(Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on June 6, 2018).
The long-simmering debate over the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will come to a head in Congress this week as Republican leaders try to fend off a rogue effort to force the House to vote on a series of immigration proposals.
But lost amid the analysis of what this means for DACA recipients is what it reveals about how Republicans understand the relationship between individual representatives and the party to which they belong when their views are in conflict. In such situations, members are effectively forced to choose between complying with their party or heeding the wishes of their constituents. This inevitably creates tension within the majority party and makes it harder for it to address issues on which its members are divided.
The failure of House Republicans to reconcile this tension in the context of the immigration debate accounts for their present predicament. Frustrated by the House’s failure to address DACA, moderates led by Reps. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., Jeff Denham, R-Calif., and Will Hurd, R-Texas, are gathering signatures for a discharge petition to force action over the objections of Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and the Republican rank and file. And according to reports, they are just shy of the number they need to prevail.
Republicans opposed to the effort have tried to forestall the petition through a variety of means. For example, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., warned members last month that signing the discharge petition would empower Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and hand over control of the House floor to the Democrats. McCarthy further contends that this would have grave political repercussions for Republicans’ efforts to maintain their majority in the upcoming elections.
Some Republicans have also tried threatening members of their own party. According to one petition signer, Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., sympathetic colleagues are worried about retribution if they support the discharge effort publicly. And at a recent Republican Conference meeting, Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., suggested that members should be punished for supporting the effort. According to meeting attendees, Scott asserted, “There ought to be discipline … for people who vote against rules, for discharge petitions.”
A similar dynamic can be observed outside the Congress. For example, 69 leading conservatives recently released an open letter that characterizes the discharge effort as “liberal Republicans … teaming up with Democrats in Congress to thwart the will of the voters by forcing a vote on amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants.”
Yet each of these efforts confuse the majority party for a majority of the whole House. At least in this instance, there is good reason to suspect that while most members of the Republican majority may oppose the underlying policy goals of those supporting the discharge petition, a bipartisan House majority supports them.
This does not mean that Republicans are precluded from opposing the discharge effort. Rather, the problem arises when they suggest their fellow partisans are violating a majoritarian norm by signing the petition and should thus be punished. By basing one’s opposition to the discharge effort principally on majoritarian grounds, its opponents contradict the republican principle of majority rule and leave no room in their conception of the majority party for individual representatives to act on an issue when they are out of step with their colleagues.
Such a view undermines the very reason congressional parties exist in the first place. Far from signifying a Hobbesian contract whereby members relinquish their autonomy and swear allegiance to the majority party, members join party organizations to help them achieve their goals. And they retain the ability to act independently of their parties when those parties fail to provide leadership on an issue important to them, impede its consideration, or effectively block its consideration altogether.
Of course, the majority party also retains the option to retaliate against members for acting independently to achieve their goals. But it should be careful to retaliate only in a manner that does not deny the legitimacy of members to act in the first place. In contrast, using retaliatory threats to coerce members into refraining from acting devalues the role individual members play relative to their partisan colleagues and places the majority party’s interests above those of the representative — and the citizens he or she represents.
Significantly, conservative Republicans have opposed such coercion when they were its targets in the past. For example, there was justifiable outcry when former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, punished several members in 2012 for voting against the party line. At the time, one prominent conservative and leader of a grassroots advocacy group observed, “Boehner had a litmus test list created to target conservatives who don’t vote with leadership. That’s not what the GOP is about.”
To be fair, some Republicans may be justified in asserting that moderates receive preferential treatment from their leadership, thereby escaping the kind of punishment that was meted out to conservatives in the past. There does indeed appear to be a double standard. But instead of engaging in behavior they once denounced, conservatives should reject such retaliation in all circumstances.
The Republican Party is in crisis today precisely because it has become disconnected from its members and the people they represent. It appears to have forgotten that majority parties are no stronger than the members of which their coalition is comprised. Getting out of their present predicament requires that House Republicans learn how to debate each other’s policy views while simultaneously defending the legitimacy of their opponents’ ability to act independently of the party in pursuit of their goals when necessary.