WASHINGTON » After the shutdown, the filibusters and years of stalled bills, it was the actual passage of legislation this week that revealed the true depth of congressional dysfunction.
The House vote to raise the debt limit and stifle the budget wars was remarkable not only for its lack of brinkmanship, but for the vote count itself. The 28 members of the Republican majority who voted for the bill — a meager 12 percent — was the lowest percentage for a majority on passage since the House began publishing electronic data on votes in 1991. It has to rank among the lowest ever for a body defined by strict majority rule.
Not to be outdone, the Senate on Wednesday flirted with a market crisis as Republicans were initially reluctant to provide a handful of votes to overcome a procedural hurdle before clearing the way for the Senate to send President Barack Obama legislation that takes the debt limit off the table until March 2015.
The results in both the Senate and House illustrate the countervailing political forces at work on Capitol Hill and how the current partisan environment makes governing so difficult.
For a bill to pass the House with such scant support from the party in control, most members of the Republican majority had to quietly want it to pass to avoid the real-world consequences — an economy-rattling default — while being able to vote against it to dodge a backlash from conservative activists threatening repercussions. It was the purest incarnation yet of what has become known as the Vote No, Hope Yes Caucus.
The Senate vote was similar. Most Republicans badly wanted the debt limit to be raised — particularly since the House had already left town and Wall Street was unlikely to look kindly on a potential default. They just did not want their fingerprints on it.
The implications for governing are obvious. If many lawmakers are unwilling or refuse to vote for legislation that they understand to be necessary, and even beneficial, out of fear of retribution from an empowered and outspoken wing of their party, reaching agreement on major policy like immigration becomes difficult if not impossible.
"The incentives are not aligned," one House Republican acknowledged in conceding that the debt limit vote was not exactly what the framers intended when they drew up the plans for how the House would operate.
Reinforcing the point about perverse incentives, House Republicans who managed to vote against a debt limit increase that they sincerely wanted to pass could be rewarded by avoiding a primary challenger fueled by the debt issue. They are also likely to earn higher ratings on conservative scorecards that severely penalize lawmakers who back a debt increase.
As for Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, no doubt some conservative House members who are eager for another debt limit dust-up are angry with him for allowing the measure to go through without any strings attached. But many others are grateful to the speaker for finding a way to spare them the vote and spare their party another bruising in public opinion polls when Republicans are feeling very good about their midterm election prospects.
Boehner faces an immediate question. Having again shown a willingness to violate the so-called Hastert rule — the unwritten code, named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, that legislation should pass the House only with a majority of the majority — will he now be willing to take a similar approach on other major issues, namely immigration?
After all, he and scores of other House Republicans are interested in overhauling the nation’s immigration policy, and Boehner could easily shape a significant bipartisan majority if he teamed up Republicans who are willing to act on immigration with Democrats who are clamoring to do so. Democrats have encouraged him to just put a Senate-passed bill on the floor and pass it with mainly Democratic votes, as he did with the debt ceiling increase.
But that is unlikely to happen. Boehner is no fan of the Senate plan, and he would like the House to act on a series of immigration-related proposals rather than one sweeping bill like the Senate did. But another significant reason immigration legislation will not get the same treatment as the debt limit bill is that Republicans see no deadline or looming crisis that will force the issue.
If advocates of immigration changes want Boehner to plunge ahead, they may need to amp up the pressure.
For the most part, Boehner has turned to Democratic votes when he has exhausted other options and faced a potential catastrophe like running off the fiscal cliff. He did allow a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act to pass with predominantly Democratic votes, but House Republicans had earlier advanced their own version. In all previous cases, the number of Republicans joining Democrats was well more than 28 — 87 Republicans in the case of the violence against women bill.
Recent comparable episodes brought to mind by this week’s House vote were the 2002 vote to overhaul campaign finance laws. Just 41 of Republicans in the majority — 18 percent — sided with most Democrats to pass that landmark legislation. It was opposed by the House leadership, but enough Republicans joined with Democrats on a petition to force it to the floor, setting off a fevered debate.
In the Democratically controlled House in 2007, 41 Democrats — again, 18 percent — combined with Republicans in the minority to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Democrats argued that the law went too far but agreed to renew it for fear of being portrayed as soft on terrorism.
Democrats and their allies saw the Republican capitulation on the debt limit as a victory, since they have taken a stand against Republicans using the legislation as a bargaining chip. But it will remain hard for either party to post legislative victories if lawmakers continue to see it in their interest to oppose measures they really want to pass.