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By Jay Cost

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Could Nancy Pelosi Lose Control of the House?

At its essential level, a political party is an extra-governmental conspiracy to control the government. Our constitutional system disperses power across three branches, two chambers of Congress, and federal, state, and local levels. The parties are centralizing forces, trying to unite all governmental power under the party banner. They accomplish this task when conspiring officials across the government coordinate their activities with others whose views are similar.

To be successful, a conspiracy requires a shared belief among the conspirators that their interests are linked - something to the effect of, "Whatever happens, we sink or swim together." This is really the only glue that binds a political party together. American party structures are very weak; partisans participate in the "conspiracy" only if they believe it will help them in the long run.

For some time, it's been clear that the efforts to pass the health care bill have tested the Democrats' ability to conspire. With the bill's apparent failure, stories abound suggesting backbiting among party leaders across branches of government. This was the report in a recent Politico story:

President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be all smiles as the president arrives at the Capitol for his State of the Union speech Wednesday night, but the happy faces can't hide relationships that are fraying and fraught.

The anger is most palpable in the House, where Pelosi and her allies believe Obama's reluctance to stake his political capital on health care reform in mid-2009 contributed to the near collapse of negotiations now.

But sources say there are also signs of strain between Reid and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and relations between Democrats in the House and Democrats in the Senate are hovering between thinly veiled disdain and outright hostility.

Senate Democrats are mad at House Democrats. House Democrats are mad at Senate Democrats. And everybody is mad at the President. This is not the mark of a well-functioning conspiracy!

But things could get worse. House roll call votes from late in 2009 suggest that there might be a backbench revolt brewing that could undermine Democratic control of the government.

Remember, the Democrats control the House only because they can muster the needed 218 votes to pass legislation or execute procedural maneuvers. That's the essence of the House conspiracy. But, again, it's an entirely voluntary one. If Blue Dogs, moderates, or at-risk members start defecting in large enough numbers, and Pelosi can't pull in the needed half-plus-one of the chamber - she loses effective control of the legislative appartus.

By the end of December, there was a surprisingly large number of backbench defections. Let's run through a list of the big ones from June onward.

Democratic Defections.jpg

These were all partisan votes in that Republicans mostly voted against the Democratic leadership. Two of the bills - HR 2454 (cap and trade) and HR 3962 (health care reform) - were high profile pieces of legislation that attracted a lot of attention. But the rest did not garner nearly as much focus, and several of them are downright obscure. And yet the number of defectors was still high.

It's striking to see 29 Democrats defect on a concurrent resolution providing for the adjornment of Congress. Or how about 39 Democrats defecting on a bill "to permit continued financing of government operations." That's an increase of the debt limit. How could so many vote against it? After all, the House voted through all the spending that required an increase in the debt limit. Yet Pelosi could only muster 218 Democrats to do what absolutely, positively had to be done!

This is the mark of a partisan conspiracy that is in some jeopardy.

All of these bills passed, defectors aside. Yet the concern for Democrats should be that, as we approach the 2010 midterm, the number of defectors begins to hit 40 or more. That will happen if Democratic backbenchers sense a need to put more distance between themselves and the leadership. In that case, the Democrats will need Republican votes. They got enough on cap-and-trade, but the GOP caucus might not be so amenable in the future.

Something like this happened in the summer of 1994. Rich Lowry referenced it on the Corner recently. What happened was that, in the course of passing President Clinton's crime bill, the Democratic leadership suffered huge defections on what should have been a worry-free procedural vote. Michael Barone offers a recap in the 1996 Almanac of American Politics:

[T]oo many Democrats, lulled by the widespread assumption in Washington that Hillary Rodham Clinton's healthcare package or something like it would inevitably pass, failed to separate themselves from this increasingly popular program until it was too late.

That moment came, ironically, when Democrats were poised to push through a piece of legislation they thought would make them widely popular, the 1994 crime backage. But the House and Senate leadership, trying to please the liberals in their own caucuses who wanted social work and gun control measures more than the large majority of voters who wanted tough law enforcement and punishment, put together a package that House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich could portray as "social work" and "pork." All but 11 Republicans voted against the rule to consider the crime bill, while 58 Democrats, most of them opponents of the control measures insisted on by liberals, voted no also. The Clinton Administration and the Democratic leadership tactic of keeping liberals happy and using their whips to bludgeon enough moderate Democrats to produce 218 votes had definitively failed.

Ultimately, Democrats won enough Republican votes to pass the crime bill. Yet this simple procedural vote exposed a deep crack in the Democratic foundation, as the party leadership was no longer able to keep 218 members together on crucial votes.

If something like this happens in the 111th Congress, what would be the result? Simply put, the Democrats would lose effective control of the House. Nancy Pelosi would continue to be Speaker, top Democrats would still hold all of the key committee chairs, but they would be unable to legislate on the hard stuff. They could still get things like HR 4474, the "Idaho Wilderness Water Facilities Act," passed through the House - but on anything with a whiff of controversy, she and the leadership could be in trouble.

This is something to watch for as we enter an election year with continued high unemployment, a marginally unpopular President, and an economy experiencing only a tepid recovery. It could be a challenge for Speaker Pelosi to keep 218 of her partisans together, and retain effective control over the legislative process in the House of Representatives.

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-Jay Cost