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President Trump forcing a vote on the health care bill is a historic gamble

We don’t know if it will pay off. We do know it’s unusual legislative strategy.

Jabin Botsford / Washington Post / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

President Trump has demanded that the House of Representatives vote on the Republican health care bill Friday, even though he doesn’t have the votes lined up.

If the vote is taken and the bill goes down, it will be a tremendous political embarrassment to the new administration. But if this gambit works, it will be remembered as a bold legislative play that paid off — albeit in the service of a deeply flawed and extremely unpopular bill that may never get out of the Senate.

Whatever happens, it’s worth noting that this is a deeply unusual legislative strategy. The usual practice for big, controversial bills like this is for congressional leaders to ensure they have votes in hand — or at least really close to in hand — before actually taking the vote.

Then when leaders are confident they have or are close to getting juuust enough votes to get the bill through, they actually hold the vote. Nancy Pelosi, for one, was a master of this strategy during her speakership, which resulted in several very narrow House victories on top Obama agenda items in his first two years.

Why most leaders get the votes before taking the vote

This practice is the norm in part because it’s simply embarrassing for a leader and a president to bring up a bill and have it fail.

More broadly, though, it’s done because party leaders generally want to protect their party members, and particularly their members in swing districts, from casting tough votes unless it’s totally necessary.

Voting for an intensely controversial bill like the American Health Care Act is politically painful, particularly for members of Congress in vulnerable districts. These votes can be used against them in attack ads and hurt their reelection campaigns.

Still, if members of Congress take a tough vote and the bill becomes law, at least they’ve achieved something. The worst outcome for a leader, though, is if you force your members to take a tough vote and then the bill fails anyway. Then you’ve forced them to stick their necks out for no benefit, and made them more vulnerable to attacks in the next election.

This is exactly what happened in 1993 when House Democrats voted to pass Bill Clinton’s “BTU tax” on energy, a bill that died in the Senate. And even Pelosi let it happen once in 2009, when a fair number of Democrats in vulnerable districts voted for a cap-and-trade bill that, again, died in the Senate.

In both cases, many of those Democrats then lost their seats — and their party lost the House — in the next midterm election. (“Getting BTUed” briefly became a fairly common phrase on the Hill.) And both of those bills at least got through the House; casting a vote for an unpopular proposal that ends up failing in the House seems like even more pointless.

Savvy party leaders want to avoid that bad outcome, so they generally try to only hold a tough vote if they’re confident they can get the bill across the finish line, at least in their chamber.

Harvard professors David King and Richard Zeckhauser demonstrated this with a clever 2003 paper that shows that on controversial congressional votes, “small victories” are a far more common result than “small defeats.” That’s in large part because if leaders figure out advance that they’re headed to a narrow defeat on a vote, they preempt that outcome by not holding the vote at all (until they can line up more votes, at least).

But Trump isn’t a typical party leader

Trump, however, has demanded that the House vote on the AHCA even though he’s not sure if it can pass. He’s probably taking this approach for a few reasons.

First, Trump sees himself as a savvy negotiator and dealmaker willing to employ bold stratagems. Here, he sees himself as calling holdout conservatives’ bluff. (Maybe he’s right!)

Second, as a businessman and Washington outsider, Trump has never actually governed before. As a result, he simply may not be all that familiar with legislative leaders’ dynamics on close votes. (A piece by Axios’s Jonathan Swan provided some evidence for this, claiming that congressional GOP leaders fear “the vote will collapse” if they don’t line up the votes in advance, while the White House is more optimistic.)

Third, Trump may not care all that much about trying to protect Republican members of Congress. He himself came up as an outsider in the party, and hardly any members of Congress endorsed him. He may naturally have little loyalty to the party as a result. (Though he may live to regret it if Republicans lose the House.)

Fourth, the president doesn’t seem to care all that much about health reform in particular. It wasn’t his top priority during the campaign, and people close to him are already leaking to the New York Times’s Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman that he regrets agreeing to put it ahead of tax reform on the agenda. If it fails, he may think, So what?

Finally, Trump is vindictive and legendarily holds on to grudges. Rather than try to make GOP members of Congress more comfortable, he may want to force them to take a clear stand for or against him — so, perhaps, he can retaliate against those who remain defiant.

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