As has been fairly widely noted, House Republicans have stubbornly resisted every aspect of the Democratic program. The stimulus package and financial reform failed to gain a single House Republican vote, while a grand total of one Republican voted for health care – Congressman Joseph Cao.
Many commentators have cited naked political calculus as behind House Republican noncooperation. The explanation goes that House Whip Eric Cantor saw that opposing President Barack Obama’s agenda would best revive their party’s strength. The best option would be to stand against the president, hope/encourage his failure, and then ride public dicontent onto renewed congressional majorities.
This explanation is true as far as such things go; it fits Republican incentives well. Yet contrary to what some may believe, congressman are not unthinking automons who calculate their every action for political gain. They are human beings with very human emotions: pride, anger, humiliation, frustration. Just as you and me do many things based upon feelings rather than logic, so do politicians. One needs look no farther than Senator Joe Lieberman to find a politician driven entirely upon emotion.
When analyzing House Republican actions, therefore, viewing them through the lens of an emotional, human framework puts an entirely novel spin to their opposition. House Republican votes against Democratic legislation function just as much as an expression of frustration and anger as they do as an attempt to advance a political agenda.
Being a House minority member is often called a demoralizing experience, but these words merely scratch the reality. The minority never, ever wins; it is defeated day after day after day. Members of the minority are shut off from decision-making or bill-writing; their ideas are not even considered, let alone put into law. Every day constitutes a journey through frustration, doubly so for a congressman who probably considers him or herself a person of importance who ought be listened to.
So the minority strikes back in the only way it can – by voting against majority legislation. It’s frustrated; it’s angry; if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not going to listen to it, it’s not going to vote for her legislation.
Perhaps the most revealing instance of this human factor came on September 2009 2008, when House Republican opposition infamously defeated the bail-out bill. For a very brief moment, House Republicans publicly talked about this human factor, addressing an action of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi which caused their resentments to explode. Minority Leader John Boehner:
I do believe that we could have gotten there today, had it not been for the partisan speech that the Speaker gave on the floor of the House. I mean, we were — we put everything we had into getting the votes to get there today, but the speaker had to give a partisan voice that poisoned our conference, caused a number of members that we thought we could get to go south.
Minority Whip Eric Cantor:
Right here is the reason, I believe, why this vote failed, and this is Speaker Pelosi’s speech that, frankly, struck the tone of partisanship that, frankly, was inappropriate in this discussion.
Think for a moment about how the average House Republican felt at that moment. He or she probably personally disliked the bill and knew that voting for it will seriously hurt his chances for re-election. Chances are, he didn’t even understand what the bill was supposed to do, except somehow save the economy (to be fair, it did save the economy). And to top things off, the moment before the vote began, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this:
Madam Speaker, when was the last time someone asked you for $700 billion?
It is a number that is staggering, but tells us only the costs of the Bush Administration’s failed economic policies—policies built on budgetary recklessness, on an anything goes mentality, with no regulation, no supervision, and no discipline in the system.
She insults everything he stands for and then expects him to vote for the bail-out she’s pushing? It’s no wonder so many Republicans voted against it.
Now of course this explanation was universally condemned: the fate of the nation was literally at stake, and House Republicans were voting against a bill because their feelings were hurt. For this reason, the human factor is rarely brought up in House Republican explanations of their opposition votes. It is bad politics to say that one voted against the Democratic agenda because one’s feelings were hurt.
Yet the next time House Republican unanimously oppose a Democratic bill, try understanding the human factor’s role in all this. It is there, and it affects politics much more than one might first guess.