How More Can Be Less in Politics

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is clear when discussing the number of Republicans he wants in Congress next year.

“More votes, better. Less votes, bad,” declared Issa.

Most political eyes are now trained on the nip-and-tuck presidential sweepstakes. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said a few months ago there was a one-in-three chance Republicans could lose the House. Most analysts believe Democrats only have an outside shot at winning back the House. The Senate is very much in play. The conventional wisdom suggests Democrats could pick up around six to eight House seats. However, there are schools of thoughts which believe the breakdown between Democrats and Republicans could precisely reflect the current matrix. And some even suspect Republicans could gain a handful of seats.

“There are still ducks on the pond,” boasted Guy Harrison when talking about the GOP’s chances this year compared to the 2010 tidal wave which swept Republicans into the majority. Harrison runs the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). That’s the national organization devoted to electing Republicans to the House. In fact, Harrison describes himself as “bullish” when considering Republican chances to grow the House majority in November.

“If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you,” says Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). That’s the mirror organization to Harrison’s NRCC. Ferguson points out that generic ballot polling favors Democrats. He believes his party will knock off a number of GOP candidates this fall.

“I think we have seen the inherit problem with a tea party Congress that has driven their approval rating to the lowest level in history,” said Ferguson. “If they double down on that tea party brand, it’s only going to get worse.”

But regardless of who’s in the majority, the House Republican Conference is likely to be even more conservative next year. That could present a problem for Republicans when it comes to governing. Issa may subscribe to the “more is better” theorem. And winning as many GOP seats as is humanly possible is practically Harrison’s job description. But scoring a bigger majority doesn’t always mean it’s easier to run the show.

Go chat up the Democrats about that phenomenon.

In 2008, House Democrats bolstered their majority with a net gain of 21 seats. In the Senate, Democrats finally secured the holy grail, hitting the operationally-critical number of 60 seats. 60 votes in the Senate is the magic figure to overcome filibusters by the minority party.

Yet, despite these robust majorities, things didn’t always go swimmingly for the Democrats when it came to governing and passing hallmark initiatives.

A case study in this was health care reform. House Democrats may have commanded 257 seats to the GOP’s mere 178 in the 111th Congress. But they suffered 39 defections on the initial health care vote in November, 2009. The original version of the health care plan squeaked by 220-215. In other words, switch three votes and the measure would have failed.

Democrats squandered crucial political capital on this exercise.

In the Senate, Republicans required Democrats to navigate a dense bramble of procedural votes in order to pass the Affordable Care Act. Each of these procedural votes necessitated 60 votes. Democrats secured precisely 60 at every turn. One defection and Republicans would have effectively killed the measure.

But it wasn’t without peril. Moderate Democratic Senators like Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Jon Tester (D-MT), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) struggled with how to vote. In the end, Lincoln lost re-election in 2010. Nelson is now retiring. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) is running against Tester for the Senate this year. Rehberg’s tried to sling Tester’s  health care vote around his opponent’s neck like an albatross.

The point is that both political parties want the biggest majorities they can score. But the bigger the majority also means the potential for defections on big ticket items. And that sometimes creates a problem for governing.

“It gives them the chance to harden their stances,” said former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) when asked about skittish members who serve in large majorities.

Republicans currently hold a 50 seat advantage in the House of Representatives. The breakdown is 240-190 with five vacancies. Fifty seats may sound like a lot. But it’s not. That means Boehner can only lose 25 votes on his side before he needs to turn to Democrats to help pass major bills. And 25 votes isn’t much when 59 Republicans abandoned Boehner in April, 2011 on a package to avert a government shutdown. One-hundred-one Republicans said no on a November, 2011 bill to fund the government. Sixty-six Republicans cast nay ballots in August, 2011 to raise the debt ceiling. There were 91 GOP noes on a February bill to extend the payroll tax cut. And 52 Republicans voted against a bill to pay for the nation’s transportation programs in June.

There’s a coalition of conservative, tea party-affiliated lawmakers in the House who won’t vote for much of anything. Members of that group broke with their leadership to fund the government because it didn’t cut enough. Those lawmakers voted against the debt ceiling hike because they didn’t think the nation should be increase the debt limit at a time of exploding deficits. They voted against the payroll tax extension because there were no offsets to cover the diminished revenue. And they voted against the transportation plan because some didn’t think the federal government should be in the transportation business.

“The Republican leadership is unable to govern on their own,” said the DCCC’s Jesse Ferguson. “And that’s one of the reasons voters are frustrated with the Republican Conference and want to vote (Republicans) out.”

Regardless, pressures to vote no will intensify next year as those elected could be more willing to buck the party and drive the House Republican Conference further to the right.

