Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is now in Williamsburg, Virginia, meeting with his House Republican conference at their annual retreat. The GOP House members have likely gotten over the initial shock of the November elections – in which President Barack Obama won more than 51 percent of the vote and the Democratic majority swelled in the Senate.
Though the Republicans lost House seats and their candidates collected more than a million fewer votes than their Democratic rivals, the GOP retained a majority in the House of Representatives. This consolation prize has allowed Boehner to claim that House Republicans have a mandate every bit as compelling as that earned by the president. Conservative champions Grover Norquist and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) echoed this claim.
“It’s very wrong to suggest that only the president has a mandate,” asserted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who knows from congressional mandates. “The House Republicans also have a mandate, and it’s a much more conservative mandate than the president’s.”
Many commentators lament the political dynamics that encourage House Republicans to resist the newly re-elected president – even when he proposes exactly what he promised during the campaign. Politicians can, of course, read election results however they please.
Political scientists, meanwhile, have long exposed the functional emptiness of electoral “mandates” in the American system. The father of modern presidential studies, Richard Neustadt, ridiculed the very notion two generations ago. Unlike parliamentary systems, where the majority party actually governs, U.S. policymakers inhabit a heavily constrained political environment – even when one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress.