to constantly fundraise, form PACs, develop connections once in Congress with lobbyists, etc. All of which gives a leg up on any challenger. With this background, so much of the specific answer to the issue resides in the South, particularly the Deep South, where the dynamics of Congressional districts are very different than, say, New England (which has NO Republicans in the House of Reps) and in these states the wild card to the scenario you mention above is higher turnout in off-year elections (that is to say, non-Presidential elections). The Republicans have had national presidential candidates that have not helped other candidates down ballot BUT in 2010 they were able to mobilize greater numbers of party activists and Tea Partiers to go to the polls than the Democrats. And the reason this was important was good showings in state legislatures–which is where redistricting happens. With the redistricting itself, it’s micromanaged to move little pockets of neighborhoods one way or another into one district or another.

And finally, yeah, Republican redistricting tends to put large urban areas together into heavily Democratic districts while trying to do mixes of suburban-rural areas for their own districts. When Democrats redistrict they try to make urban-suburban districts and leave large (in area) districts to Republicans. This is a gross oversimplification of course. But that’s why in Minnesota we have Keith Ellison, one of the most liberal members of the House and Michelle Bachmann, one of the most conservative. I feel like I haven’t explained this very well but hopefully this gives at least some texture to the problem which certainly has vexed a lot of people.

None of this is obvious, and I suspect the discussion will not remain dispassionate. Nonetheless…

The current situation is that only a small block of House Republicans are committed to the shutdown, but most of them are unwilling to be seen acting against the Republican leadership. As long as that’s true, Boehner has this effective veto power.

(I have no polite commentary to offer on how the party got into this situation.)

I don’t really understand the redistricting situation. I think there’s some of the same bimodality as above: GOP congressfolk think they’re electorally safe as long as they’re inside the party herd, but unsafe the moment they make a move outside it.

Most republicans don’t like Obama solely because, in their hearts, they are racists. You can tell this is the fact when they stammer and stumble on their words when asked to name the specific policies that they say they are against.

For those interested, here is a list WITH CITATIONS on the many things Obama has done since he’s been in office:

MTW, that is not an answer to either of Victor’s questions.

If this thread is going to turn into a political free-for-all, I’d say lock it right now.

Fair enough. My apologies. No need to lock it.

Hm. Neither Alan’s link nor zarf’s comment really clarified the first question for me. Why doesn’t one of the democrats or one of the moderate republicans put up a clean CR for voting? What perplexes me is not that Boehner doesn’t want a vote on such a bill, but that this apparently matters. It seems as if there cannot be a vote unless the speaker agrees that there should be a vote … but that sounds really weird to me, because it puts veto power in the hands of a single person. Is this really what the rules of the House of Representatives are?

Procedural issues. It would never get to the floor and die in committee. So in answer to your question: kind of, yeah. … sentatives

In theory, the majority party selects a Speaker, and all the Speaker’s power comes from that – he sets the House agenda as the representative of the majority party. Right now that’s obviously out of whack.

Up until Dennis Hastert’s speakership, parliamentary rules allowed any congressperson to bring a bill to vote. They needed 217 votes and the whips would do pre-counts to make sure the bill would pass. This happened whether there was a majority party favoring the bill or not.

Hastert introduced a rule that said that if the majority party did not support a bill, it would never receive a vote.

This rule has been in place since.

There is no law regarding how bills are brought to a vote. This is simply congressional rules created by each congress. Speaker Boehner has chosen to follow the Hastert rule. It’s very clear that there are enough republicans and democrats to pass a clean CR if the Hastert rule were not followed.

The gerrymandering is pretty simple. Each state has a governor, house, and senate or roughly the equivalent. Each census period (every decade), the majority party in the state gets to redistrict their state. There are some general laws about not disenfranchising people, but the laws are flouted and the razor’s edge used to create as many safe districts as possible.

Another thing that’s changed is that the whole pork process has been brought to light and congressional leaders can no longer barter behind closed doors for funding of pet projects. Google “bridge to nowhere” if you want to know more.

This has led to the ability of those safely ensconced republicans to act in a less than moderate manner. Since they don’t have to “bring home the bacon”, they can vote however they want. Those that are ultra-conservative vote “No” on almost everything. They were elected to obstruct the government at all points.

Cable TV has provided nearly instant response to any congressional leader acting in a moderate manner. Those in the highly vocal “tea party” (ultra-conservative) will go on talk radio and cable TV shows and reduce moderate republicans (in not so safe congressional districts) to “traitors” or “rino’s” (republican in name only). This will almost certainly engender a challenge from the left it it’s a moderate district or a challenge from the tea party if it’s a conservative district. The tea party has been highly successful at these challenges with billions of dollars in support from ultra-conservative benefactors.

