It may be cold comfort as a stormy midterm election approaches, but House Democrats have achieved a modern milestone in this legislative session that crystallizes a fundamental transformation in how Congress operates.
Working with a razor-thin majority, House Democrats have recorded the highest level of party unity in floor votes that either party has reached in at least 50 years, according to the authoritative statistics kept by Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call. House Democrats have passed legislation on virtually every element of their party’s priority list – from the sweeping Build Back Better investment and social welfare package to bills setting a national floor for voting and abortion rights to major gun control proposals, legalization for big groups of undocumented immigrants and ambitious police reform – with dissenting votes from no more than two of their members and often opposition from only one or none.
The immensity of that record has not received much attention because so many of the House bills have been blocked in the Senate by the Republican filibuster, opposition from Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, or both. But the consensus around this sweeping agenda stands in marked contrast to the Democratic experience under former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, when dozens of House Democrats routinely voted against the party on key measures, from Clinton’s budget to Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“The ethos of the kind of norms and expectations within the caucus have shifted,” says Democratic Rep. David Price of North Carolina, a former political science professor who is retiring this year after serving in Congress – with one two-year break – since 1986. “I think there’s some really different behavior now and a different level of party discipline and loyalty.”
The increased unity, many observers agree, is a testament not only to the skill of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in wrangling her caucus; it also reflects a succession of tectonic shifts in the electoral and legislative landscape that have transformed the historically unruly House into something much closer to a parliamentary institution that demands exacting levels of loyalty within each party – and produces far fewer possibilities of cooperation between them.
These trends are virtually certain to survive if Republicans, whose own unity has been steadily growing over the past few decades, retake the House in November. No matter which party holds the majority, the House now seems locked into an irreversible path toward more polarization.
“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.
But once the backroom negotiations have concluded and legislation reached the floor for final votes, House Democrats have achieved a level of unity unprecedented in modern times. In this Congress, Democrats have held, at most, a five-seat majority, leaving them achingly little margin for error. (Only twice since World War II has the governing party operated with a smaller majority.) Yet almost all of their major bills have passed with few or no dissenting votes.
Just two House Democrats voted against the police reform legislation passed in March 2021 and the sweeping gun control package approved this month. Only a single House Democrat each time voted against a succession of high-profile bills the chamber approved in March 2021: HR 1, the party’s sweeping election and voting bill; a bill establishing universal background checks for gun sales; a measure providing a pathway to legal status for undocumented farmworkers; and legislation long sought by organized labor to reduce legal barriers to union organizing.
In September 2021, just one House Democrat voted against the bill to codify a nationwide right to abortion, and ultimately just a single Democrat voted against the Build Back Better bill when the House passed it two months later. Only a single House Democrat opposed the party’s massive Covid-19 relief plan early in Biden’s presidency. Earlier this month, only a single Democrat opposed the national red flag law the House passed, which would remove access to firearms for someone who is deemed a danger to themselves or others by a court.
House Democrats voted unanimously in 2021 to remove the deadline for states to approve the Equal Rights Amendment; to establish a floor of nationwide LGBTQ rights; to provide a pathway to citizenship for young people brought to the US illegally by their parents; to restructure the Voting Rights Act to overwrite decisions weakening it by the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority; and for a sweeping executive branch package meant to combat some of former President Donald Trump’s ethical abuses. The biggest exception to this pattern came when six liberal House Democrats voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill to protest its separation from the broader Build Back Better package.
On most of these measures, the sole dissenting vote came from Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, who represents a rural Maine district that voted for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020; Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, who is currently locked in a recount against a progressive primary challenger, was the sole dissenter on the bills to ease union organizing and to codify a right to abortion. In turn, either no House Republicans, or virtually none, voted for most of these bills, with only a handful of the measures (including the legislation providing a legal pathway for young immigrants and farmworkers and imposing universal background checks on gun sales) drawing support from even six or more GOP representatives.
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.
The situation improved, but only marginally, under Obama. In 2009, 44 Democrats voted against the cap-and-trade climate-change bill that Waxman and Pelosi steered through the House; the next year, 34 voted against final passage of the Affordable Care Act. After those two votes, as I’ve written, the hesitation of “blue dog” Democrats from mostly rural seats to take more politically risky votes helped convince Pelosi and the White House to abandon consideration of comprehensive immigration measures and shelved discussion of any new gun-control measures while the party held the House majority through 2010.
This evolution is reflected in the comprehensive data on congressional voting compiled for decades by Congressional Quarterly, now in partnership with Roll Call. During the 1970s, their data show, House Democrats voted together only about 65% or so of the time. (Averages from Dwight Eisenhower’s second term in the late 1950s, and the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson presidencies in the 1960s, show that House Democrats voted together at just slightly above that rate during those earlier years.) The Democratic Party unity rose to about 80% by the late 1980s, and advanced again to near 90% through Obama’s first term – even with the prominent exceptions noted above.
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.
Democrats actually used that power to bypass seniority in naming committee chairs very sparingly over their next two decades controlling the House. But when Republicans seized the majority in 1995 (for the first time in 40 years), Gingrich much more aggressively demanded loyalty to the party agenda as the price of advancement and implemented a number of other measures to centralize power in the leadership. When Democrats regained the House majority after 2006, they largely preserved the Republican changes – which had been taken to an even greater height by GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas in the early 2000s after Gingrich left Congress.
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.”
Also pushing in that direction, he says, is that both parties are aware that it has become extremely difficult to legislate without unified control of the White House and both congressional chambers and neither side has been able to sustain those “trifectas” for very long. (Since 1980, the only time either party has maintained unified control for more than two consecutive years has been the middle four years of the George W. Bush presidency, from 2002 to 2006.) “The difficulty of sustaining a majority really compels you to use the majority power when you have it,” Lawrence says.
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 parliamentary institutions, intense party discipline is expected in the governing party – as is indivisible opposition from the minority party. As the extraordinary House Democratic unity – and lockstep GOP opposition – in this Congress demonstrates, that’s become the US model, too. But in parliamentary systems, the governing party can pass its agenda on a party-line majority vote. Here, because of the Senate filibuster, passing legislation requires a bipartisan supermajority (unless one party controls 60 Senate seats, which has happened only once since 1979). The result is that the US now operates with what many political scientists consider a contradiction in terms: a parliamentary system without majority rule.
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.