What was going on?
To answer that question first requires reviewing a little background on voting on the Journal, and then considering the legislative context for last week’s Journal votes.
Background on voting on the Journal
Until 1971, the Journal was required to be read at the beginning of each legislative day unless waived by either unanimous consent or suspension of the rules. However, since the passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, however, the Speaker has had the authority to announce his or her approval of the Journal in lieu of it being read (House Rule I).
However, any Member can demand that the approval be subjected to a vote. If the Speaker’s approval is upheld, then business proceeds. If, however, it is rejected, then a motion to have the Journal read is privileged. Success of such a motion would lead to the Journal being read and possibly amended.
Under clause 8 of Rule XX, the Speaker can delay this vote until time later in the legislative day (as he or she can do with many other types of roll call votes). This ability to defer the vote until later in the day has led to the vote on the Speaker’s approval of the Journal being used, from time to time, as an opportunity to reserve a time to ensure that a sufficient number of appropriately-minded members are in attendance.
Given the Speaker’s power to keep the vote open, recording a vote on the Journal schedules a period at the beginning of a day’s roll call voting during which members will come to the floor of the House. Due to the electoral importance of maintaining a high attendance level at roll call votes, any roll call vote--including on approval of the Journal---brings members to the floor, facilitating the two parties’ leaderships’ efforts to count heads, poll the rank and file, and cajole recalcitrant members.
In this 2010 article (ungated working paper version), I explored the characteristics of voting on the Journal in the 102nd-107th Congresses. At least during those 12 years, I found that
1. Votes on the Journal were just as frequently requested by the majority party as by members of the minority party (belying a simple understanding of this vote as a dilatory/obstructionist tactic), and
2. Predicted that roll call votes later that day
a. were more likely to be close; and
b. more likely to be party-line votes than those recorded on other days.
I haven’t updated the analysis to include the ensuing seven Congresses. I wish I had the time, and am more than happy to help anyone willing to dig into it (and I have several ideas about other directions to go with it: for example, preliminary analysis of the data I did have indicated ---perhaps unsurprisingly--- that majority members who voted nay on a Journal vote correlated with defections from the party on other votes taken that day).
Context of last week’s Journal votes
This past week, Speaker Paul Ryan was frantically trying to cobble together enough votes to pass the American Health Care Act (AHCA). During this time, the House recorded seven roll call votes.
On Thursday morning, the first two of these seven votes waived clause 6(a) of rule XIII---which requires a two-thirds vote to consider a special rule on the same day it is reported---until Monday, March 27th (text here). Granted by a party line vote (notably with 4 GOP defections), this waiver set the stage for an immediate consideration of whatever special rule the GOP leadership decided to use to consider the AHCA (see the report and the rejected minority amendment). Immediately following this at 11:11am, the House voted “on approving the Journal.” The final tally, as noted above, was a squeaker, with legion Republicans voting against approval. The House recorded no more votes on Thursday, with Ryan ultimately deciding to postpone voting on the AHCA due to a lack of support within the GOP caucus.
The next day, after President Trump demanded a vote, the House moved again to take a vote on ACHA. Greg Koger provided a great contemporaneous write-up of how the day was “supposed” to play out. Here’s how it did:
The leadership started the day by bringing a “self-executing” rule to the floor (H.Res. 228). Two roll call votes (on the previous question and on the rule itself) were recorded at about 11am. The first passed on a straight party-line vote. The second passed with 6 GOP defections and zero Democrats in support.
After this, the House quickly and unanimously passed a minor amendment of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 regarding DHS acquisition practices. Six minutes later, the House recorded another roll call on approving the Journal. This vote was less close than Thursday’s Journal vote (218 yeas, 201 nays), but again had many Republicans in opposition. This was the final vote before Speaker Ryan headed to the White House to inform Donald Trump that they did not simply have the votes to pass the AHCA.
Thus, taken as a whole, the two roll call votes on the Journal likely reflect the high drama that we saw in the news those two days. These votes were not about the Journal itself; they probably were a signal to leadership ---particularly among Republicans--- that members did not want to vote on the AHCA. Their nay votes gave the Speaker the read that he needed. Which is why he delayed and withheld the vote on AHCA.
John W. Patty is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and co-editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics. He is the coauthor of Learning While Governing (University of Chicago Press, 2012) with Sean Gailmard and Social Choice and Legitimacy: The Possibilities of Impossibility (Cambridge University Press, 2014) with Elizabeth Maggie Penn.