To: John Boehner
From: Chris Daly
Date: Dec 21 (the day after you lost a vote in your own House)
The first rule of legislative leadership: Always count the votes.
When I worked as a reporter covering the Massachusetts Legislature, I got to see some masters of the game. Above all was Billy Bulger, the president of the state Senate (and brother of accused mobster/murderer Whitey Bulger). As best I can recall, I believe Bulger never lost a vote in the Senate in the five years I covered him. Yes, it’s true that he had a supermajority of about 80 percent of the members. But at a certain point, having such a big majority is no picnic for a leader, because you have so many members that inevitably there are intra-party splits.
Once in a blue moon, the leaders would come across an issue that had no partisan consequence and that genuinely divided the members on something the members cared about. In those rare cases, the leaders would release the members and say, “Vote your conscience” or “Vote your district.” But those kind of votes didn’t count as a loss for the leadership, because the leaders weren’t trying to achieve any particular outcome.
Otherwise, it was all-hands-on-deck. The leaders constantly polled the members, and they had ways of persuading members who were wandering or wavering. And once you gave your word on your vote, that was it. If a member came into the chamber to cast a vote and used it to double-cross the leaders, forget it. You were off to Siberia. No bridges for your district. You’d get the crappiest office in the building — one that might be even worse than the lowliest Republican.
The fact is, legislative leaders cannot afford to lose floor votes — at least not very often. When they do, the members no longer fear them. And if those leaders are low-spending, small-government types, they can’t offer the members a lot of ornaments on their trees. So, if they are not needed or feared, what good are they?
What Boehner’s defeat this week may mean is this: the House is ungovernable. It may be that the U.S. House is not divided between two parties but between three or more. It may be that we need to start learning the ropes of coalition-style politics.
The reason I say that is due to a corollary of the first rule of legislative leadership: the leader of the other branches will only try to make deals with a leader who can deliver. If you can’t deliver your followers, you’re wasting everyone’s time.
The Massachusetts State Senate: Counting the votes since 1713.