John Boehner: Legislative Innovator

Late Friday, a 19-page resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives that would fund the federal government for two weeks beyond the current shutdown deadline (see a Politico article here).  The work of Speaker Boehner, this resolution would trim $4 billion from the federal budget but extend the deadline for s shutdown from March 4 to March 18.  The stated goal is to give House and Senate negotiators additional time to work out a long-term budget proposal.  Coupled with last week’s amendment-a-thon, I think this solidifies Boehner's reputation as a legislative innovator. Nate posted some thoughts on the amendment-a-thon, reviewing a variety of explanations for such a parliamentary tactic (known formally as an “open rule”).  See his post “The Amendments are Coming.”  The explanations Nate listed—gathered from bloggers like Jonathan Bernstein to media personalities such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow—include: (A) a desire for greater “openness” in the legislative process; (B) establishing a negotiating starting point; (C) placating Boehner’s diverse caucus (namely freshman tea-partiers on his right).  My personal opinion is that B offers the best explanation.

Thinking about option A I was reminded of John Dingell’s famous quote: “I’ll let you write the substance…you let me write the procedure, and I’ll screw you every time.”  Simply put, “openness” sounds good, but it’s just not how the House of Representatives operates.  I also have some reservations about option C.  A “closed rule”—yes, the opposite of an “open” rule—gives the Speaker the opportunity to bring amendments to the floor when the outcome (whether policy or politics) is electorally beneficial.  Otherwise, the leadership exercises its negative agenda control through a closed rule to avoid unfavorable amendments.  In this way, the majority overcomes the problems of collective action and the result is legislation beneficial to the majority at the expense of the minority.  For further discussion see these studies by Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins (you can see a summary of their work here and a published article here).  What my rambling is meant to convey is that that a closed rule, in my opinion, is a better way to keep a diverse caucus happy (where, under an open rule, internal divisions can become public and electorally damaging).  For evidence see repeated attempts by those on the left to characterize Boehner for lacking control of his caucus.

Thus I think option B has the most credibility.  Here are my thoughts on why.  If we assume full information, we can say that Boehner was fully aware that, under an open rule, the amendments passed on the House floor would be (as they are) to the right of what he and his leadership would normally introduce.  As the Politico story notes, the original House-passed spending cuts (after the amendments) were “twice what Boehner himself had once envisioned, and Senate Republicans are themselves concerned by a proposed $10 billion-plus cut in foreign aid.”  Clearly, if you are looking for leverage in negotiations with the other chamber a credible claim that your “hands are tied” helps.  If the final budget is located at the midpoint between the House and Senate positions (that is, if the House and Senate simply “split the difference”), Boehner secures something near his preferred outcome.  In simple terms, Boehner allowed the right-wing of his caucus to dominate the amendment process under an open rule because he knew the final product would low-ball the Senate (helping House Republicans in bicameral negotiations).

So I think option B is plausible for the reasons mentioned previously.  But on Nate’s post I raised the possibility of another explanation of the open rule: that Boehner used the amendment-a-thon as a way to keep time on his side.  I think time is an important variable in the budget battle (one that has received hardly any attention from what I have read).  Because a shutdown has negative consequences for liberal policies more than conservative policies, and because House Republicans have the most recent election on their side, Boehner has greater leverage over Reid as a shutdown approaches.  In the language of game theory, Boehner and House Republicans “discount the future less.”  Tsebelis and Money (1997) show exactly this using cooperative and non-cooperative game theory in their book “Bicameralism.”  For a review see here, but the argument is simply that the patient chamber gets more of what it wants in interchamber negotiations.

That said (returning to the point of this rambling post), I think last Friday’s 19-page resolution lends credence to this option.  Here is why.  On its face, it may seem that a two week extension of the government shutdown flies in the face of the narrative I just spun.  That is: If time is on Boehner’s side, why give your opponent an extension?  Despite their leverage, Boehner and House Republicans are in a precarious situation.  Though interchamber bargaining favors the House as the shutdown deadline approaches, the shutdown itself probably favors Reid and Senate Democrats in 2012 (just ask Gingrich).  In other words, Boehner wants to come as close to a government shutdown without a shutdown coming to fruition.  Or at the least if a shutdown does occur Boehner wants to have a strong defense against the claim that his side was at fault.  This second condition is satisfied by the two week extension.  In the worst case scenario (which is still a win for House Republicans), Boehner proposes a series of these two week extensions, slowly trimming the federal budget in such a way that, if a shutdown occurs, it’s because Democrats didn’t accept his generous offer.  But, at the same time, the two week deadline is not very long (two weeks is a very short period in the world of interchamber bargaining, thus keeping the pressure on Reid and Senate Democrats).

All in all, I think Boehner's strategy is quite brilliant as a matter of legislative procedure and politics (the social and economic implications of the federal budget aside).  The "two week plan" simultaneously protects his backside should a government shutdown occur, gives him an additional option for trimming the budget (gradually) and maintains his leverage over Reid in negotiations with the Senate.