Many of the compliments being heaped on Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the wake of her announcement that she is stepping way from leading the Democrat Party are well-deserved, including the fact that throughout her tenure as Speaker, she maintained a high degree of intra-party discipline.
Republicans should take heed as they prepare to assume the majority in the House when the 118th Congress convenes in January, but if recent history is a guide, they probably will not.
The fact that Pelosi was able to keep her at-times very small majority marching in the same direction, is a testament to her skills and leadership style. Often overlooked in analyses of Pelosi’s successes in the Congress, however, is the fact that, unlike Republicans, there is broad agreement among congressional Democrats that Party and individual Member discipline is essential if the goal is to achieve meaningful results.
In today’s political environment, with the American electorate and its representatives in the Congress evenly divided, both aspects of discipline are essential in order to succeed at actually legislating.
Speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy, with a bare-bones majority in the coming 118th Congress, already is finding this out, as the far-right Freedom Caucus and a few of the most conservative members of his caucus already are reducing his flexibility to manage not only his conference but the administration of the House generally.
For example, it appears that the Republican majority intends to strip several Democrat members of their committee assignments, in retaliation for the Democrats doing this to Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene in 2021. When the Democrats inappropriately punished Taylor Greene in this way, they broke with long-standing House tradition that each Party decides which committees its members sit on, with the other party honoring those decisions.
Now, rather than return to that “regular order,” which ultimately benefits both parties, McCarthy is poised to deny certain of the GOP’s Democrat nemeses, such as California Rep. Adam Schiff, committee assignments as proposed by their caucus. This may feel good to Republicans in the short term, and it would be an understandable response to what the Democrats did to Taylor Greene. But continuing a game of procedural tit-for-tat, will simply result in an even higher degree of unproductive ill will than already infects proceedings in the House. More to the point, it will hamper the GOP from achieving broader goals down the road on close votes. (Besides, there are other ways to punish Members like Schiff and Ilhan Omar.)
History likewise should signal to Republican members as they prepare to assume the majority in January, that those times in which the Party had a majority and exhibited discipline, significant conservative legislation could be passed.
This was the “secret sauce” behind passage of a balanced budget legislative package that included welfare reform and tax reductions in 1997. Had the GOP behaved as more often than not it does, enough members would have refused to abide by the leadership’s requests for their votes, and doomed the seminal legislation because it might not have included every one of each individual Member’s demands.
Enactment of that Balanced Budget and Welfare Reform Act of 1997 provided a tangible platform on which Republican members could campaign in 1998, which helped it to hold its majority in that year’s midterm when it faced strong political headwinds.
It is axiomatic that discipline in the political arena cannot be as rigorously enforced as in the military. Each of the 435 members of the House is answerable ultimately to their constituents, not their party’s leaders. Still, in our two-party system when a candidate seeks and is then elected to office with the aid of the Republican or Democrat Party, even if only by virtue of running as a member of that party in order to qualify as a candidate, they owe a degree of allegiance to the party once sworn in, so long as doing so is not counter to their deeply held beliefs and will not cost them reelection. Members who even then refuse to support their Party’s requests for discipline, opting simply to further a personal agenda or as a way to retaliate against the other side, is a problem that often in the past has prevented the Republicans from accomplishing overarching goals. Early signs are that the GOP’s posture in the 118th Congress will fall into a similarly unproductive mode. Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.