Politics & Policy

Pelosi in the Wilderness

It's hard to lead a House minority that belongs to the same party as the president.

Nancy Pelosi will soon return to the job of minority leader, which she held under President Bush before becoming speaker. Will she find the post more pleasant with her party in charge of the White House and Senate? Nope, just the opposite.

The minority in the House never has it easy. Unlike the Senate, with its filibusters and traditions of collegiality, the House empowers the majority party to do nearly anything it wants. Most of the time, the minority can only holler.

When the other party controls the presidency, the minority does have one luxury: It can go on the offensive at will. Without responsibility for governing, it can just say no, as Pelosi’s Democrats did to President Bush’s proposed changes in Social Security. “We all know that Nancy Pelosi and her band of obstructionists have done everything in their power to prevent Democrats from joining bipartisan discussions regarding Social Security,” complained Rep. Jack Kingston (R., Ga.). But as the Democrats themselves learned in 2010, complaints about the “party of no” just don’t register with the public.

When the minority belongs to the same party as the president, its calculations are different. As William Connelly reminds us in his excellent James Madison Rules America, a congressional party in this position is both the government and the opposition. As the party of government, it has to heed administration priorities, refraining from disruptive tactics that could anger the majority and threaten the president’s chances of passing bills. As the party of opposition, it can do little on the House floor except to sustain presidential vetoes — which are often unpopular.

Such a minority dwells in the Dilbert Purgatory of responsibility without power: Even though it does not set policy, it still takes the blame when things go badly. House Republicans suffered for Watergate in 1973–74 and for the poor economic news in 1981–82 and 2007–08.

Even more galling, the House minority seldom benefits electorally when things go well. The last four times a president won reelection under divided government (1956, 1972, 1984, 1996), voters kept the opposing party in charge of the House. A ratification of the status quo is great if you’re an incumbent president, not so hot if you’re a minority leader yearning to be speaker.

To enact anything, the president has to work with the majority, which often means making compromises that the minority does not like. In 1996, many House Democrats thought that President Clinton had betrayed them when he agreed to a welfare-reform bill (although he had vetoed two earlier versions). Nancy Pelosi voted no.

Perhaps she is hoping that House Democrats can carve out their own identity. Through speeches and reports, they can try to offer policy proposals that distinguish them from both the majority party and the administration. House Republicans tried that approach during the 1980s — and practically nobody paid attention. Presidents — not leaders of the House minority — decide what their party stands for.

Minority leaders have sometimes overcome their status through their ability to peel off votes from the majority side. The success of the Reagan agenda owed much to Bob Michel and Trent Lott, the GOP minority leader and whip respectively, who secured crucial support from conservative and moderate Democrats.

But in the next two years, there will be two big obstacles to gaining cross-party support. First is the composition of the House. Back in the early 1980s, there were plenty of Southern Democrats who either agreed with Reagan or represented constituencies that did. President Obama, to put it mildly, lacks a support base among House Republicans. Most of the freshmen specifically campaigned against his agenda.

The second obstacle is Pelosi herself. “Making nice with Republicans” is not in her skill set. Early in her speakership, a reporter asked her about getting GOP support for stopping the war in Iraq. She replied curtly: “I’m the last person to ask about Republican votes.”

That attitude might have worked for the Democrats when they could ram anything through. It’s of questionable value in a House where nothing can pass without those Republican votes.

– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College. He is co-author of American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship.

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