Anthony L. Ives is an Instructional Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University.
Retiring Representative Bill Flores (TX-17) recently mailed my family a farewell message, presenting highlights of his work in DC. Both he and my new Representative Pete Sessions were and are very ordinary members of the Republican House Conference. While politically conservative, these members are not exactly in the same rhetorical category of Representatives Gohmert (TX-1), Gaetz (FL-1) or Jordan (OH-4). But all the same, my representatives have taken votes over the past ten years to allow private insurers to discriminate against those who have preexisting conditions, to default on the national debt, to strip health care coverage from millions, and finally, to overturn a fairly administered and legally-conducted presidential election. They were not alone in any of these votes. In so doing, my representatives were always joined by the majority of their party in the House in these politically extreme messaging votes tailored for their primary base.
Indeed, it seems important that none of the votes I mention here were catalogued by Flores on his farewell flyer, which is ostensibly written for a general (election) audience. Their absence strongly suggests that these were messaging votes for his Republican primary constituents. I suspect that he believed that these votes would be received as advocacy for a lower debt, the free market, repealing Obamacare, and as careful regard for those who are concerned about the legitimacy of the last election. Such actions could be defended as unsurprising or unremarkable given the incentives of our electoral system. Our representatives love to take positions that are popular with either their general election or primary election constituents. Taking a vote, including one which will quite likely fail, to position take is common bipartisan behavior. The most influential congressional scholar of the twentieth century, David Mayhew, marked this tendency well (the other two tendencies called credit-claiming and advertising are also clearly documented on the flyer which I received from Rep. Flores). It is not worth arguing over whether these are actions which our representatives ideally should do. No matter what citizens or scholars write or say, they do these things because they help them get reelected.
Where Republican House Conference legislative behavior differs dangerously from the modern norm is the frequency with which they use the messaging vote and in taking self-consciously extreme positions to appeal to their primary constituents alone. When observers and concerned citizens want to know why more than a hundred of our representatives continued to object to Biden’s Electoral College victory even after violent insurrectionaries stormed the Capitol, the very citadel of American democracy, placing their lives in danger, I would simply say they were doing what they have consistently done since 2010: reflexively taking the position of their most vocal (and extreme) primary constituents. It was unfortunately not surprising that they treated the January 6th vote to certify the election the same way they treated hundreds of other votes where their primary constituents had strong views; they adopted them regardless of the context or consequences. Members presented themselves as delegates validating their constituents’ concerns, but in fact they were voting to reject the certification of Joe Biden’s election. Such an act was the overtly desired goal of the #StopTheSteal insurrectionists. To show how we got to this point, in this essay I trace the history of House Republican message votes and show the danger posed by the unrestricted use of this reelection tool by my representative and the majority of his Republican co-partisans.
The use of messaging votes by House Republicans has been noteworthy and different in kind since the midterm of 2010 in which Tea Party candidates remade the Republican Party. Starting immediately after being sworn-in, every single House Republican voted for a bill, HR. 2, which would repeal every word of the ACA (Obamacare), therefore removing the hated insurance mandate as well as the more popular provisions of the law in a single fell swoop. If this bill had become law, which every Republican, including Mr. Flores, supported, chaos would have prevailed in insurance markets. In 2011, some new health measures and taxes were being implemented, while others were still being deliberated upon by the Department of Health and Human Services, and others, such as the mandate, had yet to even go into effect. HR. 2 had no information on how this complexity would be addressed, as it was less than 250 words long, replacing such necessary details with rhetorical speechifying, such as describing the ACA as the “Job-killing health care law.”
Yet, with no allies in the Senate who wanted to introduce their bill and with President Obama obviously not contemplating repealing his signature accomplishment, House Republicans thought they had found an easy messaging win; so they reduplicated this exercise more than sixty times during the Obama Administration, each time voting to repeal a major enactment with almost no attention to how concretely this would be done and whether any of the more popular provisions, such as the protections for those with preexisting conditions or allowing young adults to remain on their family’s insurance plans, could be salvaged in their plans. No comparable Democratic behavior or precedent existed for this kind of opposition; there wasn’t even one vote to defund the Iraq War, let alone five dozen.
After Tea Party style candidates began winning Senate elections, such efforts were broadened to other areas of conservative ideology, such as an opposition to government debt. Attacking the debt limit, which is a statutory maximum amount of debt which the United States may draw, has been the legislative vehicle through which Republican House members have expressed this belief in the past decade. By refusing to raise the debt limit, members believe that they can show that they are against debt. Several of these maneuvers were tried during the Obama Administration.
The vote which Rep. Flores took in February 2014 is illustrative of a trend in the House Republican use of messaging votes – after a collision of these votes with reality, reality tends to lose. In 2013 a prominent debt-rating organization threatened to downgrade their rating of the quality of the national debt of the United States due to the debt brinksmanship, similar to an earlier debt downgrade in 2011. Indeed, failing to raise the debt ceiling was widely believed by investors to mean that the United States may default at least some interest payments. So, the market reasonably penalized us as a nation to try to incentivize less reckless governmental action by our leaders. Nonetheless, House Republicans had taken the lead in this controversy and had succeeded not in cutting the debt, but rather in shutting down the government over their demands. But that was all in 2013.
