After months of intraparty squabbling, Democrats in the House finally passed a transportation and infrastructure bill last week. But it was not their victory alone. 215 Democrats voted for it, which was three short of the 218 votes needed. Ultimately, the majority party was brought across the finish line by 13 House Republicans who cast ballots in favor of the bill.
Several Republicans, disappointed that a baker's dozen of their colleagues had given Democrats a major policy success, openly criticized the defectors. The always-outspoken Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) called them “traitors” and posted their office phone numbers on Twitter.
Other GOP lawmakers called for retaliation. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) threatened to “primary the hell out of” them. Punchbowl News reported that Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) wanted the party impose sanctions, and that “rank-and-file lawmakers” might try to remove the 13 from their committees. Former Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows agreed that they should “absolutely” lose their committee assignments.
All the heated rhetoric notwithstanding, it is exceedingly unlikely that such punishments will be imposed. As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson learned a couple of years ago (and as I outlined in a previous post), penalizing defectors in a legislature tends to create more problems than it solves. Among other things, it generates news stories about internal party turmoil, creates resentment within the party, and may put the defectors at electoral risk, thereby hurting the party’s ability to win or maintain a majority.
This is why strong sanctions are seldom employed in Congress. In a book chapter I coauthored with Briana Bee, one of my undergraduate students, we identified 27 lawmakers between 1965 and 2015 who had been threatened with, or subject to, open sanctions by their party – including losing their seniority, losing their committee assignments or leadership posts, or being expelled from the party – for non-ethics related reasons. That’s a tiny fraction of the more than 2,000 individuals who have served in the House and Senate during that forty year period.
Furthermore, in most cases, the reasons for threatening or imposing punishment were based on acts of extreme disloyalty, like opposing the party’s presidential nominee or candidate for Speaker. Only two of the 27 lawmakers were punished for voting the wrong way on a single policy-related vote.
For an example of how dangerous it is to severely punish defectors for relatively minor reasons, consider the example of former Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). His decision to strip four Republicans of their committee assignments in late 2012 for disloyalty led three of them to vote against him for Speaker the following January, nearly costing him the election. That, and other moves by Boehner against rebellious conservatives, led many of them to form the House Freedom Caucus, a group whose regular defiance gave Speaker Boehner countless headaches.
(Ironically, many of the Republicans calling for punishment of the 13 defectors are either current or former members of the Freedom Caucus. It seems that the group no longer feels the same way about the right of lawmakers to dissent from their party.)
So Josh Huder had it right when he called it “legitimately insane” and “bananas” for Republicans to consider imposing such an extreme punishment for one vote. It’s understandable that Republicans are mad at the 13 defectors; killing the transportation bill would have been a big political victory for their party. But the smart strategy is to let bygones by bygones and focus on winning the next political battle.