How Whips Make Congress Work

If laws are like sausages—unpleasant to watch being made—then party whips are their indispensible chefs.

Congress is not a popular institution. According to Gallup, fewer than one in five Americans approves of how it does its job, a smaller percentage than those who have positive views of socialism or the IRS. Given recent events, this should come as little surprise. Congress passed a major tax bill that was so poorly drafted it was filled with unintended loopholes and errors; legislators have shown a persistent unwillingness to tackle major issues like climate change or the federal debt; and numerous incumbents have been charged with ethical and legal violations. 

The Whips: Building Party Coalitions in Congress
by C. Lawrence Evans
University of Michigan Press, 384 pp.

Our national legislature has been unpopular for decades, however, which suggests that what disgusts people about Congress has deeper roots. One may be that Americans have an unduly idealistic view of the legislative process. In my ten-plus years of teaching and commenting on American politics, I have encountered many people who believe that Congress is a place where civic-minded individuals should come together to identify pressing problems, listen to outside experts, evaluate possible fixes, and develop compromise solutions in a timely fashion. 

This is a nice idea, but Congress has rarely worked that way. Legislators can disagree on issues to such an extent that no compromise is possible. Limited time and resources mean that members of Congress are forced to specialize, deferring most policy decisions to their leaders or colleagues. The bargaining process can take months, even years, before it yields a new law. Elected representatives have strong incentives to focus on their own constituents or party over the collective needs of the country. These are elements of many legislative bodies, not just the U.S. Congress, and they have been lamented as long ago as ancient Athens. Given the gap between Americans’ idealism and the reality of the legislative process, disillusionment is probably inevitable. 

In fact, with all the inherent challenges to successful lawmaking, Congress would probably get nothing done at all without a special internal feature: party whips. Whips are a set of individuals tasked with imposing discipline and direction. Each party has a designated whip in the House (currently, Republican Steve Scalise and Democrat Steny Hoyer) and Senate (Republican John Cornyn and Democrat Richard Durbin). With the help of other members, including deputy whips, assistant whips, and regional whips, who collectively make up the party’s whip organization, these individuals determine how much internal support there is for a particular bill, motion, or proposal, and they use various techniques to secure enough votes to pass a desired measure or defeat one that the party does not want. Whips are therefore critical to making the legislative process function. 

Take, for example, last year’s tax reform bill. One might assume that, since Republicans controlled the House and Senate, passing the measure must have been a relatively straightforward process. But with no Democrats in favor of the bill, congressional Republicans could only afford to lose a small number of votes from their own ranks, and there were many skeptics in the GOP who represented swing districts or whose constituents feared losing valuable tax deductions. Accordingly, Republican whips had to deploy a variety of tactics, including appealing to party loyalty and offering positive, district-specific data on the effects of the bill, to convince wavering lawmakers like New Jersey Representative Tom MacArthur to vote for it.

As important as party whips and whip organizations clearly are, we have relatively little empirical information about how they do their jobs, how effective they have been, or how their influence has shifted over time. But now, someone has finally gathered and analyzed such data. In his masterful new book, The Whips, C. Lawrence Evans, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary, presents the results of that research—nearly a decade’s worth of work—to provide fresh insights into the activity of congressional party whips and how that activity has changed since the mid-twentieth century.

To understand how whips build coalitions, Evans argues, one should think less in terms of ideology—deciding which lawmakers are “gettable” votes based on how liberal or conservative they are—and more in terms of legislator objectives. Regardless of whether members of Congress lean left or right, a whip can potentially win their votes by helping them achieve valuable goals—getting reelected (perhaps by offering campaign assistance), enacting policy (such as by promising to bring a favorite bill to the floor for a vote), or achieving influence (by helping them get assigned to a powerful committee, for example). Whips also use persuasion and, occasionally, the threat of sanctions to win votes.

Evans illustrates the craft of whipping with the example of Robin Hayes, a former Republican congressman from North Carolina. In the early 2000s, Congress deliberated a bill that would make it easier for trade agreements to be approved by the House and Senate. This so-called Fast Track authority put Hayes in a bind: his district included agricultural and other commercial interests that would benefit from new trade agreements, but also a sizable textile industry that feared greater international competition. Hayes became increasingly skeptical of Fast Track and was, at one point, considered a likely opponent—until party leaders began to lobby him. They promised to protect domestic cloth makers in the next trade bill Congress considered, and appealed to his sense of loyalty to his party. He was also given significant financial assistance by the GOP in his reelection campaign, and President George W. Bush visited the state as well. Hayes would prove to be the deciding vote, as the measure passed 215 to 214.

Evans’s analysis is possible only because of the tremendous amount of labor he put into the project, including trips to multiple congressional archives around the country and painstaking coding of more than a thousand whip tallies dating back to the 1950s. This research allowed him to track how lawmakers were expected to vote before, during, and after they were whipped on hundreds of floor votes since 1955. 

These whip tallies yield plentiful insights. For instance, Evans finds that when whipping on a bill begins, there are usually not enough votes for the bill to pass. That’s evidence that party leaders can’t automatically count on the loyalty of their fellow partisans, and must instead work to create majority coalitions—a process known as “growing the vote.” At the same time, he finds that excessive whipping can actually make members of the majority party move away from the position desired by their party’s leaders. This calls into question the influential theory that congressional majority parties are strong, cartel-like organizations that easily enforce broad conformity among their members.

The book also raises an important question about today’s Congress: Given the frequent complaint that Congress is unproductive and paralyzed by partisanship, would stronger whips improve how it operates? Whips are hardly a panacea for what ails our legislature, especially since both parties already have fairly extensive whip organizations. In fact, one could argue the reverse—that stronger party whips would exacerbate partisanship and weaken the power of ordinary legislators to vote as their constituents or consciences dictate. 

However, to blame whips for excessive partisanship and centralized party leadership in Congress would be unfair. Whips don’t set the legislative agenda or force lawmakers to vote in a partisan way. Greater responsibility lies with extremist voters, partisan media outlets, ideological interest groups, and the desire of top party leaders to exercise power. If anything, whips are more willing than most members of Congress to cross party lines and appeal to their partisan opponents, since their ultimate goal is to build a majority coalition with whatever votes they can get. Some of President Ronald Reagan’s most important agenda items might never have been enacted, for example, had the Republican minority whip in the House, Trent Lott, not masterfully courted key House Democrats to support them.

Evans’s study is a reminder that party whips are one of the most important, and one of the most unfairly maligned, ingredients of a successful legislature. We may not like the idea that lawmakers are subject to persuasion or even coercion by their leaders, but weak whips, or the elimination of whips altogether, would almost certainly result in more chaos and inaction. As Evans writes, the activities of party whips “seldom reflect the better angels of our nature,” but “they do make feasible . . . the kinds of bargains and compromises necessary to hold together a free society.” If, as Otto von Bismarck said, laws are like sausages—unpleasant to watch being made—party whips are the indispensable chefs in the sausage-making factory.  

Matthew Green

Matthew Green is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author, most recently, of Underdog Politics: The Minority Party in the U.S. House of Representatives.