This Quiet House

This past week the House passed by voice vote the SGR patch, or “doc fix,” setting Medicare physician reimbursement rates. This means we don’t know how individual House members voted. Given the significance of the legislation, this was an unusual departure from normal floor process. It was even more unusual that no member, Republican or Democrat, motioned for a recorded vote. In other words, the first step in a two-step process was not even taken. There was zero attempt to put the votes on record. It is too early to cite a definitive reason for such voting tactics,  but it increasingly looks like an attempt to help members avoid being “scored” by outside groups. The SGR patch did not have an offset, which means that it added to the deficit. While key-vote alerts did not go out prior to last week’s vote, it is feasible that most majority members did not want to go on record in case these groups decided to score the vote after the fact, as they did on the flood insurance bill.

This past February there was a similar instance on the bill to raise the debt ceiling, which passed with only 28 Republican votes. For years, outside groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth – the most effective groups pressuring members – have warned members about voting for these necessary hikes. For the past few years members avoided negative scores by allowing the bill to come to the floor, by voting yes on the rule, but then opposing the bill on final passage. In February, some groups (e.g. Red State) became frustrated by what they saw as the Republicans’ complicit support for the debt hikes and decided to score the vote on the rule. So Republicans and Democrats agreed to voice vote the rule. This allowed Republicans to avoid damaging votes on scorecards and Democrats the opportunity to take credit for passing the debt ceiling hike.

While interest group scorecards were originally intended to keep members honest they are beginning to have the opposite effect, pushing members into unsustainable policy positions. As Jon Bernstein points out, these groups are forcing the House into a position where responsible policymaking is pretty much impossible. Even modest compromises are scored, making it difficult to foresee the potential for any substantial policy revisions. While some argue outside groups’ influence has waned, Thursday’s events suggest they are far from unimportant.