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When the Speaker becomes the Bystander

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For generations, the balance of power will often shift between the House and Senate, for a variety of institutional and historical reasons. Occasionally, the shift is deliberate -- one chamber will decide it doesn't want the power.

This dynamic is on display right now. Sarah Binder recently published a fascinating item, explaining House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) decision to do as little legislating as possible, making the Senate go first on just about everything. For Boehner, there's no apparent downside -- he and his caucus don't get the blame if/when legislation fails; he and his caucus have veto power over key initiatives; and when measures are pending that Republicans don't like, he and his caucus have time to rally the opposition while the Senate does all the real work.

What's more, as Jonathan Bernstein explained, Boehner's "Make the Senate go first" rule forfeits "their opportunity to affect the content of legislation," but the House GOP caucus may not care since they're a post-policy caucus anyway.

And all of this tends to work fairly well when the Senate, overcome by gridlock and obstructionism, can't send the House anything to consider anyway, but what happens when the upper chamber starts to make some progress?

Long mired in bitter gridlock, two groups of Democratic and Republican lawmakers have hashed out once-unthinkable bipartisan solutions on gun control and rewriting the nation's immigration laws.

But the rush to bipartisanship could grind to an abrupt halt in the House. Speaker John Boehner is once again trapped in a tough position....

Yes, that certainly is the downside to saying, "We'll be glad to consider whatever the Senate passes." Occasionally, the Senate actually passes something, leaving Boehner to ask, "What do we do now?"

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told Politico, "It's clear that the House Republicans have abdicated responsibility for legislation to the Senate." Quite right. But if the Senate manages to act on gun safety and immigration, the flaws in this plan will become fairly obvious.

Postscript: I should mention, by the way, that the House could, in theory, play a constructive role in governing, but that would require Boehner to largely give up on the so-called "Hastert Rule." This has already happened three times this year, and Sarah Binder noted a fourth that quietly happened yesterday.