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The · Psychohistorian

Understanding the House of Representatives

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The Republican steering committee recently removed and replaced four Republican members of policy making committees. Since this action is extremely rare - the last time it happened was decades ago - it has raised some controversy, and of course objections from the removed members, who claim that conservatives are being removed from leadership positions. That may, however, be a simplistic claim.

To understand the action, I think it's first important to understand how the House of Representatives works. It's too large a body realistically to allow unlimited debate as the Senate does; instead, debate is strictly limited and much more power is vested in the leadership, and in particular in the Speaker of the House.

Traditionally, this has resulted in the majority party having nearly all the power over key policy issues, with the minority party being essentially frozen out: the majority party elects the Speaker, and then, as long as the majority can maintain party discipline, the issues are decided within the majority party caucus, and the decisions reached by that caucus are then voted through the House on party lines.

The dominance of the majority party in the House is why the Democrats were able to expand the federal government by a factor of four from less than 5% of the GDP in 1930 to over 20% of GDP in 1990; it was why the Republicans under Gingrich were able to push through workfare and the 1996 tax cuts under a Democratic president, incidentally bringing federal spending back under 20% of GDP by 2000; it was why the Democrats under Pelosi were able to add nearly a trillion dollars to the federal budget, pushing it to 24% of GDP, in just four years.

Up until now, Boehner has not been able to maintain the level of party discipline needed to push through Republican initiatives. The debt ceiling vote of 2011 is a good example: Boehner ended up accepting promised future budget cuts that are already evaporating, and allowing Obama to put off the next debt limit vote until after the 2012 elections, in order to get 95 Democrat votes, because he couldn't come up with a plan that would be accepted by 66 of the Republicans.

Throwing people off the committees is clearly targeted at improving party discipline. Better party discipline should mean that the Republicans should be able to pass bills with less - or no - Democrat support. Ideally for the Republicans, that should mean that the bills can be more conservative, not less conservative - for example, a debt limit bill that includes real, immediate, spending cuts, rather than ephemeral cuts to future spending guidelines that disappear before the cuts actually happen.

That three of the four people on the committees were on the conservative end of the Republican spectrum does give rise to concern on the part of conservatives that their views will not be adequately heard by the Republican leadership. On the other hand, the fourth Republican to lose his committee seat was on the leftist end of the Republican spectrum, having voted to raise tax rates, so this doesn't seem to be as simple as a major lurch to the left on the part of Boehner. I think this is more likely to be a move to consolidate power, giving Boehner more leverage to negotiate with the other branches of government without having to worry as much about whether his caucus will support him.

For those who are interested, I've dug up these articles that help eludicate the positions of the four who lost committee seats:

Justin Amash and Tim Huelskamp voted against the Paul Ryan budget plan in committee:

The most I've been able to find on David Schweikert is rumors that he was bumped in favor of Mick Mulvaney because Mulvaney, who is facing a tougher race for the 2014 election, has more need for the rich lobbyist contributions that come with a Financial Services Committee seat:
Since that's just a rumor, I'll also let Schweikert speak for himself:

And finally, Walter Jones voted with Democrats in August to raise income tax rates:
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