Taking Ownership of Congressional Leadership
These events occurred in 1944. The lawmaker was Alben Barkley, D-Ky., and the president he denounced was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Barkley—the Senate’s majority leader—broke with Roosevelt—the three-term Democratic president—over his decision to veto legislation passed by Congress to help pay for America’s ongoing effort to win the second world war. The majority leader was distraught that the president questioned lawmakers’ reasons for passing the bill.
In a defiant speech on the Senate floor, Barkley informed his colleagues that he had decided to give up his leadership post because it required him to work closely with the president, which he could no longer do after Roosevelt penned his veto message. Senators broke the chamber’s rules prohibiting applause to give Barkley a standing ovation when he concluded his remarks. His fellow Democrats quickly reelected him as their leader. The vote was unanimous. A Democratic senator at the time explained why he and his colleagues wanted Barkley back after his public falling out with Roosevelt. “Previously, he spoke to us for the president; now he speaks for us to the president.” In other words, Barkley empowered his colleagues by giving them a choice on how they would like to manage the Senate’s relationship with the president.
Liz Cheney Voted Out
The Barkley-Roosevelt dispute helps to explain why Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., recently lost her leadership post. Cheney denounced Donald Trump’s “crusade to delegitimize and undo the legal outcome of the 2020 election.” Like Barkley in his dispute with Roosevelt, Cheney was committed to speaking out, “no matter what the short-term consequences might be.” But unlike Barkley, Cheney was not willing to give up her leadership post. And she was not interested in giving her Republican colleagues a choice on how the job should be performed. So they had to vote her out instead.
For many people, Cheney’s fate is a cause for alarm. The conventional take on it is that Republicans’ decision to vote her out reveals a growing “intolerance for dissent” in the party and an “unswerving fealty” to Trump among its members. According to this view, Republicans did not vote Cheney out. Instead, they “purged” her. For example, one after-action report observed, “Cheney was stripped of her position because of her willingness to publicly reject Trump’s theories about a rigged election.” And an analyst noted that Cheney “was pushed out because of her position on a single, non-policy issue: Donald Trump.”
But Republican intolerance for dissent and disloyalty to Trump did not determine Cheney’s fate. Instead, she lost her leadership post because she assumed the prerogative to decide how it should be performed and denounced those who disagreed with her. In short, Republicans voted Cheney out because she did not give them a choice.
Leaders Work For Lawmakers
Lawmakers hire leaders to help them achieve their goals in Congress. Leaders do that by making Congress work for lawmakers. They facilitate collective decision-making by doing specific jobs. For example, Democrats hired Barkley to coordinate their activity on the Senate floor. Barkley was the majority leader because Democrats controlled a majority of the Senate’s seats at the time. And as a majority leader, his job was getting President Roosevelt’s agenda through the Senate. That is why Barkley stepped down from his leadership position. He believed that he could no longer do the job for which his colleagues hired him because his personal views prevented him from fulfilling his responsibilities as a majority leader. By stepping down, Barkley allowed his colleagues to rehire him for the post if they disagreed with his assessment of the situation. In other words, Barkley gave his colleagues a choice.
House Republicans similarly hired Cheney to be their conference chair or chief messaging officer. They tasked her with presiding over Republican Conference meetings and distributing educational materials and talking points to rank-and-file lawmakers. They did not give her the power to determine what those materials said. Instead, they reflected the lowest common denominator among Republicans and were determined collectively. They articulated a message on which all Republicans agreed. Cheney was also responsible for ensuring that the Republican message got out to the public and managed the conference-wide effort to disseminate it.
Cheney Breaks With Republicans
Republicans tolerated Cheney’s dissent throughout her tenure as conference chair. For example, members of the Republican leadership team typically vote together on most issues. But Cheney broke with the rest of the leadership team in 2019 to oppose a Democratic anti-hate resolution. And she was the only House Republican leader to call on Steve King, R-Iowa, to resign over his controversial statements on immigration policy. Cheney also supported a primary challenger to Thomas Massie, R-Ky., even though she technically worked for him as conference chair. She donated $2,500 to Massie’s opponent after the Kentucky congressman forced Cheney and other lawmakers to return to Capitol Hill to vote on stimulus legislation in 2020.
