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On January 3, 2013, the House of Representatives convened in a new political landscape. Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, would be reelected to his leadership post, but with diminished support. Two years earlier, when the Republicans had regained control of the House, Boehner had been the unanimous choice of his Republican colleagues for Speaker. This time, twelve members of his own party had pointedly defected, choosing instead to either cast symbolic votes for others or for no one at all. Frustration with Mr. Boehner, a fixture in Washington since his election to a staunchly Republican district in 1990, had been growing among disgruntled conservatives for two years. The Republican Speaker, they argued, had been too lenient in his dealings with President Barack Obama, a Democrat who had just been reelected to a second term. One newly elected Republican member grumbled that his party’s leader had “signed our country onto a fiscal suicide pact”1in his budget negotiations with the president.
Yet Boehner endured, winning another two years in the Speaker’s chair with the votes of 220 of his colleagues. His Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), had received 192 votes for Speaker.2 For Pelosi, the last six years had been exceptionally tumultuous. In 2006, she had led her party to victory in the midterm elections, returning the House to Democratic control for the first time in twelve years. Perhaps more importantly, she had been the first woman in American history elected Speaker of the House. Just four years later, having ushered much of President Obama’s legislative agenda through Congress—including a landmark universal health-care bill, a major economic stimulus measure, and sweeping legislation overhauling the nation’s financial regulatory laws—Pelosi found herself back in the role of Minority Leader. In fact, following the Democrats’ epic losses in the 2010 midterm elections, some Democrats pushed for her departure from the Democratic leadership. Yet Pelosi, known for her political grit, survived and remained in her role as House Democratic Leader.
Indeed, the makeup of the House of Representatives—far more than the U.S. Senate—reflects the shifts in attitudes of the American public. When House Republicans gained 63 seats in 2010, enough to hand them a governing majority, Senate Democrats maintained a 6-seat majority in the Senate—where only (approximately) one-third of members stand for reelection every two years. In the House, where every representative is up for reelection in every election cycle, a change in the political mood of the country can bring about a swift and dramatic change in leadership—one that often has severe consequences for American governance. Following the 2010 midterm elections, for example, the newly elected Republican House majority brought the Obama administration’s policy agenda to a screeching halt.
While the previous Democratic House leadership had used the chamber to serve as the legislative engine for Obama’s policy priorities, the newly elected Republican House rammed through bills to cut federal spending on social programs, keep in place tax cuts enacted under the Bush administration in 2001 and 2003, and—perhaps most importantly—to repeal his signature health-care law, known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or, more commonly, the Affordable Care Act).3 Boehner succeeded in enacting spending cuts that most Democrats opposed, although Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act stalled in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate. House Republicans’ efforts to make permanent the Bush-era tax cuts were also unsuccessful,4 as Senate Democrats and the president held their ground. Despite these disappointments, the Republican “wave” of 2010 (a “wave election” refers to one in which one party makes dramatic, sweeping electoral gains) did change the trajectory of American political debates, at least for a time. In 2009 and 2010, the legislative focus of American politics was on a federal overhaul of American health-care policy, increased federal regulation of financial markets, and increased federal spending intended to stimulate the American economy. To be sure, those measures faced fierce Republican opposition. In the end, however, Obama and his Democratic allies prevailed, and all three became law.
Following the Republican wave of 2010, however, the focus of U.S. legislative debates shifted considerably. With respect to federal spending, the question concerned the depth and breadth of budget cuts—which programs should be slashed, and by how much funding should their budgets be reduced? Rather than considering legislation to expand access to health care, the House now spent its days devising legislative strategies to undo the universal health-care law that had already been enacted. While the House had powered Obama’s legislative machine during his first two years in office, its newly empowered Republican leadership emerged as the most daunting obstacle to enacting his policy agenda. Despite the president’s reelection in 2012—as well as a Democratic gain of 8 seats in the House5—the GOP remained in control of the chamber. Moreover, with the Democrats still firmly in control of the U.S. Senate through 2014, the Republican-controlled House remained at the center of opposition to President Obama’s policy priorities.
All of this is to demonstrate that the House of Representatives—its membership, leadership, rules, and procedures—matter greatly. The House has played a critical role in virtually every major policy battle in American history—as will be demonstrated in the coming chapters. Understanding the way the House functions is vital to understanding American politics, and it is the purpose of this book to provide a basic guide to its history, structure, core functions, and culture.
Copyright © 2015 by Matthew Spieler