Don’t Count Out the House Democrats

by John Lawrence

At this Holiday time of the year, it is appropriate – and politically timely — to recall the admonition of Jesus in Luke 9:48: “It is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” In a strange twist of fate, the presumed “least among” Washington power players – the minority House Democrats – may well find themselves, if not “the greatest,” then influential and powerful beyond the expectations of the casual observer.

It is an axiom of politics that the party consigned to the House minority is the proverbial Rodney Dangerfield of American politics: its members “get no respect” because the majority makes all of the crucial decisions about the House rules that govern operations and committees, the scheduling of hearings and mark-ups, the floor calendar and much more. Without the formal filibuster procedure enjoyed by the Senate (ended in 1811 by Speaker Henry Clay with the adoption of the Previous Question rule to discipline the unruly House), the House majority alone pretty much determines the timing and flow of anything beyond unanimous consent requests and suspension bills (that require the votes of two-thirds of those voting.)  If the majority is willing, the minority can attempt to amend floor legislation but, increasingly, the majority has not been willing.

Only when the margins between the parties are especially tight will the minority be able to craft amendments that have a chance of passage by luring marginal Members in the other party to support amendments. Otherwise, for the most part, minority House Members occupy themselves devising strategies that expose the extremes and foibles of the majority and enhance their own message for the next election.

Over the past four years, House Democrats have been largely bypassed by the Republican majority except when needed, on a regular basis, to pass Continuing Resolutions and debt ceiling increases that are considered “must pass” bills. Repeatedly, Speaker John Boehner and his GOP leadership team have come up short when appealing to their troops to provide the votes needed to keep the government functioning, forcing Boehner reluctantly to seek support from Democrats. In each case but one, Democrats provided the margins needed to pass those “must pass” bills, even when they were uninvolved in drafting them and may not have embraced their provisions, because they were unwilling to allow a government shutdown or default to occur. Knowing he would undoubtedly need those Democratic votes, Boehner was forced to keep these bills free of the ideological baggage (such as health care repeal) that his troops might otherwise have insisted be included.

One might think that the capture of the Senate by Republicans last month would make House Democrats even more irrelevant, but that is far from the case, as the current dispute over the business tax extenders has clearly demonstrated.

As is frequently the case at this time of the year, tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars in time-limited tax breaks for business interests are set to expire, necessitating passage of last minute “extenders.” The breaks due to expire a month from now include a variety of provisions that reduce taxes on business investment, commuter costs, teachers’ supplies, small business expensing and state and local tax deductibility. Cost to the deficit (because tax cuts, unlike spending increases, do not need to be “paid for”): $400 billion. Merry Christmas!

Understandably, businesses hate this annual extender pirouette. It complicates their planning and investment strategies, which rarely are based on neat calendar year models. Not surprisingly, businesses would like their tax breaks to be permanent, freeing them from seeking further congressional approval.

“Permanent” is a very long time, and makes little sense given the impossibility of predicting business and economic cycles in a rapidly changing world and national economy. What might appear to be a sound tax break today might well be a wasteful lavishing of unwarranted goodies in five years, or ten, or twenty.

To add insult to injury, Republicans in Congress refused to grant similar permanence to the Earned Income Tax Cut (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) which benefit low-income working families with children, who truly are the “least among” us. The Republicans have explained that they singled out the working poor (and their children) for this punishment because President Obama exercised his executive powers on immigration policy. As a result, the poorest workers and families in the country are going to pay the penalty. (The Republicans also are not going to give them an increase in the minimum wage, but that’s another story.) I thought we were supposed to reward low-income parents who actually went out there and worked at low paying jobs; apparently no, they are to be punished, while business owners get the tax breaks.

Now here is where those House Democrats get to flex some muscle. For while Sen. Harry Reid has been angling to pass the business tax extenders absent the provisions to aid the working poor (he gets a permanent deduction for state and local taxes out of the deal), House Democrats are having none of it. If the extender bill benefits only business interests, Democratic Leader Pelosi has said, House Democrats will oppose it and then will deliver the 145 votes needed to sustain a presidential veto, which Obama has promised. As they might say in the casinos in Sen. Reid’s home state of Nevada, “BINGO!” – don’t mess with House Democrats. The extender bill is likely dead, and the tax issues will be reconsidered in the 114th Congress.

Over the next two years, this scenario may well repeat itself with some regularity. Senators are notorious for finding reasons to vote for bills that are real stinkers because the nature of the Senate, with its holds and filibusters and back-patting camaraderie, allows them the ability to trade a vote for a gimme. Not so in the House, where Republicans pass policy (as contrasted with those “must pass” bills) with barely a thought of the needs of the Democratic minority. It will not be surprising, therefore, for a number of bills with noxious provisions, whether they be appropriations bills or policy measures, to pass the House with GOP votes alone, squeak through the Senate’s 60 vote keyhole with a few Democratic collaborationists aboard, and find themselves on the Oval Office’s Resolute desk notwithstanding President Obama’s veto threat. Many of them might well be bills that seek to constrain the use of executive powers the President has begun to employ in areas like immigration and clean air, both of which could easily provoke a few Senate Democrats to help Sen. McConnell send the bill downtown.

But then comes the veto strategy, and here is where those lonely House Democrats suddenly have power most observers have concluded they had lost entirely. For even if the President cannot count on Senate Democrats, he has reliable partners in Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats who, even with their diminished numbers, have far more votes than they need to sustain Obama vetoes. Indeed, Pelosi and her House colleagues let the President know this week that they objected to the tax extender bill absent inclusion of the EITC and CTC provisions, and that they stood ready to back up his veto. That promise led to a veto threat and the collapse of the permanent extension bill (good riddance to that, by the way), and hurried negotiations on a short term extension bill to allow businesses to breathe easier in 2015 while Congress and the President decide how to handle both the extenders and broader tax questions.

Whether it is true, as the Bible says (Matthew 5:5) that “the meek shall inherit the Earth,” it seems unimpeachable that the weak House Democrats will nevertheless be consequential players in the last years of the Obama Administration. The “least” may not be the “greatest,” but they still have power, and they will use it.  And with that observation, my quoting of the New Testament will end, and I wish you “Happy Holidays.”