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What's at stake in the House?

Editor's note: Producer Mike Viqueira, who covers the House of Representatives for NBC News, contributed the following to our sister blog First Read. It's too good not to post here, as well. But just a reminder that you can get your political blog fix any time at www.FirstRead.MSNBC.com.

Let's be clear about what is at stake here on Tuesday. When you're talking about holding the majority in the U.S. House, you're talking about being in utter control of everything from how, when, and what is actually debated on the floor of the chamber to what is served for lunch in the cafeteria.

"The job of the minority is to make a quorum and to draw its pay." Words spoken by House Speaker Thomas Reed in 1890 that perfectly describe the sweeping hegemony of the majority party -- and emasculation of the minority -- that is as evident today as it was 116 years ago. The majority here controls every step of the process, and when you control the process, you control the substance.


It's not too much of an overstatement to say that the most oppressed minority in America is the minority here in the "lower body." If you're a member of the party out of power -- for the last 12 years, of course, the Democrats -- you typically are not permitted to have your bills considered in committee or on the floor; you can't get your amendments debated and voted on (especially the ones that have a chance of passing); you even have to go hat in hand to the majority staff in order to get a room to meet in. In short, you take it in the neck every time. This isn't "Schoolhouse Rock" and it never has been.

It's been this way since the time of Henry Clay, and through the years it has more or less held true regardless of which party is running the place. The Senate, where any one random member can raise his hand to object and gum up everything, is a completely different animal. But the House was designed to be more responsive to public sentiment (though the Founders were against the idea of a two-party system in Congress (Federalist #10, if you really care), and over time the majority has established rules and procedures that make it easy to exercise its will and run roughshod over those out of power. It's what the legislative geeks call a "majoritarian institution."

Yes, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Calif., has pledged to afford more rights to Republicans should Democrats take control come January 3. Just how much leeway she is willing to grant, however, might depend upon just how big a majority she holds. Tighter margins likely mean tighter controls. But whatever the case on the floor, Republicans would have minuscule staff on committees. Democrats holding the gavels would be the ones deciding what hearings to call, what oversight to conduct, and what investigations to undertake.

This is all about the House, of course, and its legislative product. The White House, and perhaps the Senate, will still be controlled by Republicans, which opens the door to an entirely different discussion about politics and strategy. We'll try that next time.