As reported on Thursday, House Republicans are considering a rules change in Congress that would punish members who do not toe the party line. The proposal would formalize a process in which members risk losing their committee assignments, chairmanships, and party donations for reelection efforts if they vote against their party — particularly on issues deemed key “leadership issues” — or circumvent party leaders, e.g., by signing on to discharge petitions.

Though consideration of the measure was postponed until after the midterm elections, the fact that it was proposed and not immediately rejected is concerning, though not especially surprising. The most obvious implication of this proposal is that it would remove any pretense of individual representation on the part of the members. Instead, if adopted, allegiance to party — and particularly party leaders — would come before district. This would be codified in the party’s rules. As a result, fearing retribution, individual members would be pressured to put the wants of the party over the needs of their districts. It goes without saying that this is not in line with the duties of an elected member of Congress. The voice of a lawmaker’s constituents should drown out the voice of any single party.

Institutionally, adoption of this proposal would also further centralize power in party leaders at the expense of the rank-and-file. Members would willingly forfeit discretion in their opinions on particular issues, looking only to leadership for their marching orders. There would be little to no room for debate within their own party, to say nothing of working across the aisle. Punishment awaits all defectors.

Procedurally, rank-and-file members currently have only two tools at their disposal to use as leverage against their leaders to affect policy outcomes: voting (or threatening to vote) against a special order, and signing on to a discharge petition. If adopted, this proposal would effectively eliminate both to the benefit of leadership — and with no gain in return.

Congress is already a top-down institution: Major legislation is often written behind closed doors by a select few and put up for a vote before members have had a chance to read bills, let alone think through their consequences. Adopting these “reforms” would add more ink to the rubber stamp lawmakers already give their leaders.

Risk of retribution would be particularly high for members serving on Congress’s most coveted and powerful committees. As Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) put it,

They’d be able to say: “We believe that if you’re on an ‘A’ committee … we expect a little more out of folks.” That would then start the process of saying you can vote however you want, but maybe you should reconsider the committee you’re on.

The congressional committee process was designed to allow a functional division of labor for a body responsible for thousands of issues and a $4 trillion budget. Moreover, delineating jurisdictions allows for members to become experts on issue areas of particular personal or district interest. Explicitly linking committee assignments with party loyalty undermines these benefits. Consequently, leaders will likely put unflinching party soldiers on the most important and policy-laden committees regardless of their substantive knowledge, experience, or interest on the committees’ issues.

Of course, party leaders have punished defectors in the past. But it’s another thing altogether to itemize loyalty in the party rules. More broadly, offering such a proposal is a tacit admission that Republican House leaders can’t find policy solutions that satisfy their conference. Instead of doing the groundwork — meeting, listening, leading, persuading — required of a speaker and the leadership, party leaders are turning to punishment to garner loyalty. Rank-and-file members would be wise to recognize that such threats often accompany weakness on the part of those issuing them.

America has a Congress, not a parliament. We need members to vote based on the issues and their constituents’ demands, not partisan threats.


Image credit: Matthew Starbard

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