by Jonathan Singer, Sat Jun 02, 2007 at 10:06:58 AM EDT
At the outset of the current Congress, after the House Democratic caucus showed a record level of unity during the previous Congress, I wrote of the importance of House Democrats continuing their impressively and unprecedentedly high level of cohesiveness. The folks at The Washington Post have been crunching the numbers, and apparently not only have the Democrats met their level of unity from the 109th Congress -- they've surpassed it. Paul Kane has the details.
House Democrats are voting with such unity that, if continued throughout the 110th Congress, their cohesion would be unparalleled in recent congressional history.
Through the first five months of the year, the average House Democrat has voted with a majority of his/her caucus colleagues on 94 percent of the 425 roll calls. Enjoying their honeymoon period, 110 Democrats -- nearly half of the 232 Democrats -- have sided with a majority of the caucus on at least 98 percent of the votes cast this year.
The previous high-water mark for partisanship came with House Republicans in the 107th Congress[...]
Still, the average House Republican in 2001 and 2002 voted with the GOP majority on just 90.4 percent of roll calls. (In the 107th Congress, then-Rep. Tom Sawyer of Ohio was the most partisan Democrat, voting with his caucus's majority 96.6 percent of the time; 65 Republicans had more partisan voting records than Sawyer.)
The fact that Democrats in the House remain united is a positive one. Caucuses that stand together have significantly more power than ones that do not.
But for as effective as the Democratic caucus' whip organization has been at keeping its members together on votes, the flip side is that much of this unity has been a result of the decision by the Democratic leadership in the House to put off a number of the most difficult and at times divisive issues for a later point. Kane writes,
Admittedly, Democrats say that the unity so far is driven by an agenda that stresses unity first, not divisive issues. So far they have avoided such emotional touchstones as abortion and gun rights.
"Our agenda is centrist oriented, trying to get consensus first," said Brendan Daly, spokesman for Pelosi. "We're trying to bring bills that people can be unified on."
I do not mean to understate the accomplishment of House Democrats at banding together, even if it is against a wildly unpopular President and a remarkably unpopular Republican Party. Yet it is not enough to just be united on the issues where Democrats have been and should be united. Certainly it was an accomplishment to pass legislation (since vetoed by the President) that would have set a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces out of Iraq, particularly given that that measure had negligible support (and in fact strong opposition) from the Republicans. But the Democrats need to do more, to push the envelope. As I wrote back in early January,
It will not be enough for the Democrats to just pass the most widely popular items on their platform. Rather, Congressional Democrats will need to show success on at least some other more controversial measures important to their base, and indeed to a majority of Americans, like beginning to bring closure to Iraq or passing immigration reform. Though such moves would be politically risky and no doubt stretch the will of individual members to remain loyal to the party, thus potentially lowering the overall level of party unity, the rewards for success would far outweigh the risk.
I still believe that getting something like immigration reform enacted into law (or a timeline, for that matter, though Iraq is more difficult given the President's determination to veto almost anything short of a blank check) is necessary for the current Democratic Congress to be viewed as a success by the public. Yes, raising the minimum wage is extremely important, and even forcing the President to veto things like the Employee Free Choice Act, federal funding for stem cell research and a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq show that the Democrats are not cowering before the President, that they are working to follow through on their pledges from the 2006 campaign. Nonetheless, the Democrats will also need to make some hard decisions that put their members in difficult spots because the things worth doing aren't always going to be easy. And even if this means that the Democrats aren't quite as unified as they are now, so be it.