A Lack Of Party Discipline

Several commenters over the last few weeks have opined that Democratic leadership should flex its muscle and exercise party discipline by punishing recalcitrant moderates who break ranks and vote with the Republicans to filibuster (deny cloture) on healthcare bill on the floor of the Senate. You are not alone, more than 79,000 people have signed a Progressive Change Campaign Committee petition urging Democratic Senate leadership to strip the chairmanship of any Democratic who votes to filibuster health care reform.

Personally, I have been saying for quite some time that Nancy Pelosi needed to make good on her promise made when first elected Speaker to clean up the ethics in the House and put teeth in ethics enforcement. A disciplined party should possess the courage and fortitude to investigate and discipline ethically dubious members, even of their own party. Especially of their own party in order to set a standard; it looks fraudulent to go after the other party’s violators when you will not do the same with your own.

Alas, neither form of party discipline is in the offing by our Democrats. From The Politico:

Some of the progressives who helped put Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid in power are demanding that they come down hard on House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel and any Senate committee chairmen who stray from the flock on health care reform.

Don’t hold your breath.

While three Democratic insiders say leaders have privately discussed the possibility of ousting Rangel or asking him to step aside, there has been no move to approach the New York Democrat — and aides to Pelosi have made it clear that she won’t do anything about him until the House Ethics Committee finishes its probe.

Pelosi’s lack of real determination to crack down on ethics should have been evident from her immediate support of Murtha for Majority Leader, not to mention her history of kowtowing to the Democratic Black Caucus on withholding action against William Jefferson (and Rangel).

And as to discipline of the recalcitrant caucus members who would vote with the republicans on a filibuster of healthcare:

The response from Reid’s No. 2, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.): “We’ve never done that. We’re not going to do that.”

Durbin said the petitioners needed to “count to 60 and understand we need to be together, and there are times when we need to work out our differences.”

“This is a silly and unnecessary distraction that is not going to happen — period,” added a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “Given how important this is to the rest of his agenda, it is up to President Obama to help the leadership to hold the caucus together.”

Not surprisingly, Democratic senators who are still evaluating the reform bill making its way through theSenate Finance Committee aren’t worried about the progressives’ punishment plan.

“It’s not fair to ask people to facilitate the enactment of policies with which we ultimately disagree,” said moderate Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). “So the closer we get to the end of the process, the more, for me, the process and policy will be one and the same.”

Several Democratic moderates told POLITICO that they most likely will be with their party on most procedural votes but could hold out on the last one — to end debate and cut off a filibuster — if they wanted to demand changes to the final product.

“Not vote for cloture? I wouldn’t rule that possibility out — not at all,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who caucuses with the Democrats. (Emphasis added)

Why are the Republicans able to be so effective even in the minority? Why are the Democrats so feckless and ineffective, even in the majority? Party discipline. This is a concept the Republicans know very well and are proving once again right in the middle of the Democratic flagellation over the healthcare vote. From The Hill:

Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) is risking a shot at becoming the top Republican on an influential Senate committee by backing Democratic healthcare legislation, according to senators on the panel.

A Senate Democrat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee said Republicans on the panel are threatening to vote against Snowe, who is in line for the senior GOP post that is about to come open.

“A vote for healthcare would be something that would weigh on our minds when it came time to vote,” said a Republican on Commerce, who said Snowe would otherwise be assured of the ranking member post if not for the healthcare debate.

Every other GOP member of Finance is expected to vote against the healthcare bill.

Party discipline should not be exercised arbitrarily and capriciously, nor on every issue (as the GOP seems prone to do); but sometimes, on the most important of items, it must be exercised. Without it, there is simply an abdication of leadership and a failure of electoral purpose.

22 replies
  1. Mauimom says:

    Instead of evidencing such concern over offending their “chums,” Democrats — senators in particular — ought to pay a little attention to how their weaseling looks to the “constituents” they’re so fond of mentioning.

    In particular, the “moderate Democrat” stance on health care is at odds with the folks they’re supposed to “represent” [I’m looking at you, Blanche Lincoln]. This is NOT a case, like in the 60’s, where a, say, Southern Democrat could say, “this [e.g., civil rights] is an important national issue, and my constituents are just WRONG, so I’m going to vote the right way.” [Not, of course that we HAD any principled Southern Democrats then.] The only “constituents” that are being represented by these DINOs are the health insurance companies and big PhARMA.

    In addition, I don’t think the weak stance and “concern” for the “decorum” of the Senate will play well with voters. Just look at the reaction Grayson’s statements have produced.

    Stand up, Democrats, or get out of the way. This includes you, Mr. President. [You could try a little “leadership” stuff as well.]

  2. phred says:

    Party discipline would only be viewed as a good thing in these parts if it were used to deliver on progressive legislation. Given the power of the DLC and the total failure of the Dem leadership to really lead us in a progressive direction, I am not sure that real party discipline would work in our favor.

      • phred says:

        Oh, I’m all in favor of cracking down on ethics violations. I was talking mainly about threatening members about their votes if the threats continue to be directed to progressives who are trying to put a stop to the Blue Dog agenda.

        Still, ethics enforcement will only go so far. Ethics violations are almost beside the point in a system that stays afloat on a sea of money. Until we manage to criminalize pay-to-play I don’t think referrals to a Congressional ethics committee will amount to much.

    • bobschacht says:

      I agree with your point. In fact, right now, if the Democrats had party discipline, it would probably be the Rahm Emmanuel kind, not the Progressive kind.

      The last time Democrats had party discipline like we claim to be longing for, was under Majority Leader, VP and then President Lyndon Baines Johnson, was it not? He may have helped push Civil Rights through, but if you look at the totality of his record, I’ll bet he also applied his savvy and muscle to stuff we don’t like so much. (Anyone remember the Gulf of Tonkin resolution?)

      Bob in AZ

  3. BoxTurtle says:

    Leadership means responsability for results. This is bad because it interferes with the key electoral purpose, re-election.

    Let’s face it, we’re asking politicians to stand up to MAJOR campaign contributors. If they lead, regardless of direction, they risk re-election. Votes are nice, but money is what matters, to turn a phrase.

    And as for party discipline, when they let Holy Joe keep his committee CHAIRMANSHIPS that told me all I need to know about that subject. Specifically, it will be sacrificed for practicality every time.

    Remember as well, the house/senate leadership are the folks who want a public option the least. Any whip cracking they do will be with a wink and a nod.

    Boxturtle (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more!)

    • bmaz says:

      Maybe as to Reid, but Durbin claims to be heavy in favor of the PO, and certainly Schumer is. Pelosi says she is as well. I am not sure I buy your premise. There is desire for PO among leadership (and they all want some sort of HC bill at a minimum); there just seems to be a lack of conviction to enforce the desired outcome.

  4. Mary says:

    Harry Reid is going to be just as responsible for there not being a public option as Mitch McConnell. And he should be treated the same way.

    BTW, this “Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.)” should have been Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Wellpoint).

    WIth support for the Democratic party resolving to support for Bayh’s wife and Wellpoint and for DiFi’s husband to earn profits off of war in Afghanistan, etc. I’m lost.

  5. Consumatopia says:

    If you can’t be trusted to police yourselves, you can’t be trusted to run the country.

    It’s a horrible shame that our leaders can’t understand that. They had the potential to do immense good with the majorities we gave them, and they could have built those majorities even further. But they’re going to throw it all away on their own short-term greed. If conservatives always hate you, if liberals don’t give a damn about you, and if moderates can’t trust you, who exactly do you have left to vote for you?

    If Reid and Pelosi won’t dissociate themselves from the openly corrupt, then we need to take our own advice and dissociate ourselves from them. They need a tough love lesson here. Let corruption be the issue of the day, and let dems go down in 2010. Let them learn that they can either wield power responsibly or enjoy weakness irresponsibly.

  6. Endymion says:

    “It’s not fair to ask people to facilitate the enactment of policies with which we ultimately disagree,”

    Then quit fucking asking me to, Senator.

    • bmaz says:

      I don’t generally disagree with that thought, but how is that in play here? They are quite correct in that Pelosi is not temporarily removing Rangel from his leadership role, like she did even to Jefferson, and further they are right about the Dem refusal to use the party structure to keep members in the Senate in line on cloture votes. So, I really don’t see your point here.

      • TarheelDem says:

        I think that if I were Reid or Durbin and asked the question about using structure to keep members in the Senate in line, I would probably dodge the question. And Evan Bayh has a self-interest in the answer he gives; he is saying that he disagrees with Democratic policies. Were that Birch were around to kick his butt.