So. Even though the tea party is a minority, they have the ability to scare the moderates enough to control the house’s direction. If Boehner were to drop the Hastert rule, there would almost certainly be a challenge to his speakership from the right, likely making things worse than they already are. Imagine a speaker who isn’t even interested in compromise and simply wants our government shutdown forever.

It’s my guess that Boehner is playing a very tight game with some very recalcitrant and uneducated people. He wants the public to understand the consequences of voting for the tea party, hopefully allows more moderate candidates to win back those seats and provide blow back for cable TV so that moderates can openly defend their stand against the “crazy” tea party people.

This has never happened on the left because our equivalent of the tea party would never run for office. The leftists like government, as long as it’s functioning honestly and well.

That’s my best description.

David C.

Wouldn’t want any political free-for-alls! Especially not in a thread marked ‘politics’ in the section titled ‘General and Off-Topic Talk’… that’s just the sort of area where one really has to put one’s foot down.


Marked ‘two factual questions’. That’s what I’d call a pretty explicit cue.

David’s idea that this is a strategic move to expose the tea party is an intriguing one… anyone else think that could be the case?

Meanwhile, here in Aussieland, the party run by a man who wants to build a dinosaur park has won a third senator, beating the Australia Sports Party (which got a primary vote of only 0.23%) by only about 14 votes.

Somehow I typed out a long response and lost it in the ether. Dave C. has covered a lot of what I would’ve said, but there are some more clarifications and supplemental links.

The Hastert Rule (that a bill has to be supported by the majority of members of the majority caucus for the Speaker to bring it to the floor) isn’t technically a rule of the House, like the rules of the Senate that allow a 41-vote minority to block a bill in most situations by refusing to allow a vote on it. It’s an informal governing principle, and Boehner has violated it on four occasions (this is a surprisingly large proportion of the number of occasions on which the House has accomplished anything). Boehner has even floated violating the Hastert Rule in order to avoid defaulting on government debt (which would be a much bigger deal than the government shutdown), though it’s not so clear this is a real offer rather than some trial balloon. And, as Dave alluded to, part of Boehner’s motivation here is to avoid a challenge to his Speakership from the right; if the majority of Republicans decides they want to depose him, then his only option would be to try to get Democrats to support him as Speaker, and that would be a major political realignment. (Though I think any Republicans interested in governing might do well to consider this tactic.)

As for the question of whether a bill can be brought to the floor without the support of the Speaker, there is a mechanism for doing that called a discharge petition, where if a majority of the House signs on to force a vote on the bill then a vote must be taken. But this effectively never happens, because members of the majority who signs such a petition will be sticking their thumbs in the leadership’s eye, and leadership has many ways to retaliate. Also it would likely guarantee a primary challenge from the right. There also seem to be reasons relating to the actual House rules that it wouldn’t be an effective option here.

In relation to gerrymandering, Alan already mentioned that it’s possible to create a few overwhelmingly Democratic districts and many solidly Republican districts; someone in a 65% Republican district has little more incentive to be bipartisan than someone in a 90% Republican district. In fact, Obama only won the popular vote in 206 of the 435 districts, even though he won the popular vote overall by 4%, suggesting that the median congressional district is somewhere over 54% Republican. And in light of the majority-of-the-majority issue, if Boehner is concerned about the more conservative half of all Republican districts, which is the more conservative quarter-plus of all districts, those are likely to be mostly safe Republican. Not to mention that Republican members are probably in general more fearful of primary defeats than general election defeats these days (though that may be more true in the Senate).

I carefully avoided saying Hastert’s name three times because doing so can summon him and… glub

Is it this guy?

Unfortunately not. It’s Clive Palmer:

Matt, thanks, that is very enlightening. I’m somewhat shocked to learn from this thread that the Speaker of the House is basically what we would call the President of the House – that is, someone who ought to be impartial and lead the debates. How can you have a functioning democracy if you make the person in charge of procedures also the de facto political leader of one the parties?

Oh, wait.

Republican districts became slightly more Republican, while Democratic districts became slightly less Democratic: … e/2367939/

But, one of the reasons Democrats crushed the 2006 elections was that gerrymandering had produced a large number of barely-Republican districts that flipped when independents turned against the GOP. Karl Rove had thought himself a political genius for engineering a strategy based on winning lots of 51%-Republican districts, which worked for a while but not forever. My guess is that the next round of gerrymandering was done more carefully.

Not this carefully: