Impeachment Politics Requires a Different Vote Calculator

Josh Huder | October 9, 2019

Anyone who watched School House Rock knows how bills become law. From a numbers standpoint, it is straightforward.  It needs 218 votes in the House, 51 votes in the Senate (60 to cut off a filibuster), and a presidential signature.

Given this math, some wonder why Speaker Pelosi is hesitating to pass a resolution—which only requires approval of the House— to formally begin an impeachment inquiry, particularly after the White House announced its refusal to cooperate until a formal inquiry is voted upon. With 226 Democrats in support, she has more than enough to pass the House. But she’s hesitating for good reason. Impeachment math is more complicated than simply getting to 218. This is because they combine the legislative politics of lawmaking with the politics of messaging bills.

When the House or Senate vote on a measure, it is often with the intent of making law but not always. Congressional leaders craft vote coalitions based on their goals; and political goals play a prominent role in today’s legislative strategies. For example, earlier this year, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought the Green New Deal, a bill he and his colleagues despised, to the Senate floor for a vote. During the Janaury 2019 shutdown, Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought seven different bills to the House floor to reopen government with complete certainty they would not become law. These were not good faith efforts to pass law. Rather, they were leadership created opportunities meant to appease political constituencies and gain political ground on their partisan opponents. While not new, political messaging has become a more dominant component of the legislative agenda.

Actual lawmaking is typically more inclusive, even in the contemporary polarized age. Research from Francis Lee and James Curry illustrates that laws, including landmark enactments, garner large bipartisan majorities with the same frequency as prior, more bipartisan, decades. And further, this bipartisanship is present upon initial passage, before the system of checks and balances forces compromise. In other words, leaders craft bipartisan coalitions from the start. While congressional lawmaking feels more partisan, laws like the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Republican tax bill remain the exceptions.

This tact accomplishes two things. First, it greases the skids in the separation of powers. A bill with bipartisan support in the House will likely receive bipartisan support in the Senate, and vice versa. Large, bipartisan coalitions in Congress often signify administration support for a policy but can also deter vetoes when the legislature and executive are not aligned. Put simply, bipartisanship in a polarized age often represents broadly popular support for a policy, like the CURES Act, the doc-fix of the 114th Congress, the annual NDAAs, etc.

Second, bipartisan majorities lend legitimacy to the process. Lyndon Johnson and congressional Democrats went to great lengths to ensure Medicare and Medicaid received bipartisan support. Laws passed under divided government are less likely to be repealed in subsequent congresses. In this light, it is unsurprising the ACA came under attack after passing each chamber with strictly partisan majorities.

Impeachment politics blur these two processes in a unique way. In order for the inquiry to garner legitimacy it needs bipartisan support. On the other hand, impeachment is an inherently political act. This is the rub: impeachment necessitates lawmaking politics in an inherently political act, which makes the math particularly difficult.

Speaker Pelosi could open a formal inquiry today with 226 Democrats but this would create a bipartisan coalition against impeachment, undercutting the legitimacy of the investigation and playing into President Trump’s messaging that the investigation is a sham. This is why the White House made an absurd constitutional argument, linking their oversight compliance with a formal impeachment inquiry vote. They understand the vote would divide a small number of Democrats from the broader majority, undermining the investigation’s credibility.

Speaker Pelosi seeks lawmaking politics because the investigation and inquiry carry substantially more weight than a messaging bill or even a potential law. It’s not about simply passing a resolution. It is about legitimizing the House’s constitutional role and authority to investigate wrongdoing in the executive. The vote carries far more weight than even landmark legislation. It represents a core function of the Constitution. Until a politics of legitimacy is possible (with at least every Democrat in favor, including Collin Peterson (MN-7)), don’t expect the Speaker to schedule a vote. Impeachment votes sketches the outlines of Congress’s institutional role. And that makes the vote math far different than your common bill or even law.

Categories: Leadership, Legislative Process, Revise & Extend, Senate, Updates