A few days ago, House Democrats reelected Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California as their party leader. Some members grumbled that they really needed a fresh face and new ideas. All of them noticed that the 2014 midterm election had cut their ranks to the lowest point in decades. So why did Representative Pelosi not face a challenge? For one thing, she is a shrewd politician with deep experience in leadership contests. For another, it is likely that very few of her fellow Democrats really had a burning desire to take her place. That’s because the House minority leader has a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad job.
Consider the meaning of minority status in the House of Representatives. Members of the minority party do not get to chair any committees or subcommittees, and they lose most roll calls on the floor of chamber. Their low success rate is not just a matter of having fewer seats than the majority. The majority party decides which bills come up in which order, and which amendments may even come up for a vote. In the Senate, members of the minority have some leverage because they can filibuster legislation. In the House, there is no filibuster. A House roll call usually means that the majority rolls over the minority.
Lucky members of the minority party might possibly get to pass bills renaming post offices in their districts. Otherwise, their chance of successfully sponsoring major legislation is minuscule. People struggle to become lawmakers so that they can make laws, and if they cannot do so, service in Congress gets mighty frustrating.
Decades ago, minority leaders could sometimes score victories by building coalitions with sympathetic members of the majority party. With increasing polarization, there are practically no liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats left. Accordingly, a leader of the minority party will see very few friendly faces on the other side of the aisle.
When the House minority belongs to the same party as the president, it has additional problems. If voters sour on the occupant of the White House, they will take out those feelings on the president’s co-partisans in Congress. This tendency largely explains why House Democrats lost so much ground in the 2014 midterm.
The House minority might try to carve out a distinct identity by crafting its own unique policy ideas, but this feat is hard to pull off. In the public’s mind, the president defines the president’s party. Anyway, a minority party policy agenda has no chance of passing in the short term, and the media pay little attention to bills that are dead on arrival.
In the past, House minorities of the president’s party could play a part in the legislative process by supplying the votes to sustain vetoes. But there have been very few vetoes in recent years: 10 for George W. Bush, and just two for Barack Obama.
In other words, minority status means legislative irrelevance.
The one source of hope for members of the minority party is the prospect that they can someday become the majority. Right now, this hope seems faint. In 2014, only 17 Republicans won by single-digit percentage-point margins. Even if Democrats win every one of these seats in 2016, Republicans will still have a comfortable majority. Of course, a national Democratic sweep could change things, but few are counting on it.
On Thanksgiving, Nancy Pelosi may well have many things to be grateful for. Her status in Congress will not be one of them.
Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for Decoder Voices.