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Boehner's defeat was actually really unusual. Here's why.

- March 1, 2015

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) walks to the chamber as the House failed to advance a short-term funding measure to keep the Department of Homeland Security funded past a midnight deadline, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday evening, Feb. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
On Friday, the politics surrounding the continued funding of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) took a surprising, and disappointing, turn for House Speaker John Boehner.
Facing restive conservative Republicans who wanted to tie DHS funding to a repudiation of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, Boehner sought to extend funding for the DHS for three weeks and arrange for conference proceedings with the Senate – which on Wednesday had passed a “clean” bill (shorn of any immigration language) to fund DHS through September. Boehner’s hope was that Republican House and Senate leaders, once in conference, would come up with a workable solution.
But this hope was dashed when Boehner and his leadership team could not round up enough votes: the measure failed on a 203-224 vote with 52 Republicans defecting. With time running out, House Democrats – who had voted largely as a bloc against Boehner’s plan – came to the rescue and provided enough votes for a one-week postponement. In exchange for the Democrats’ support, Boehner is believed to have promised a clean vote on the Senate bill on March 6.
Boehner’s ongoing struggle with the conservative wing of his caucus is well known. But Friday’s vote was unusual.  In fact, it almost never happens.  Here’s why.
During his time as Speaker, several majority party failures have occurred, as Boehner has ignored the informal “Hastert Rule” and allowed legislation to go forward when he didn’t have a majority of GOP support.  This resulted in what is known as a “roll” — when a majority of the majority party opposes a bill that ends up passing. Notable examples of rolls since the beginning of 2013 have included the revision and extension of Bush-era tax cuts (bundled into the “fiscal cliff” deal), Hurricane Sandy Relief, and the Violence Against Women Act. These examples have been written about extensively. Rolls also feature prominently in political science scholarship, such as the book “Setting the Agenda” by Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins.
In ignoring the Hastert Rule, Boehner bucked conservative opposition and relied upon Democratic support to pass legislation – which hurt his reputation as a party leader in the short run but preserved (in his estimation) the overall Republican brand name in the longer run.
But what happened Friday was different.  It wasn’t a roll, but what we might call a “disappointment.” That is, Boehner had the support of a majority of his majority, but the bill ended up failing. This was because he lost more than 50 members of his caucus and was unable to corral more than a handful of Democrats to help pass the legislation.
Recently, Andrew Clarke, Nathan Monroe, and I have begun to investigate disappointments as a form of majority party failure. The first thing we’ve learned is that they are extremely rare.  Between the 45th (1877-79) and 111th (2009-10) Congresses, the majority party was disappointed on final-passage votes only 71 times. The typical Congress would see disappointments occur on less than 1 percent of final-passage votes. Why are disappointments so rare?  Because the House majority party rarely moves forward on a bill unless it knows that it has the votes.
So why, then, do we ever observe disappointments? Disappointments typically occur because a majority party acts too aggressively, usually by trying (and failing) to move policy away from the center of the chamber and toward the center of the majority party. This is most likely to happen when two things interact: during times of unified government (when one party controls both chambers of Congress and the presidency) and when lots of moderate policies exist that the majority would like to change.
Now we can see why Boehner’s setback on Friday is so unusual.  Not only is it a rare for a disappointment to occur, but this one happened under divided government. Moreover, the Republicans who rebelled were not moderates but predominantly conservatives.  And so the measure’s defeat was a case of “ends-against-the-middle voting” – where almost all Democrats on the left joined with some Republicans on the right.
Where does this leave Boehner? He has been under fire for some time, most recently losing 25 Republican votes in the January speakership election, a major lowlight for a sitting Speaker in the modern era.
In the aftermath of that conservative revolt, Boehner and his team sought to tighten the thumbscrews on GOP dissidents. Richard Nugent and Daniel Webster (both of whom voted against Boehner) were kicked off the Rules Committee. More recently, subcommittee chairmen were warned to stick with the party on important procedural votes or suffer the consequences.
But these attempts appear to have been in vain: the 25 dissidents from the speakership election have now doubled in size. Calls for Boehner to step down have increased, and if he allows a clean vote on the Senate DHS funding bill, those calls will only become more numerous.
His only saving grace is that there is no obvious alternative – no one from his leadership team enjoys any more support or presumably wants the position, and no one on the conservative flank of the GOP can win widespread support in the caucus.
But if conservative GOP anger is great enough, could another path emerge? Could an ends-against-the-middle coalition form to declare the Speaker’s chair vacant? Would conservative Republicans join with Democrats on someone – anyone – other than Boehner? Stay tuned.
Jeffery A. Jenkins is a Professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and a co-author of “Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government.”