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When counting to 218 is harder than it looks

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If you've ever seen the U.S. version of "House of Cards," you've seen Kevin Spacey's character, Frank Underwood, position himself as a person of considerable power and influence in Washington. He is not, however, in the White House, or the Speaker's office. He's not the Majority Leader in either the House or the Senate. Rather, he's the House Majority Whip.

And if your understanding of Capitol Hill is influenced by well-written fiction, you'd probably be led to believe that the House Majority Whip is an awfully important gig. But then, there's reality.

Burrowed inside a windowless office on the first floor of the Capitol, a handful of Republican aides run an old-school political shop that uses small white sheets of paper to tabulate lawmakers' positions on pending legislation. Those tallies are then used to figure out just how much more work they have to do to get a GOP bill through the House.

From that point on, however, this operation, run by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), is up against a modern political reality that makes the job more difficult for him than for anyone who has had it before.

Simply put, McCarthy can't guarantee success, in part because party power is not what it used to be on Capitol Hill, especially for the GOP.

After the Farm Bill fiasco last week, most of the focus was on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who invested some personal capital in ensuring the bill's success, but who also appeared to be caught completely off-guard when it failed miserably. But when Chris Cillizza wrote a piece on who had "the worst week in Washington," he picked McCarthy.

"When you are the House majority whip, your job is to 'whip' votes," Cillizza argued. "As in, get people to vote for things."

Now, I've never been especially impressed with McCarthy, his understanding of public policy, his ideology, his work habits, his background, or his policy preferences, and he certainly hasn't improved his standing or credibility recently. Even if he can't "whip" votes effectively, McCarthy should at least be able to count votes effectively, letting Boehner & Co. know about the likely outcomes of various floor fights. (If House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi knew what would happen with the Farm Bill, why didn't the Majority Whip?)

That said, McCarthy's failures are at least partially understandable due to factors beyond his control.

Promises of special projects in the home district -- a bridge here, a road there -- no longer exist as an enticement. Pledges of fundraising help often draw little interest in the age of super PACs, which can deliver huge sums to a favored campaign on a moment's notice. Personal pleas for fealty to party leaders fall on deaf ears among a new generation of conservatives who often prefer to be more closely allied with external movement leaders than with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

It's part of a thesis that says House Republican lawmakers have no leadership, but also can't be led. They're too extreme to listen, too raucous to consider the big picture, and too dependent on the base to even consider compromises..

McCarthy is arguably the least effective Whip in recent memory, but there are systemic issues at play that make his job almost impossible to do.

And the larger takeaway from this, to my mind, remains the same: if House Republican leaders intend to govern at all in this Congress (or really, anytime soon), they're going to have to look more to the Democratic minority to pass bills.