Why a Clean CR is A No Boehner

Before getting into today’s post, I wanted to point out this excellent post about the discharge petition by Sarah Binder.  I was both embarrassed and relieved when I read it, because it predates and more eloquently states what I did about the practical difficulties with using the discharge petition.  Sarah knows her stuff so, as I explained to my daughter last night, I was sorry to have not read it before posting, but proud to have been thinking the same way.  (Sarah also describes the observed historical difficulty of this procedure in this post.) Credit paid where it is due, I’ll now turn away from the procedures for a second and focus on the floor.

Specifically, I was to consider the math behind the problem that Speaker John Boehner faces.  For simplicity, let’s presume Boehner that would like to move past the shutdown and would be perfectly happy with a “clean CR” that extends appropriations at the (sequestered) levels.[1] For a little over a week at least, Democrats have supported a “clean CR.” Recently, Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor have responded that such a measure would not pass the House.  Democrats have challenged them to try it, noting (somewhat disingenuously, as I’ll get to below) that, if Boehner and Cantor are right, then there’s no harm in trying. Right?


Wrong, for at least three reasons. First, many reasonably argue (e.g., David Karol) that the majority party collectively prefers to appear united, a presumption that is given some credit by the much ballyhooed “Hastert Rule.”[2]

The second reason is the one I will focus on first: uncertainty.  This explanation applies to why Boehner didn’t allow a vote on a clean CR prior to the shutdown.  In a nutshell, many members of both parties face a highly uncertain electorate in the following sense.  A vote on a clean CR represents trading-off two “goods” or, put another, choosing the lesser of two evils.  For the stereotypical “moderate” Republican, these are[3]

  1. Responsibly funding the government, or
  2. Modifying the Affordable Care Act.

A public “yea” vote on a clean CR—particularly given the presumption that the ultimate vote will be close—is a costly and visible signal that the member thinks (1) is more important than (2).  This public signal is, of course, a coarse one.  There is no nuance in a clean CR.  So, in order for a reelection-minded member to see a vote on a clean CR as desirable, he or she must know ex ante what vote he or she would like to cast.  I’ll simply assert that few members of the House are very certain about this—this is why whip counts like this one and this one are occupying our attention right now.

The third explanation for why a vote on a clean CR would be “bad for Boehner” applies only after he has taken the public stance that a clean CR would not pass.[5]  While many have argued that Boehner is in a pickle because bringing up a clean CR might lead to a revolt within the GOP and possible his removal as Speaker. I understand this argument, but I don’t think it’s nearly as potent as some others do, mostly because a replacement for Boehner must secure a majority of votes in the House.[6]  Rather, consider the following simplistic story: presume that Boehner wants to be seen as an effective leader with control of his caucus.  Accordingly, he doesn’t want to expose his members to pointless and electorally difficult-to-explain votes.  This is what distinguishes this from the multiple times the House has voted on the pointless measures to repeal the Affordable Care Act—these votes were not difficult for most, if not all, GOP members to explain to their base constituents.

So, what would Boehner gain from allowing a vote on a clean CR?  Well, if the clean CR passes, Boehner and Cantor look disingenuous, inept, and/or out-of-touch with their copartisans.  If the clean CR fails, then Boehner has exposed his members to a difficult-to-explain and pointless vote.  (And, to be even more common-sense about this, he would have let the Democrats (appear to) dictate the agenda of the House.)

Once you add into the mix the residual uncertainty about the debt ceiling, I think it’s a “no brainer” that Boehner and the GOP membership in the House stand a lot to lose in both perception and electoral terms from allowing a vote on a clean CR.  This logic further amplifies the point I made in my previous post about the importance of the Democrats finding something to “lose” in pursuit of an end to this mess.

With that, I leave you with this.


[1] Remember the sequester…the fiscal cliff?  We were all older then…we’re much younger now.

[2] It is not infrequently brought up, but note that my explanation is arguably more consistent with the history of Boehner’s leadership, because he has violated the Hastert rule on several high-profile votes.

[3] For a stereotypical Democrat, these are

  1. Responsibly funding the government, or
  2. Fighting to undo the effects of the sequester.

[4] Or a “sincere delegate” seeking to faithfully represent some notion of his or her constituents’ interests.  I know, I know…but it’s possible.

[5] Arguably, it also applied with a slightly more circuitous reasoning as soon as the House passed the first “CR with strings” a couple of weeks ago.  But, I’ll leave that for another day.  Perhaps sadly, I expect I’ll have a chance to write about this in about 9 days, if Treasury Secretary Lew’s estimates are right.

[6] Unlike the Majority Leader position and other caucus/conference leadership position, the Speakership isn’t controlled by the majority party.  Accordingly, the Democrats can protect Boehner simply by voting “against his removal,” (they need not vote for Boehner), presuming that some GOP members would stand with Boehner.