Let the Bipartisan Majority Rule
Three vulnerable House Republicans—Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, Will Hurd of Texas and Jeff Denham of California—have attracted attention by challenging their party’s leadership. They’re trying to get 218 signatures from colleagues of both parties to force a series of votes on immigration bills. Most of the discussion about this strategy has focused on arcane procedures, missing the essential point: Self-government requires majority rule.
There are currently 429 representatives in the House—236 Republicans, 193 Democrats and six vacancies. Forming a majority requires only 215 votes. If Democrats stuck together, only 22 Republicans would need to defect. Many conservatives bristle at this suggestion. Perhaps they’ve forgotten that much of Ronald Reagan’s first-term success came from a handful of Democrats who voted with a nearly unanimous Republican Party. A key budget vote in 1981 had all 190 Republicans making a majority with 63 of 245 House Democrats.
But the real parallel for what a small group of 2018 Republicans is trying to do is the 1964 vote to kill Jim Crow. Contemporary conservatives like to brag that a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act. This is true, but it misapplies history. If Democrats had run the House in 1964 the way Republicans run it in 2018, there would never have been a vote on the Civil Rights Act, and the U.S. would be a lesser country.
What changed? The culprit is the “Hastert rule,” an inside-baseball phrase from the political press that suggests “the majority of the majority” must back legislation for it to pass. But that’s nonsense. For one thing, it isn’t a rule but an unevenly observed custom. For another, it’s how pretty much every voting organization works. No disciplined partisan majority governs by consistently relying on the partisan minority. If you govern with less than half of your side and nearly all of their side, there is something wrong with your side.
What determined the success of civil rights in 1964 was that a majority of the Democratic caucus joined 138 Republicans to kill Jim Crow. Those 152 Democrats outvoted 96 of their own partisan majority to create a national majority—which is exactly what James Madison invented the House of Representatives to do.
Yet the threshold in today’s divided America isn’t 118 Republicans voting with enough Democrats to pass legislation. The current House leadership maintains itself by insisting that a majority of the whole House—218 when all seats are filled—must be found within the partisan majority. Thus fewer than 20 Republicans can effectively prevent the nation from solving its problems.
Messrs. Curbelo, Hurd and Denham are trying to force a decision on the nature of American self-government. The House Republican leadership is fighting their proposal for a series of votes, because it wants to prevent a majority of the House from winning the vote. But isn’t that what it’s supposed to do? This is a fundamental question of how majority rule should work, on which the success of American self-government depends. That’s why it helps to consider the 1964 vote to kill Jim Crow: Is there a better example of putting the national interest ahead of partisanship?
Opposing illegal immigration is not the same as supporting Jim Crow. Believing in legal immigration isn’t a manifestation of white supremacy. That’s why Americans elect representatives to Congress—so they can make tough votes.
I’m not arguing here for any particular immigration solution. I don’t know what would happen to the Republican leadership in this House if they started to pass legislation with 118 Republican votes, plus every Democrat. It’s a good question, though. Is there legislation that could pass with that kind of support? And if there is, why shouldn’t it pass? It would be good for the country.
I know a lot of smart people of both parties who can write legislation that a majority of the House—and even Senate—would vote for. The purpose of American self-government is to give them a chance.
Mr. Donnelly was communications director of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (1994-97).
Appeared in the May 16, 2018, print edition.