        A lot of this could have been gleaned from more reliable sources; indeed, that is what probably did for the attributed material.

        If Senators in the caucus get upset about breaking procedural unity, you can bet that they will pressure Reid to do what needs to be done; there are a number of Senators (Rockefeller comes to mind) who are put out with the conservadems. We really won’t know until the situation occurs; none of them are going to deal in hypotheticals publicly before a vote.

        The ethics issue is something that we need to press but without personalizing it to Pelosi. There is a procedure; we will see whether the Ethics Committee deals with the issue. It’s really Zoe Lofgren who should be getting the pressure to act fairly and swiftly. Then it is Pelosi’s turn.

  7. TarheelDem says:

    And one other thing. Having a whole lot of Democrats call Reid, Baucus, and Dodd and insist on a floor bill that has a public option might not hurt either. There’s too much mythology of inevitability going on about a Senate cave. If the White House is not strong enough to hold AHIP’s goodies in the bill, it’s not strong enough to block public pressure.

    I dare say that if lightning struck and a single-payer bill arrived on Obama’s desk, he would sign it.

  8. kgb999 says:

    What can the party leaders *do* specifically to enforce/punish moderates – what does “use the party structure” mean exactly? I thought committee assignments and chairs are determined by the caucus, not Reid individually.

    • bmaz says:

      For starters, you quit giving the miscreants cover for what they are doing; secondly the support of the leadership is very powerful in setting the caucus vote and position on committee assignments. It would have a huge impact.

      • kgb999 says:

        So in other words, endorse someone else as committee chair next time around? That makes sense … but doesn’t seem to do much in our current situation. I figured out that Jane’s pushing to adopt the HELP version and force people to go on record supporting a filibuster. I’m not 100% convinced this is the time to make that play though.

        I’m just learning the inner workings of our screwed up legislative process, so I might have this wrong. But let’s say they do an appeasement bill in the Senate along the lines of Baucus and the House comes out with a strong PO. At that point, if the democrats decide to put a PO in the final conference report, don’t they have to go with the strong one from the House in the absence of one in the Senate? Everyone says the HELP PO sucks anyhow, so in some ways putting it into conference could actually make the final result more likely to suck. (assuming the leadership is really trying for a strong PO)

        So say a bill comes back to the Senate floor with a strong public option in it. They can’t add amendments at that point, right? Doesn’t that mean if the opposition wants to filibuster they literally have to talk indefinitely or let it come to an up/down vote? I guess my question is, if the Dem leadership is playing to win, wouldn’t they be better off making that the showdown; fighting for the best option from the House and not having a showdown over a merged Senate bill with a PO nobody likes anyhow?

        This is more of a brainstorm (drizzle) than endorsing the thought … but it seems there could be some deeper strategy at play here. The leadership sure wouldn’t telegraph that if it were their plan.

  9. Leen says:

    Just spent six days over in D.C. visits to and time with aides in Senator Sherrod Brown’s (of course Brown is one of the biggest supporters of the public option (really wants a single payer) met with one of his aides about the I/P conflict)Senator Voinovich, and Congressman Charlie Wilson (oh) offices.

    I know I have been repeating that Voinovich’s stance is not closed to the “public option” I am hoping Ohio folks and others keep hammering away, calling his office, writing, setting up appointments with him or his aides

    Was able to sit in on the whole the Senate Finance hearing on Health Care on Tuesday. Wow was it great to watch the pack of Republicans faces when Senator Snowe presented her spiel on “decades of inaction” (took notes and watched reactions closely). I really do not think the Rethugs knew for sure exactly how she was going to vote. I thought I saw smoke coming out of Senator Pat (protector of the false pre war intelligence Office of Special Plans) Roberts ears. When Snowe presented her statements I thought he was going to have a stroke. Then when she voted “aye” he was visibly pissed. A minute or so he got up and left the room for a few minutes.


    The Rethugs theme seemed to be “we really do support reform BUT the cost to the system, our seniors are going to be cut off of medicare, people making under 250,000 are going to be taxed” yada yada yada. The Insurance Industry yokes around their necks was oh so evident.

    Snowe stated “there have been decades of inaction” Then went on to say “when history calls history calls’, there was an audible sigh of relief in the audience and a visible hole poked in the Rethugs just say no bubble. They looked as if they had been hit hard as their real $$$$ concerns continue to be exposed.

    Great to witness the scene.

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