“If we pick up more seats, they will be more conservative,” predicted Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL).

That may make it harder to govern in the 113th Congress unless Mitt Romney wins the White House and the GOP picks up the Senate. You think it was hard to manage the House this Congress? Try this scenario: another Obama Administration coupled with a Democratic Senate and a larger House majority could bring things to a screeching halt.

“(Former House Speaker) Tip O’Neill (D-MA) used to say you can have a working majority,” said former Rep. Bob Michel (R-IL) who served as the House GOP Leader from 1981 to 1995. “All the tea partiers would have a bigger agenda. You have to have the ability to go to the other side of the aisle and get the votes. You don’t condemn the other side. You treat them with respect because one day, you may want them to join you on a critical vote.”

That’s the conundrum Republicans face if they hypothetically were to gain seats. And if the Republicans are successful, here will be fewer moderate and conservative Democrats to potentially vote with the GOP.

Republicans purged many of the “Blue Dogs” (a collection of conservative, fiscally-conscious Democrats) in 2010. Republicans wiped out Blue Dogs like then-Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) and Baron Hill (D-IN). Remaining Blue Dogs like Reps. Heath Shuler (D-NC), Dan Boren (D-OK) and Mike Ross (D-AR) are retiring this cycle. Republicans are expected to win the Boren and Ross seats. Democrats are fighting to hold the Shuler seat.

Meantime, Republicans have other conservative Democrats like Reps. Jim Matheson (D-UT), Mike McIntyre (D-NC) and Larry Kissell (D-NC) on their radar. The GOP awarded Matheson’s opponent Mia Love a primetime speaking slot at the Republican Convention in Tampa. Republicans also blocked out stage time for McIntyre’s foe David Rouzer and Kissell’s challenger Richard Hudson.

Democrats may be holding their convention in North Carolina this week. But Republicans have a shot at gaining up to five House seats in the Tar Heel State alone.

Just as the GOP Conference will probably be more conservative, the House Democratic Caucus will probably be more liberal. And despite Bob Michel’s approach, it’s doubtful Democrats would be interested in joining Republicans on much of anything. That’s a stark contrast the Democratic assistance Boehner’s received so far this Congress.

But if Republicans run the table and Romney defeats Mr. Obama, some GOPers believe that could court even skeptical Democrats.

“My hope is that (the voters) will give us a mandate so those on the other side of the aisle will want to join us,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN).

No one understands the impact of the tea party better than former Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE). A moderate Republican, Castle was thought to be a lock to snatch what had been Vice President Biden’s Senate seat and score a big pickup for Republicans in 2010. But that was until the insurgent candidacy of tea party darling Christine O’Donnell thwarted Castle in the Republican primary. Voters then sent Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) to Washington rather than O’Donnell.

Castle says there’s a the GOP braintrust can avoid the governing challenge.

“It depends on who those Republicans are,” said Castle. “They have to realize they have to govern rather than someone who blindly follows ideology and doesn’t want to compromise.”

For his part, Darrell Issa says a bigger majority is better because the leadership can then give certain members a pass on particular measures which might not be right for their respective districts. By contrast, a smaller majority narrows the margin of error and forces members from swing districts to take votes they may regret come election time.

The man in charge of getting those votes is Issa’s Golden State colleague House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). McCarthy would prefer to have more Republicans on hand. But he says lining up the votes hinges on the types of bills on the House docket.

“It’s the quality of what you’re doing,” said McCarthy. “You have to be more focused on what your goal is and how you get there.”

That may have been the trouble during the 112th Congress. Republicans won the House by promising massive spending cuts. Unfortunately, many big issues on the national agenda didn’t mesh. The nation faced a debt ceiling increase. Plus, a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate curbed the depth of the spending cuts many conservatives campaigned for in 2010.

On Wednesday night at the GOP convention, House Speaker John Boehner took the stage to address the faithful. He spoke about the virtues of Republicans and how Vice Presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) got his start in politics by volunteering on Boehner’s 1992 re-election campaign.

And then out of nowhere, the arena announcer interrupted Boehner’s remarks.

“Testing, 1-2-3. Testing, 1-2-3,” blasted the announcer to a confused throng inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The unflappable Boehner never flinched and just kept talking. Still, It was bizarre to have a discombobulated voice interrupting the Speaker of the House at the very convention he was chairing. In fact, the moment was emblematic of how some rank-and-file Republicans haven’t listened to the Ohio Republican anyway over the past two years. That’s why they’ve voted no on so many issues.

Boehner may have kept his composure on stage in Tampa. But if the House becomes even more conservative next year, Romney fails to win the presidency and Republicans don’t get control of the Senate, the usually composed Boehner might not be able to just forge ahead like he did amid the distraction last week.