Now in 2014, the debt limit was reached again, and even after the clear knowledge that real tangible consequences could come from these messaging votes Rep. Flores and 198 of his colleagues (including Sessions, who was then representing a different district in Texas) elected to use their formal power to reject raising the debt limit. A default was only averted when a band of House Republicans (28 to be exact), joined almost all Democrats (who only had two defections) to avert the prospect of more economic damage to the polity. This alliance between House Democrats and a very small number of Republicans who refused to join their colleague’s rasher choices was in fact the governing majority in the House for the latter years of Speaker Boehner’s time as congressional leader. This arrangement was obviously not stable or long-lasting as it ended in Boehner’s resignation as the conference moved yet further in an insurgent direction in 2015 (Note: “insurgent” is a word which was frequently used in describing more extreme Republicans in the 2010s and takes on new significance since January 6th of this year)
While some hoped that the election of a unified government by the elections of 2016 would give House Republicans a governing discipline that was lacking in their years in opposition, no such changes in their use of messaging votes occurred. When it came time to fulfill the stated promise of the party (and the president) to provide a replacement for Obamacare in 2017, another partisan messaging bill was produced. At first it seems unreasonable to compare this bill, HR 1628, the American Health Care Act, to the previous attempts at ACA repeal, as it was a substantive bill with actual provisions; it was the nature of the bill and its reception that showed it was just another in a long line of messaging actions. Although the bill purported to cover more Americans, at a lower cost, and with less federal government interference in the market, the nonpartisan experts employed by Congress agreed only with the middle proposition. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) noted that the bill would save about 30 billion a year in exchange for removing protections for those with preexisting conditions and removing health care access for at least 20 million (and likely more) Americans. The Senate refused to act on this bill and their alternative Skinny Repeal was sunk by John McCain’s famous thumbs down, in spite of 217 House Republicans, including Flores, voting for HR 1628.
It has thus been a pattern of Republican legislators, especially in the House, that when a prominent ideological current appears in conservative circles (repeal, opposition to debt, repeal and replace) that they must use the formal legislative powers given to them to reinforce the trend. In the past few months, “electoral denialism,” has arisen. It is fair to label it so, as the underlying claim, that Joe Biden stole the election, is on similar epistemic ground as disbelieving in rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere or the place of Barack Obama’s birth. There simply is no evidence of fraud at a significant scale in the 2020 election; but it is important to House Republicans what their most loyal (and partisan) primary constituents think. It is clear that these constituents have been lied to with such consistency and vehemence over the past two months that many otherwise right-thinking Americans do believe that Joe Biden stole the election and was not legitimately elected.
While the better angels of our nature called on some to directly fight this falsehood, the majority of the House Republican Conference has fallen far below the lower standard of merely upholding the peaceful transition of power. Rather than simply giving speeches, tweets or statements acknowledging the concerns of constituents, and hopefully, since they are false, trying to use their legitimacy with their audience to help refute Trump’s allegations, the median House Republican has decided to lean into this belief. Presented with the opportunity to take a political messaging vote of solidarity with their deceived constituents, they elected to use their government power to try to usurp the election, in keeping with the request of their President. In this they act consistently, though not well.
If it was not clear before, audiences outside of DC do not understand the games members play; instead, they understand their words and actions straightforwardly. While brinksmanship regarding the validity of the debt of the United States is already concerning, one has moved to a new level of provocation when Republican primary constituents want a democratic election usurped from its rightful winner. Signaling that you approve of such an action, not rhetorically, but in the actual vote to refuse to certify an election, can have real consequences, as seen on January 6th. If an electoral conspiracy has defrauded the people’s will, extreme measures seem justified, if not required – and many thousands took this logic to heart with deadly consequences. Constituents are not so “sophisticated” as our members of Congress, and when they see most Republicans taking a vote that indicates Biden’s election was illegitimate, they take it both seriously and literally.
The vote I refer to, of course, is the vote that 138 House Republicans took to object to certifying Biden’s EC victory in Pennsylvania. Now objecting to one state would not have overturned the election since Biden had a EC margin sufficient to absorb that loss, but the majority of the House Republican Conference also objected to four other states which they deemed disputed (note that they did not dispute any EC votes which Trump won), enough to remove President-Elect Biden’s margin of victory and place the election in the hands of the House, which would have then decided the election. An election where not one single EC vote was contested in the states would have been overthrown for no other reason than that the head of state demanded it; this would certainly have been a coup, even if it were cloaked in a thin veneer of legality. Included in the vote to overturn the election was my representative, the aforementioned Sessions, Flores having retired; Flores did, however, support Texas’s lawsuit to throw out the election and award all the “disputed” EC votes to Trump along with about a hundred of his colleagues, an arguably more radical and undemocratic means to the same illegitimate end.
While we should not expect politicians to act perfectly, especially under the pressures of a truly democratic system where their constituents’ views matter, there must be counterbalancing forces against constitutional mischief, and these have been lacking in recent months (and years). So far from counterbalancing the more extreme elements of the conference, Minority Leader McCarthy (CA-23) voted for the objections last week, encouraging his partisan allies to see the vote as one of loyalty to the Republican Party and increasing the number of voices in favor of the coup. Even after the insurrection, McCarthy would have preferred to respond with a messaging vote, censure, rather than impeachment. Rep. Liz Cheney (WY), who acted laudably to hold the president directly accountable for his incitement, is distinctly in the minority of her caucus, as only 10 House Republicans backed impeachment.
With the seriousness of our situation in 2021 revealed, what is to be done about the tendency of the majority of the House Republican Conference to double down on extremism? The only way forward involves directly condemning these attempts to subvert an election. The fundamental edifice of our polity – the basis of our very democracy – is imperiled by this reckless and cynical behavior. The sanctions announced by the leaders of major corporations and interest groups to freeze out those who voted to reject the will of the voters is a good start and one that must be partnered with watchful accountability by voters and scholars. One Republican, Rep. Rice (SC-7) already has made a good start in undoing the damage of his objection to Biden’s victory by voting for impeachment; similar costly actions by others can act as reparations for their actions and show their commitment to our constitutional project. But until this accountability can work its full force, scholars and citizens should be prepared for the habit described here to continue, as a behavior once acclimated to is hard to break.