Congress, and the government as a whole, is not perfect. We know that and have discussed it in many of our posts. We’ve talked about how Congress only passed 4% of the bills introduced in the 114th session, how even when they do pass bills they tend to be fluff laws naming federal post offices, and how compromise has become an empty promise.
The latest dysfunction I’ve come across is the idea of “punishment” in Congress. In particular, I’m hearing about it in the context of party leaders issuing threats or stripping titles of those who choose to vote the opposite of the party agenda. And this isn’t a single party occurrence, it happens on both sides of the aisle. We saw it on the Republican side recently with Speaker John Boehner and his allies launching threats and punishment at caucus members who voted against a procedural motion in June. Speaker Boehner singled out a select group of bad actors, members of a newly created Freedom Caucus who claim to give “a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them.”1 Three of their members were “booted from the whip team, and another was stripped of his subcommittee gavel. [Colorado Rep. Ken] Buck, meanwhile, faces being ousted as head of the freshman class just months after being elected to that position by his peers.”2 Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi tended to have a more understated punishment style during her tenure as Speaker of the House. Rather than removing titles or pushing members out of leadership positions, her “form of punishment [was] more subtle — usually a cold shoulder and a behind-the-scenes admonishment.”3 While this doesn’t seem too harsh, Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant, points out that this has serious repercussions for campaigning, saying “She uses her power deftly in ways a 21st-century speaker does. This is a powerful speaker who can impact how many campaign dollars you can get.”4 Interestingly, we’ve also heard from both Democrats and Republicans about Congressional “no-fly” list, or a list of lawmakers from the other side with whom lawmakers are prohibited from working, and that both parties can withhold campaign cash from those who buck the party line.
While party loyalty isn’t a bad thing, the adherence to party lines at all costs can be damaging, particularly when it comes to Congressional productivity. In a 2014 study for the Brookings Institution, Sarah Binder confirmed that “when elections yield more polarized parties and chambers, bargaining is more difficult and compromise is more often out of reach.”5 In addition, because the structure of our electoral system allows for shifts in power every couple of years, the minority party believes they can wait until they’re in power to address their own agenda. As Binder explains, “[f]ierce electoral competition brings control of national institutions within reach for both parties, limiting lawmakers’ incentives to compromise with the other party.”6
The other frustrating thing about this intense party coherence and the punishment of those that break from it, is that it may, at times, prevent our elected officials from voting in the best interest of their constituents or against their own personal beliefs. As Kathryn Pearson, who earned her Ph.D in Political Science from U.C. Berkeley, pointed out in her dissertation on “Party Discipline in Contemporary Congress,” scholars have established that members of Congress often vote contrary to their own beliefs in an effort to support the party. She explains:
“To help one’s constituents with major legislation, or even a district-related suspension or resolution, or with service on a particular committee, a member needs to demonstrate support for the party, either with a loyal voting record or by devoting time to raising money. She may be violating her constituents’ wishes in her support for the party on roll call votes, or she may be neglecting constituent services in attempts to raise enough money to be rewarded for it.”7
While yes, they are meant to be a representative of their party, our Congress members are also meant to be a representative for their district. As Pearson shows, by requiring electeds to vote certain ways, party leadership may limit their ability to effectively do their job, to represent their constituency.
The good news is that there’s hope for this to get better, specifically when it comes to improving accountability. One potentially interesting solution was brought up in our online TechTable on reinventing technology in politics. Ben Rattray, host of the table and CEO of Change.org, predicted that at some point in the near future, we will have an elected official who will “commit to voting for legislation in accordance with the online votes of their constituents.” And there are startups like Countable that are trying to make ideas like this possible by allowing users to vote and comment on legislation and then have that information sent directly to their representatives.
Without a doubt, party unity and loyalty can be a great thing. As Pearson points out, “loyal partisans today are more likely to achieve their institutional goals and thus may be more likely to win with more accomplishments to campaign on.”8 But it also boxes elected officials into a certain agenda where defection is not appreciated. How can we strike a balance? How do we embrace the benefits of party loyalty without the negatives of breaking from this loyalty? How can we provide our representatives with the protection of a party while still giving them the freedom to vote how they please and in the best interests of their constituents?
1 Freedom Caucus. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_Caucus
2 Wong, S. and Marcos, C. (2015, Jun. 24). Boehner doles out new punishment. The Hill. Retrieved from http://thehill.com/homenews/house/246080-boehner-doles-out-new-punishment
3 Lovley, E. (2010, Oct. 4). Will Nancy Pelosi strike back at disloyal Democrats? POLITICO. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1010/43067.html
5 Binder, S. (2015, May). Polarized we govern? Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings.
7 Pearson, K. (2005). Party Discipline in the Contemporary Congress: Rewarding Loyalty in Theory and in Practice. (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation). University of California, Berkeley. Berkeley, CA.