Pelosi’s 5 rules for ruling Congress


Here are five big lessons Pelosi taught us about how change is really happening in Washington.

1. When counting votes, get it in writing

Counting votes is more complicated than it seems for one simple reason: people lie. As biographer Molly Ball recounts, Pelosi learned that lesson the hard way early in her career. A House colleague told Pelosi he would support her bid for a seat on the appropriations committee, and so she counted it as a yes vote. But he ended up voting for someone else. When she confronted him, he explained, “I was for you not knowing who else was running. Once I found out who else was running, I was no longer for you.

Going forward, Ball wrote, “Pelosi learned to listen to what people were saying, not what she wanted to hear – and put it in writing if possible.” (And on top of that, “better get extra commitments for insurance.”)

2. Beware of “The City of the Perishable”

Pelosi summed up his tactical philosophy with a tautological maxim: “You get the votes and you take the vote.” For emphasis, she clenched one fist to represent getting votes and clapped her other hand to represent voting.

His underlying argument was that a party leader can’t hang around once the votes are in hand. “I call Washington ‘the city of the perishable’,” she also said, “because you never know what can happen.”

It’s advice that Pelosi herself struggled to follow last year. The Senate handed him a bipartisan infrastructure bill, but House progressives balked at passing it ahead of a multi-faceted package to build back better. With negotiations ongoing and some moderates yet to commit to building back better, progressives hoped that maintaining infrastructure would garner needed support. The battle for influence quickly escalated when a small group of House moderates demanded that the infrastructure bill be immediately approved by Congress.

The feuds brought Pelosi’s principles into conflict. She liked to think big. (During the Affordable Care Act’s lengthy legislative process, she scoffed at White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s idea for a smaller bill, dubbing it “Kiddie Care.”) And she did not like to continue without the votes firmly in hand. But she also knew that bills can perish.

In the summer of 2021, Pelosi initially sided with progressive holdouts and delayed action on infrastructure. But she changed course in September and pushed for a vote on autonomous infrastructure, on the grounds that Senate negotiations on Build Back Better were taking longer than expected. The House then passed the infrastructure bill after Democrats lost the governorship of Virginia in the November 2021 election.

Yet Democratic leaders failed to convince Sen. Joe Manchin to accept Build Back Better. Then, in the summer of 2022, when Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reached an agreement on a narrower set of climate, health and tax initiatives, Pelosi was able to revert to its tactical principle. Less than a week after the bill passed the Senate, Pelosi rammed it through the House.

3. Fight for progressive goals…so you can sacrifice them later

Counting the votes is fine, if the votes are there. But sometimes they are not. And Pelosi has long recognized that House progressives cannot be presumed to accept every compromise the Senate and its stubborn filibuster rules can produce. Frequently, deflated progressives had to be persuaded. Pelosi reasoned that the best way to rally progressives behind legislation they deem insufficient is to show that before agreeing to a deal, she fought as hard as she could on behalf of their shared ambitious agenda.

Pelosi executed such a strategy when Barack Obama was pushing Congress to pass health care reform. In September 2009, she issued what looked like an ultimatum: “A bill without a strong public option will not pass in the Chamber. The House passed a bill two months later that included a public option for health insurance. When the Senate didn’t reciprocate, Pelosi had the credibility to deliver the bad news without losing a vote. “I’m pretty sad that the public option isn’t there,” Pelosi told his caucus, “It’s not there because they don’t have the votes.” She kept progressives on board to win a 219-212 vote.

Pelosi rolled out the same tactic in 2021 with the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better package, as mentioned above. She allied with the left and supported a link between the two measures, until it was no longer tenable, and then dealt with the two bills separately.

4. Don’t take it personally

The leader of a diverse coalition inevitably finds it difficult to satisfy members from different ends of the ideological spectrum. Pelosi acknowledged that being identified with progressives hurt her reputation with moderates, but she also knew she needed moderates to win swing districts so Democrats could win a majority and she could wield the hammer.

If that meant moderate Democratic lawmakers were voting against party priorities, that was okay, as long as Pelosi could still pass his platform. Thirty-four House Democrats bailed out the Affordable Care Act, but she still passed it with a few votes to spare.

And if that meant moderate Democratic candidates had to join their Republican opponents in attacking him on the campaign trail, so be it.

In the 2018 midterm elections, when Republicans were featuring Pelosi in about 20 percent of their ads, 48 ​​Democratic challengers (most of whom ultimately did not win) sought to distance themselves from Pelosi by voicing their opposition to his continued leadership role in the House.

Pelosi did not punish them by cutting campaign funds. She still wanted them to win so the Democrats could have a majority. And she knew that most of those candidates hadn’t pledged to vote against her in a final vote for Speaker in the House; they could fulfill their promises with softer moves — opposing his nomination in the Democratic caucus vote, or by voting “present” in the House. (In the end, Pelosi won the presidency with 220 votes; 12 Democratic members voted for someone else, with three other voters “present.”) She understood that these candidates were doing what they felt they had to. do to win and didn’t let it break his march.

5. Don’t be stonewalling

Pelosi expected very little from Republicans and sometimes accused his fellow Democrats of naivety if they put too much hope in the prospect of a bipartisan compromise. Ball wrote that Pelosi was frustrated with the Obama administration for chasing Republican votes during Affordable Care Act deliberations, and predicted, accurately, that no Republicans would cross the aisle. “Does the president not understand how this game works? she confided in Obama’s chief of staff. “He wants to do it and be loved, and you can’t have both.”

Yet Pelosi always found ways to work with Republicans and refused to filibuster just to filibuster. Months after first becoming a speaker in 2007, when Democratic opposition to the Iraq war was fervent, Pelosi refused to block a bill to fund the war. Instead, she saw an opportunity to strike a deal and attached an independent 40% increase in the federal minimum wage, which President George W. Bush signed. She has also worked with Donald Trump to keep government open, avoid a default, push through criminal justice reform and distribute pandemic relief.

For much of his 20-year reign, Pelosi was treated like a burden. She was never a great speaker or an improvised conversationalist. She was not just a San Francisco liberal, but an incredibly wealthy San Francisco liberal, the antithesis of hard-to-reach working-class Democratic voters.

But Pelosi knew that his worth, and the worth of any legislative leader, is not determined by a superficial image. She left the party’s presidential candidates to worry about being charismatic and sticking to mastering the job at hand: getting the votes and taking the votes.

During his time in public life, no one has done it better. That’s why she stayed in her job as long as she did, and that’s why she came out at the top of her game. Any aspiring legislator or leader, Democrat or Republican, should learn from the master.


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