“I think people feel that there’s less tolerance for breaking with your party, that it could lead to a primary opponent and there’s more [inclination] within each party to stick together,” says former Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who engaged in epic internal struggles with fellow Democrats to pass landmark legislation on the environment, health care and other issues from the 1970s through his retirement in 2014.
Centrist and liberal House Democrats certainly have had their disagreements in this Congress. For months, they feuded over the size and composition of the party’s grab-bag Build Back Better bill. Even more pointedly, centrists fumed as progressives for months delayed passage of a separate bipartisan infrastructure package for fear that Manchin and Sinema would block the broader BBB legislation if the two bills were decoupled — a concern that events have largely validated.
The consensus among House Democrats during President Joe Biden’s term stands in striking contrast with the experience under the party’s last two presidents. Defections were endemic during Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s. In 1993, 41 House Democrats voted against final passage of his economic plan, 69 voted against the Brady Bill establishing the national background check system for gun purchases and 156 — a clear majority of the caucus — opposed his North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. The next year, 77 House Democrats opposed a ban on assault weapons and 64 voted against final passage of the massive, Clinton-backed crime bill that included it. So many House Democrats opposed Clinton’s universal health care plan that it never reached the floor for a vote. Later, after Republicans led by Georgia’s Newt Gingrich won control of the chamber and Clinton reached a deal with them to overhaul the welfare system, 97 House Democrats voted against it in 1996.
Since 2014, House Democratic unity has exceeded 90% in every year except one. The Democrats’ unity score hit 95% for the first time during each of Trump’s final two years and then reached a record level of 98% during Biden’s first year, the most recent full year for which figures are available. Republican unity in the House has increased along a similar trajectory since the 1970s, although the highest level the GOP has reached is 93%, in 2016 and 2021.
Changes from within and without
The growing unity that has peaked with House Democrats in this Congress reflects both internal changes in the chamber’s operation and external shifts in the political landscape.
The key internal changes are revisions in House rules stretching back decades that have centralized more power in leadership and heightened pressure on even the most senior House members to vote more often with their parties.
The first pivotal moment in that process came in 1975, when House Democratic liberals pushed through a long-sought change requiring that committee chairs no longer be selected on the basis of seniority but through a vote of the party caucus; that eliminated the protection that conservative Southern Democrats had enjoyed for decades to wield great power while routinely voting against the party’s agenda.
After Gingrich “came in and took discipline to levels you haven’t seen since Joe Cannon,” the legendary early 20th-century speaker, Price notes, it was clear that “when we regained power, nobody wanted to go back to the days” when powerful committee chairs operated as virtually independent fiefdoms. “For the most part [Pelosi] has managed to achieve a much greater level of discipline and unanimity and without some of the kind of abuses and some of the punitive measures toward members we saw,” under Gingrich, argues Price, who has written several books about Congress.
Changes in the external electoral environment have contributed to this process perhaps even more powerfully. Of these, the most significant has been the geographic realignment since the 1990s, which has seen the virtual extinction of the rural and Southern center-right “blue dog” Democrats who most commonly voted against the party’s agenda. Almost all of those seats are now held by conservative Republicans. The reverse process has severely reduced the number of moderate suburban House Republicans who most often voted with Democrats.
“If you look at who those members were [who broke from the party] in the assault weapon vote under Clinton, they were from areas that no longer send Democrats to Congress, and the same is true in reverse for Republicans,” says Price.
In that sense, the near-unanimity among House Democrats can be seen as a sign of weakness as well as strength: The party now holds vanishingly few of the conservative-leaning districts where members would feel more pressure to break from the caucus.
“What you are seeing is the stripped-down version of the Democratic caucus,” now centered overwhelmingly on urban and suburban districts, notes John Lawrence, a former chief of staff to Pelosi. A more fragile majority, in that regard, is the price of greater unity.
This geographic realignment has combined with aggressive gerrymandering to create a second electoral dynamic encouraging unity. Through this century, the number of districts that lean reliably toward one or the other party has increased — which means that most House members worry more about primary opponents accusing them of voting too often against their parties than general election opponents attacking them for not displaying enough independence.
Simultaneously, the electoral experience of the past two decades has shown that the old blue dog strategy of voting against your own party on big issues doesn’t provide much protection for members in difficult districts anymore. If voters are dissatisfied with the majority party’s performance, they have shown they will take it out even on members from the party who conspicuously vote against key priorities.
“The nationalization of congressional elections makes conservative Democrats most vulnerable to unfavorable tides and renders appeals to local ‘cultural’ interests ineffective,” notes Thomas Mann, a senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Frequently shifting control
These internal and external forces reshaping the House converge in the acute awareness among members that control of the chamber is constantly within reach for either side. (If Republicans regain the majority this November, as most analysts expect, control will have shifted four times since 2006 after switching just twice from 1954 through 2004.) With control so tenuous, Lawrence points out, the minority party has no incentive to provide votes that will help the majority strengthen its political position by passing its agenda — and the majority party has enormous incentive to hang together to achieve a positive legislative record.
“The consequences of voting against your leadership is failure, and failure for your party, just like a low approval rating for your party’s president, means you are going to pay the penalty,” says Lawrence, author of the upcoming book “Arc of Power,” on his years in the House leadership team. “I think that’s what drives the unity.”
The cumulative effect of these internal and external forces has been to forge a House (and for that matter, a Senate) that increasingly resembles the kind of parliamentary legislative institution in most other Western democracies — with one glaring exception.
In a Congress now functioning so much like a parliament, says Price, “I think the case for altering or abolishing the filibuster is much, much stronger than it has been.”
With Manchin and Sinema — and perhaps other Democrats — unmovable in their opposition to revising the filibuster, any changes in Senate rules won’t come in time to salvage the ambitious agenda House Democrats have passed with near-unanimity since 2021. But as both parties unify behind their legislative priorities to a far greater extent than in the past, it seems increasingly implausible that they will indefinitely provide the other side, through the filibuster, a veto on whether they can move that agenda into law.