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“Forcing the will of the Few: How House Traditions Allow an Elite Minority to Lead the Agenda

In some democracies around the world, a few political power-brokers are able to wield an undue amount of control over a nation’s legislative agenda. This phenomenon, commonly known as the tyranny of the extreme minority, allows a handful of powerful individuals to dictate policy, often without popular support. The House of Representatives in the United States is particularly susceptible to this type of control, as certain traditions allow a small minority of representatives to use their leverage to dictate what is discussed and voted upon. The House of Representatives is invested with significant legislative power, but in order for the institution to function properly, long-standing rules and traditions must be followed. One such tradition is the motion to recommit, which allows a minority of 200 members to force a vote on a resolution before it moves to the floor. While motions to recommit have been used in the past for a variety of reasons, the current majority leadership in the House has been known to use it to eliminate unfavorable bills from consideration. For example, in 2009, the motion to recommit and subsequent failed vote resulted in the defeat of a public option to healthcare reform. Another key House tradition is the use of “closed rules.” Under this procedure, leadership in the House is able to control the debate and floor amendments on a piece of legislation. By doing so, they are able to prevent opposition parties from getting the exposure they need to share their ideas and gain support for their cause, creating an extreme level of control by a small few. The tyranny of the extreme minority is a feature of representative democracies around the world, but perhaps none more so than in the United States House of Representatives. By respecting certain traditions, a few powerful individuals are able to shape the legislative agenda of the House and prevent unfavorable proposals from even being considered. As long as these traditions are maintained, the minority will continue to have power well beyond what the American people voted for.

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