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Legislative 101: Whipping the Vote

What does it mean to “whip the vote,” anyway? Unity ahead of a fight is a key ingredient to legislative success, and MoCs in leadership have a fleet of tools at their disposal to make sure that their caucus stays together.

Whipping: what is it and why do it?

Sometimes issues are so black and white that a party caucus will all hold together without any influence from leadership. But sometimes, certain members need a little… nudging… to vote with the rest of the caucus—and that’s where whipping comes in. Whipping is the name for deliberate pressure exerted on rank and file members by leadership, so that the member votes the way leadership wants. It’s a standard practice on both sides because it’s a necessary part of any legislative victory.

A key ingredient to Democrats’ defeat of TrumpCare was a totally unified Democratic Caucus in both the House and the Senate. Zero Democratic votes in support of the Trump agenda is the essential starting point for any fight—otherwise it’s virtually unwinnable. Unity among Democrats puts pressure on moderate Republicans to come out against their party. But when one or more Democrats breaks ranks, it gives “cover” to moderate Republicans to rubber stamp their leadership’s priorities.

Examples of tools leadership can use to whip

There are plenty of tools available to leadership to keep members of their caucus in line. Good caucus leaders know their members really well: they know what’s important to them, what they want to achieve (both for their constituents and for themselves), and positions they eventually want to hold. A good leader will help MoCs get what they want—a vote scheduled on a bill, a committee position, maybe even a spot in leadership—and remember that when it comes time to call in a favor.

When a leader has to do more than just make a persuasive policy argument, the difference between successfully whipping an MoC or not can come down to keeping track of these favors, and using some combination of promises and threats to keep MoCs in line. A few examples of what leadership can promise / threaten, in order to hold a member in line:

  • To schedule a vote on a certain bill (when the party is in the majority)

  • To demand a vote on a certain amendment as part of a unanimous consent agreement (when the party is in the minority, in the Senate)

  • To vote a certain way on a bill

  • To help get priority policy riders in (or out) of a must-pass funding bill

  • To add funding for a priority in an appropriations bill

  • To help move certain judicial nominations from the member’s state ahead (or behind) in the queue

  • To help the member get a position on a Committee

  • To support (or oppose) a member’s bid for a leadership position on a Committee

  • To support (or oppose) a member’s bid for a leadership position in the caucus

  • To help (or not help) the member fundraise for re-election

Important: the optics of whipping

Two characteristics of a successful whip operation are: 1. It delivers the desired number of votes (in most cases, party unity) and 2. You didn’t hear anything about it.

No member wants to be seen as being under the thumb of leadership. After all, they’re there to represent their constituents, and not to follow directions from party leadership, right? Leadership should be able to say publicly that all of their members drew their own conclusions on the merits of the issue and what’s best for their state. Members should be able to say publicly that they made an independent judgment on behalf of their constituents without pressure from leadership.

Help: my MoC is in leadership—how do I know if they’re whipping?

It’s worth restating at this point that you should only ever contact your own MoCs. There. Are. No. Exceptions, including if a member is in leadership. That means you should only contact Chuck Schumer if you live in New York. You should only contact Nancy Pelosi if you live in California’s 12th district.

If you are a constituent of Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi—great! You have an extra-important role to play. Holding their respective caucuses together on key issues is part of the job of leadership (this is, for example, how Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid got the Affordable Care Act passed through Congress). Just like anything else, they deserve praise when they do this part of their job well and they should be held accountable when they don’t.

Chuck Schumer in particular has done a particularly poor job of whipping his caucus (sometimes intentionally!). More than a dozen Democrats voted for a bill to deregulate Wall Street in March 2018, and enough Democrats voted for Mike Pompeo (for Secretary of State) and Gina Haspel (for CIA Director) that it allowed Trump to assemble the beginnings of his war cabinet. Senator Schumer in particular needs to hear from you when a really important issue is moving through the Senate and 100% Democratic unity is needed for a fighting chance at victory. (But, again, only if you live in New York!).

Since whipping works best when it’s behind the scenes, unfortunately you won’t really know if leadership is making a sincere effort at it until there’s a vote. If the caucus was unified, that’s a sign they did the job well. If it wasn’t unified (as has been the case a lot in the Senate so far in 2018) that’s a sign they either 1. Didn’t really want to for questionable strategic reasons or 2. Can’t do it well.

Bottom line

In short: Democrats don’t control either the House or Senate. That means the first step in defeating the Trump agenda in Congress is having a unified Democratic caucus in both chambers—and many times it takes an active, sustained whip operation from leadership to get there.