Instilling some caucus discipline

INSTILLING SOME CAUCUS DISCIPLINE…. A story came up the other day that got a little lost in the shuffle, but which may have some important consequences for Senate Democrats.

When there’s talk of “reforming” the way the Senate operates, we tend to think of problems like scandalous filibusters and holds. But one problem is party specific — Democrats lack structural incentives to encourage party discipline.

When a Senate Republican disappoints his/her caucus, he/she knows in advance that enticements like committee positions are very much on the line. Among Dems, that incentive doesn’t exist — when Democrats break party ranks on key bills, there are no consequences. It’s one reason party unity and discipline is far more of a problem for Democrats than the GOP.

But some Dems seem to realize that their current system needs an update.

Senate Democrats intend to elect the chairs of committees when the next Congress convenes, which could upend a tradition that prioritizes seniority over party loyalty, legislative effectiveness or any other merit-based criteria.

During a question-and-answer session with progressive media, video blogger Mike Stark asked lawmakers why the Democratic caucus hasn’t yanked Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee, considering her opposition to Democratic legislative efforts. In Arkansas, her gavel is a top selling point as she battles a progressive primary challenge.

“We’re going to elect committee chairs next year,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “The current chairs that are sitting there now understand that we’ll be electing chairs next year,” he added, saying the idea had been cleared with Senate leadership.

It’s apparently not a done deal, but Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Steering and Outreach Committee, which oversees the organization of the caucus, called this a “serious proposal” that the leadership is considering.

When seniority rules, members have few incentives to care what their party thinks. As such, Dems end up with far-less progressive members in key posts — Blanche Lincoln at Agriculture, Kent Conrad at Budget, Max Baucus at Finance, Tim Johnson at Banking — whether the caucus’ rank and file like it or not. They can vote against party priorities, and even side with Republicans on filibusters, and face no real consequences. Shifting away from seniority would help the party function more like … a political party.

Brown added, “I’m not predicting who or [that] anyone will be defeated, but they’re certainly going to get a message. And one or two might [be defeated]. There’s going to simply be a yes or no. Should Tom Harkin stay as chairman of health? Yes or no? And it will be yes for him, of course. But for some others, it may not be.”

It would mean some of these senators would finally feel a need to impress their fellow Democrats, and show some fealty to the party’s agenda. In other words, it would represent a fairly significant departure from the status quo.

Of course, if Senate Dems lose their majority, it would quickly become a moot point.