For political junkies of a certain age, it was a given that the House of Representatives would always be controlled by Democrats. They won the chamber in 1954 and held on for 40 years — more than twice as long as any party in American history had before.
When Sam Rayburn died at 79, more than 20 years after first becoming speaker, he was succeeded by John McCormack, 70, who was followed by Carl Albert, 68, and Tip O’Neill, an energetic 64. Every House elected from 1958 to 1992 had at least 242 Democrats, well above the 218 votes needed for a majority.
Now things are different. The Republicans won a majority in the House in 1994 and held on until 2006, the third longest period of Republican control in history; Democrats won two thumping victories in 2006 and 2008, but lost all their gains and more in the election last week. Alternation in power seems to be the new norm.
When John Boehner is elected speaker early in January, there will be more Republicans — the exact number is not yet known, so let’s say 240-plus — than in any House since the one elected in 1946, before Boehner and most other members were born.
For a speaker, having a majority in the 240s or (as Nancy Pelosi has in the outgoing Congress) 250s is a sweet spot.
If you have 235 or fewer, as Republican Speakers Newt Gingrich and Denny Hastert did, it’s hard to hold everyone in line on partisan roll calls — some members will have districts or convictions that require them to dissent. And if you have more than 260, then just about everyone assumes he or she can go off the reservation, and without even letting the leadership know.
As Sam Rayburn said to Lyndon Johnson on election night 1958, when his party gained 50 seats: “Too many Democrats. Too many Democrats.”
After the initial glow of the Gingrich revolution dimmed, the glue that Gingrich and Hastert used to hold their members together was money. They let Appropriations Committee members channel money to favored projects and members of Transportation and Infrastructure (the largest committee in Congress) earmark projects for their districts.
The bill came due in 2006. Disillusioned conservatives stayed home or voted Democratic. Most of the freshmen this year ran decrying the spending of Republican as well as Democratic Congresses and promising to do better. Boehner, who has never had an earmark, says the same thing.
Boehner has promised to do things differently, and the freshmen — who make up one-third of Republican members — will surely hold him to it. The size of his majority will strengthen his hand against the appropriators.
Boehner and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor also sound grimly determined to cut government spending, and they have an able ally in incoming Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. And they don’t seem to be backing off their promise to do whatever they can to repeal and hobble Obamacare.
That won’t be easy, with Barack Obama’s veto pen poised to strike. But Obamacare is not a self-propelling vehicle. It needs fuel and funding and fiddling from Congress. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Medicare agency head Donald Berwick had better plan on spending a lot of time on the south side of Capitol Hill over the next two years.
Boehner seems likely to prevail, in the lame duck session or as speaker next year, on extension of all the George W. Bush tax cuts, including those for high earners. Pelosi lacked the votes to let the latter expire before the election, and Obama seemed to be conceding the issue in his post-election press conference.
But Boehner will have his headaches when he has to rally votes to raise the national debt ceiling early next year. Freshmen don’t want to vote for that, but it’s irresponsible to let the government go without funding.
There’s a tension as well between Boehner’s hard line on issues and his pledge, in a pre-election speech at the American Enterprise Institute, to allow more open votes on amendments and to encourage committees to operate bipartisanly (as Boehner did on the 2001 education bill). We’ll see how that goes.
Boehner is not likely to become as prominent a figure as Gingrich or Pelosi. But he’ll start off with a larger majority than either of them did.