Pelosi, party discipline and policy

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There’s an article in Politico about how the Democrats are spending up big in marginal congressional races this year on behalf of Democratic congressmen who have run ads against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi reporting progress on health care reform with with Democratic House leaders.

As control of the House hangs in the balance, Democrats can’t afford to play favorites with their money down the stretch run to the midterm election.

So they’ve spent money on recalcitrants, rankling the ranks of Pelosi foot soldiers who endorsed controversial components of the Democratic agenda only to find that loyalty isn’t much of a factor when determining where to spend precious campaign resources.

“The thing that really irks me is the Bobby Bright s—t,” said a Democratic strategist who has worked on numerous campaigns over the last several cycles. “What’s the point of giving money to a guy like Bobby Bright who would probably take a good deal from Republicans and switch parties after this whole thing is done anyway?”

But the money game isn’t about who played nice and who didn’t. It’s about who can win — and who among that set needs the money.

“All this is a numbers game right now,” said an influential Democratic lobbyist who is on everyone’s fundraising list. “What can we do to keep the majority?”

There’s no better example than Bright, who keeps his distance from Democrats not only on roll calls — having cast hundreds of votes against his leaders — but who likes to sit in a comfortable leather chair on the Republican side of the Speakers lobby outside the House chamber.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dumped its million-plus ad buy against Martha Roby, Bright’s Republican rival in Alabama’s 2nd District, just as he was airing a commercial declaring that he won’t vote for Pelosi for speaker.

Now, I hear a lot amongst progressive circles in Australia that the party discipline system in Australia is corrosive to democracy – that Labor’s binding caucus, which forbids on pain of disendorsement, a party MP from crossing the floor, is somehow bad. The famous Howard-era Liberal Party discipline is often also cited, although there are no formal Liberal Party rules forbidding Liberal MPs from crossing the floor on any vote.

The argument is that if only we had the US-style system where parliamentarians could vote however they wanted, we would be much better off in Australia, and have better policies enacted. Furthermore, under this system, MPs would be able to vote how their electorates wanted them to on issues like same-sex marriage, climate change carbon prices and so on. (Most of the people who espouse this view, from my experience, are Greens Party members or supporters.)

Having a binding caucus and party discipline means that progressive MPs are forced to vote against their conscience in favour of bad policy. Witness, for example, the policies on same-sex marriage or the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (back in 2004).

What we see in America however is something rather different to this ideal.

Of course, Congressmen and women, and Senators of both Republican and Democrat parties, are able to vote how they want. In reality, this means they are held captive to they system of corporate patronage that runs the US political system. US politicians are bound by powerful and/or cashed-up lobby groups to vote in the interests of big business – invariably conservative in nature. On social issues, US politicians are pressured by wealthy and conservative minority groups who run smear campaigns (or threaten to) if the congressman or woman votes in a certain way.

What we see far more often in the US is that conservative congressmen and women, and Senators, vote in a bloc and the pressure is piled on the small “l” liberals.

Democrats regularly vote against Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi on “core” Democrat policy such as health care and job-creating stimulus measures. The only Democrats doing this are the “blue dog” conservative Democrats. And there is no consequence.

While the likes of Bobby Bright, Bill Owens and Joe Donnelly run ads against progressive Democratic House Speaker Pelosi, the Democratic machine pumps millions of dollars to save them.

Even though there would be almost no difference if the Democrats lost those districts to a Republican – since those Democrats vote with the Republicans most of the time.

If we had the US system in Australia – specifically for Labor – we would see more often than not, the conservative groups within Labor voting against progressive social policy, more often than progressive Labor members voting against conservative policies.

We have already seen this in conscience votes in issues like decriminalising abortion in Victoria, or allowing same-sex couples to adopt or access assisted reproductive technology.

In fact, Labor’s party discipline system does more good than harm, as it forces those reactionary elements of the party to accept progressive policies that they otherwise would oppose if given the option.

I am told that the Greens Party has no system of discipline. This means that conceivably, a Greens Party senator could oppose the party’s policy on one issue or another. There would be no consequences for that Greens Party senator – and in all likelihood they would continue to receive preselection.

NSW Greens Party senator-elect Lee Rhianon has already foreshadowed disagreements with Party leader Bob Brown. Without party discipline, nothing stops any Greens Party senator from deviating from Greens Party policy on a “matter of conscience” – even to the detriment of the Party’s official policy. The Greens Party rank-and-file members who voted for the policy would have no recourse against that senator.

No party discipline creates a free-for-all, where votes can be effectively purchased through donations or threats of local smear campaigns – a far more dangerous proposition than one where MPs are bound by the party policy taken by that party to an election.

8 responses to “Pelosi, party discipline and policy”

  1. mattcowgill Avatar

    Our system and America's represent two extreme ends of a spectrum. Many other countries (the UK, for instance) occupy the vast space between the two. There is no need for slightly loosened party discipline to necessarily yield to a US level of autonomy for elected representatives.

    1. Alexander White Avatar

      I'm sure commentators in the UK still complain about the rigid party discipline in the UK Labour Party and argue that it should be more like the Democrats.

      1. mattcowgill Avatar

        I'm sure they do, as I'm sure Democrats pine for the party discipline of their social democratic counterparts in Westminster systems. I don't believe that any political system is perfect or perfectible, nor do I believe any particular set of internal rules for a political party can be without fault. The fact that the alternatives to the status quo are imperfect is not, to my mind, a compelling argument for settling for the status quo.

      2. Alexander White Avatar

        I'm not saying the Australian party discipline system is best, just that it is better than the one in the USA and Democratic Party. I think there are many good political (socialist) reasons for a party like Labor adopting democratic centralism. When the ALP finally jettisons all pretense of being an arm of the labour movement and abolishes the socialisation objective from its Constitution, then it can also jettison its party discipline and be a true social democratic party.

      3. mattcowgill Avatar

        I agree that our level of party discipline is preferable in many ways to the Democrats', but my point was that it's not a binary choice, parties can and do exist with levels of party discipline that are neither as tight as Labor's nor as loose as the Democrats'.

        I'm not convinced that the constitutional changes you describe would be either necessary or sufficient to deliver a reduced degree of party discipline. UK Labour was less disciplined than the ALP prior to 1995 (the adoption of the new clause IV), and during that period their MPs were pledged to much the same ends as ALP members. They are less disciplined now, and the current Clause IV declares Labour to be a "democratic socialist" party, over Tony Blair's preference for "social democratic".

        We agree on the basic point that the ALP status quo is, in many ways, preferable to the Democrats' loose discipline.

      4. Alexander White Avatar

        Matt – no doubt the party discipline rule could be improved. For example, I think the concept of a conscience vote should be removed for all ALP MPs, on the basis that on those issues (such as abortion rights, access to RU486, gay marriage or same-sex couples adopting), the Party's platform and policy should prevail over the whims of the individual Party MP. It is senseless to me to have democratic centralism but relax it (historically almost solely) when conservative Labor MPs don't agree with the Party's policy.

        I'm sure that others would prefer the party discipline system relaxed.

  2. Geoff Robinson Avatar

    Nor true to say blue dogs vote with republicans most of the time, do think that British style loosening of discipline would be sustainable

    1. Alexander White Avatar

      Of course, I could be convinced otherwise with some examples (I'm thinking English-speaking democracies here).