Thursday, June 23, 2016

Why the House of Representatives must work the way it does, and why sit-ins can't work (I promise not to talk about guns)

How many coworkers do you have?  Five?  Ten?  How many are batshit crazy?  (And if you say "none," take a look in the mirror).

Now, imagine if you had 434 coworkers, and the nutty ones reinforced their own worst impulses.  Congress has a lot of crazy people.  I wrote a paper about it: Going Off The Rails On A Crazy Train.  To my knowledge, I am the only political scientist ever to use the phrase "zoological scatology" in a publication, and I might be the only one ever to get away with the phrase "batshit crazy" in peer review.  Bow down before my Carlin-fu.

Now, imagine if there were no rules in the House of Representatives.  Imagine if anyone in Congress could force a vote on any bill they wanted.  Chaos.  Vote after vote after vote on petty, stupid shit, poorly thought out bills, wildly unconstitutional bills, bills that contradict other bills, no time for even staff to read the bills, no time for anything...

There needs to be some mechanism...  Some Hobbesian beast must arise from the depths... Some... leviathan.  Some... Legislative Leviathan, by Gary C. Cox and Mathew D. McCubbins, 1993.

Congress can't vote on everything.  Somebody needs to exercise what we call "negative agenda control," which means somebody needs to block certain items-- a lot of items, actually-- from ever getting a vote, in order to prevent chaos.  That "somebody," that Hobbesian leviathan, is the majority party.  If the majority party in the House of Representatives doesn't want a bill to come up for a vote, it won't.  Why not?  Because the Speaker of the House has the power to set the legislative schedule.  He can just not schedule a vote.  It is a little more complicated than that, but not much, and for a simple blog post, that'll do fine.

Is there a way around it?  Yes.  A "discharge petition."  Yes, I just used the word, "discharge," in the context of Congress, and you can't un-read it.  Ha-ha!

Here's how it works.  If 218 Representatives sign the petition, the Speaker has to call for a vote on a "closed rule," meaning no amendments allowed.  218 is a bare majority.  Cool deal, right?  Wrong.  They never work.  Well, almost never.  The last time one worked?  2002.  It hasn't worked in 14 years.  Why?  1)  The majority party is unified, so their unwillingness to vote for the bill and their unwillingness to sign the petition are the same things, and 2) the Speaker will shoot their puppies if they sign the petition, and only Ted Cruz is that sociopathic, and he's a Senator.  Discharge petitions don't work.

That brings us to this stupid, little sit-in.  It won't work.  It can't work.  Why aren't the Democrats focusing everyone's attention on their painful discharge?  Because they can't get the signatures, and they know it.  And they couldn't get the votes for passage even if they did get a floor vote.  The House cannot vote on every proposal.  The majority party exercises negative agenda control because if they didn't, the House would descend into chaos.

And that's different from our modern politics, how?

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