September 19th, 2020


The Fault Lies Not In The Speaker's Plan --- It's Due In Part To The House's Rugged Math

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published March 28, 2017

At the risk of being a day late and a hot take short, I'm adding my two cents on the House's failed experimentation with Obamacare repeal.

Math is what matters most.

For all of the inside baseball about President Trump and House Speaker Ryan's leadership styles, an unwavering Freedom Caucus and an uneasy Tuesday Group, it's the chamber's numbers game that fascinates.

The current balance in the U.S. House of Representatives: 237 Republicans, 193 Democrats, plus five vacancies (four of them being Republicans who resigned to take Trump cabinet posts; the fifth is a safe Democratic seat in California).

Assuming the GOP holds serve in the four non-California special elections this year (the June 20 runoff in a suburban Atlanta district merits close attention as both sides are pulling out their best Trump and Pelosi scare tactics), Ryan has a pool of at least 240 GOP votes moving forward (the House GOP caucus stood at 241 when Trump took office).

On paper, that seems impressive. House Republicans haven't enjoyed such strength in numbers since the end of the Roaring Twenties (270 GOP members following the 1928 election).

Now, the bad news: it's not enough to be a reliable working majority.

Not a single Democrat was willing to cross the aisle to repeal Obamacare; nearly three dozen Republicans refused to come aboard with the Speaker's plan. If that doesn't change - more Republicans willing to give the Speaker the benefit of the doubt; more Democrats willing to break party ranks - we're in for a lot of drama on Capitol Hill.

A little perspective on House mathematics:

In March 2010, then-President Obama faced the first major test of his presidency in getting his signature health plan through the House (I'm not counting the previous year's stimulus package vote, which was about tossing around money and therefore far less dramatic than tinkering with the nation's economy).

Obama prevailed, on a 219-212 vote. None of the 178 Republicans voting that day sided with the then-majority Democrats. In fact, 34 Democrats voted against their president. But with a pool of 253 Democrats, Obama could shed 34 votes and still survive.

A similar thing happened with the previous year's stimulus package. It passed in the House, 244-187, likewise without Republican support. But only 11 Democrats were in opposition. Team Pelosi could have dropped another 28 Democratic votes and still prevailed, thanks to the enormity of the caucus.

Not this was entirely new to a Democratic president. In May 1993, Bill Clinton scored a majority political victory when the House approved his deficit-reduction plan, 219-213. No Republicans sided with Clinton; 175 GOP members opposed the plan. Clinton prevailed because he minimized the damage by limiting the Democratic defections to 38 members.

Later that year, in getting NAFTA through the House, Clinton didn't face the same problem: 102 Democrats joined with 132 Republicans to pass the bill on a 234-200 vote.

(The same hybrid formula worked to Ronald Reagan's benefit in 1981 when passing his tax-cut plan approved: the bill passed, 238-195, with the support of 190 of 191 House Republicans and 48 of 242 House Democrats).

In the more polarized House devoid of conservative-oriented boll weevil and blue-dog Democrats, Speaker Ryan doesn't have such a cushion. One thing it points to: elections have consequences.

Donald Trump won the presidency last fall, with Republicans losing six seats in the House (the same happened to George W. Bush in 2000 - Republicans lost two House seats - when he too fell short in the popular vote but carried the Electoral College).

In Paul Ryan's better alternate universe, there aren't 12 districts in 2016 in which Trump wins the presidential vote but a Democrat wins the congressional vote). Give Ryan those 12 races and his caucus could max out at 253 seats - much closer to the 257 Democratic seats at Nancy Pelosi's disposal when Obama took office in 2009.

In the meantime, there's the question of how Ryan manages a majority that's not in lockstep (is one of the takeaways here that the Democrats are more legislative- and process-driven than Republicans?)

The New York Times did some creative illustrating to show Ryan's challenge on Obamacare. What it shows:

150 House Republicans supporting or leaning in favor.

33 Republicans opposed.

9 with "concerns" or leaning no.

45 undecided or unclear.

Even if Trump and Ryan somehow manage to add those 54 undecideds into their column, it still leaves the Speaker a good dozen votes vote shy of the 216 he was looking for on Friday. Again, take the House GOP from a -6 to a +6 in the fall election and perhaps it's a different outcome.

One set of numbers worth noting: how the Freedom Caucus breaks down.

The Times illustration cites 36 "hard-line" conservatives in the House GOP caucus (that's including known Freedom Caucus members plus members who too campaign cash from the group's PAC).

The breakdown: 7 supporting the repeal bill, 15 opposing and 14 undecided.

Meanwhile, there's the more moderate side of Ryan's caucus - the Times distinguishing that as both Tuesday Group members and Republicans who won in districts carried by Hillary Clinton.

There are 58 Republicans in this grouping. Their breakdown: 29 supporting repeal, 10 opposing, 19 undecided.

Where Republicans failed on Friday, assuming Speaker Ryan whipped the tally upwards of 200 votes: how to pick up a majority of these 33 undecided conservative/moderates to get to 216.

Perhaps this isn't a problem when the House turns its attention to tax reform. Democratic members won't see it as undoing the Obama legacy - or, for that matter, legitimizing the Trump presidency.

Nor would infrastructure investment seem the same heavy lift as Obamacare repeal. House members - Republican and Democrat - have a hard time saying no to district projects and your-member-at-work photo-ops.

But Friday's failure?

The fault lies not in the stars.

It's in the hostile math confronting Speaker Ryan.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.