Cheney also criticized other Republican leaders when she did not like how they did their jobs. For example, she rebuked the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Tom Emmer, R-Minn., for questioning how much money she had raised for the party. Then she questioned Emmer’s ability to lead the Republican effort to take back the House in 2020.
Cheney Criticizes Trump
House Republicans also kept Cheney on as conference chair despite her criticisms of Trump. For example, Cheney was a vocal critic of Trump’s foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. She called the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria “a catastrophic mistake.” And she said that Trump’s decision was “having sickening and predictable consequences.”
Cheney also criticized Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, his position on facemasks and defended Dr. Anthony Fauci from the president’s attacks.
After the 2020 election, Cheney was the first Republican leader in Congress to call on Trump to “respect the sanctity of our electoral process” and to concede that he lost to Joe Biden. And she criticized the president for dragging his feet on the transition process between his administration and Biden’s. And Cheney voted to impeach Trump after the January 6 attacks on the Capitol.
Republicans Keep Cheney On
Republicans did not remove Cheney from leadership when she refused to support the party-line on specific issues, when she asked one Republican lawmaker for whom she worked to resign, and when she supported a bid to defeat another. Republicans did not remove Cheney from leadership when she clashed with President Trump and voted to remove him from office. They instead persuaded Cheney to stay in the House instead of running for an open Senate seat. And they gave Cheney another two years as conference chair after the 2020 election. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., – Cheney’s eventual successor as conference chair –supported her bid for a second term at the time.
In February, Republicans voted 145 to 61 to keep Cheney on as conference chair after she voted to impeach Trump. Before the vote, Cheney refused to apologize for wanting to remove the president from office.
Republicans Vote Cheney Out
To be fair, some Republicans criticized Cheney for these actions. In response, Cheney said that it was good to have healthy disagreements in the party and defended her actions as representing her own personal views and emphasized that they did not represent the party’s position. For example, she defended her vote to impeach Trump as “a vote of conscience.” And most Republicans agreed with her. That is why they kept her on the leadership team even though they may have disagreed with her specific views.
Cheney’s fate changed only when she stopped distinguishing between her responsibilities as a party leader and her own personal views after the February vote. Cheney rebuffed her colleagues’ repeated requests to stop emphasizing issues in her public pronouncements that divided them. They did not ask her to recant. She had demonstrated previously that she could refrain from taking positions on issues when asked.
Cheney instead stepped up her criticism of Trump. And she began to criticize her fellow Republicans if they disagreed with her. Cheney argued that those who disagreed with her threatened the nation’s very survival.
Channeling the “you’re either with us or against us” sentiment characteristic of politics when her father was vice president during George W. Bush’s administration, Cheney argued that “The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”
With such statements, Cheney was no longer voting her conscience. She was instead defining the party position. And she was giving Republicans no choice but to agree with her. So they were either with her—and the Constitution—or against them both.
Republicans voted Cheney out of leadership when she assumed the prerogative of defining what the party position would be—instead of championing that position after the party determined what it would be. And they replaced her with someone whose voting record was less supportive of Trump than Cheney’s, providing more evidence that the decision was not motivated by intolerance for dissent and disloyalty to Trump.
Empowering Rank-and-File Lawmakers
People should not be alarmed by Cheney’s fate. They should instead applaud Republicans’ decision to remove her. In doing so, rank-and-file lawmakers reminded their leaders that they are the ones in charge.
Congress is presently dysfunctional because power is centralized in its leadership, and those leaders are typically intolerant of dissent. Fixing Congress requires leaders who are willing to empower rank-and-file lawmakers to participate in the legislative process. And that requires lawmakers who are eager to take ownership of their leadership choices.
Intimating that lawmakers cannot change their leaders when they disagree with the job they are doing reinforces Congress’s present centralization of power in the leadership. It perpetuates an environment in which dissent is not tolerated. And it further shifts power to make policy to the president.
Barkley had the humility to stand on principle while giving others the choice to disagree with him. Cheney did not. That is why she lost her job.