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  • Matthew Green

Most House Democrats will vote to impeach Trump. Is pressure from party leaders the reason why?

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In her press conference last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked by a reporter what she tells Democratic moderates who are nervous about impeaching Donald Trump. “We are not whipping this legislation,” she replied, “nor do we ever whip something like this. People have to come to their own conclusions.”

Is this really true? Coming from a Speaker renowned for her whipping skills and her emphasis on party discipline, this may seem implausible. Why else would a cascade of electorally vulnerable Democrats come out in support of impeachment?

In fact, a lack of formal whipping does not mean that congressional party leaders – or others outside of Congress – are failing to keep Democrats united on the issue. And as unusual as presidential impeachment may be, the solidifying partisanship around the issue underscores two broader reasons that political parties in today’s Congress are so frequently unified.

1. Party leaders can influence voting in a myriad of ways, not just by whipping. The widely-believed Lyndon Johnson Myth holds that partisan lawmakers vote together because party leaders use pressure tactics to keep their troops in line. But in truth, effective leaders (Lyndon Johnson included) employ a diversity of tools in their leadership toolbox to accomplish that task.

Pelosi did at least two things prior to committee approval of articles of impeachment that helped build a majority in the House for impeaching Trump. First, she gave the Intelligence Committee center stage in the impeachment process. That gave the process a slightly less partisan patina, especially since the Republicans on Intelligence are less raucously partisan than their counterparts on Judiciary.

Second, she denied the Judiciary Committee’s request for a third, broader impeachment article against President Trump. As Sarah Binder has noted, the pursuit of “skinny” impeachment was no accident: it mollified Democratic moderates who feared that their party was eager to oust Trump for any reason.

Pelosi is thus little different from party leaders in the past who actively built support for impeachment within their chamber. If the Speaker is not whipping lawmakers directly, it hardly means she has been absent from the process.

2. Party leaders aren’t the only ones who push for party loyalty. Lawmakers face many pressures to vote with their party. Primary voters, party activists, and state and local elected officials all try to compel their representatives to be partisan loyalists, especially on high-profile issues. In fact, their lobbying can be far more effective in ensuring party loyalty than whipping by congressional leaders.

The case of Rep. Jeff Van Drew is illustrative. A moderate congressman from southern New Jersey, he voted against an investigation into Trump and declared his opposition to impeachment. There is no evidence that House leadership tried to compel him to do otherwise.

However, polling showed that his refusal to support impeachment had cost him the support of a majority of his district’s Democratic voters. Furthermore, many local party leaders declined to endorse him, and in another ominous sign, state GOP candidates in his district had won in the November elections. Faced with the choice between voting for impeachment and losing a Democratic primary, Van Drew went with a third option: leaving the Democratic Party altogether.

(It was a peculiar choice, given Van Drew rarely votes with Trump and the GOP has far less influence as the minority party. Rep. Michael Forbes (NY) did the same thing twenty years ago, and it did not help his congressional career. But it does suggest how Republican leaders, not Democratic ones, can shape a lawmaker’s decision-making: Trump and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reportedly helped persuade him to switch parties.)

Other Democrats in swing or GOP-leaning districts are in a similar boat as Van Drew, though most of them have opted to vote with their partisan colleagues on impeachment. Did Pelosi twist their arms? Unlikely, for they face the same pressures Van Drew does to stand with impeachment. (Those pressures are becoming increasingly nationalized, as Jonathan Bernstein points out.)

Other factors may have also played a role. Some Democrats could have been swayed by fellow pro-impeachment moderates in the House (though at least one, Elissa Slotkin (MI), is facing serious blowback from her conservative constituents). And the Intelligence Committee marshaled fairly convincing evidence of wrongdoing in the Trump White House; it’s possible that a number of on-the-fence lawmakers evaluated the case for impeachment on its merits.

If the House votes this week to impeach President Trump along party lines, it will be tempting to credit (or blame) leaders for bringing their wavering members to heel. But congressional leaders need not be so assertive. They have many other means of achieving party unity, and the larger political environment also makes it very hard for legislators to buck their parties -- especially on matters like impeachment.

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