I've never belonged to a political party and although I understand why belonging to political parties is attractive to some folks I just can't see affiliating myself with a group that I know I'm going to disagree with on a healthy percentage of issues. Let's just say that in my lifetime I've been profoundly disappointed by both of the major political parties in America and amused/frightened by all of the fringe parties I've come across.
On the other hand I'm scared crapless of a no-party system. Can you imagine how hard it would be to get anything done without the parties? They do provide a structure for negotiations; people who are philosophically aligned on a majority of issues agreeing to negotiate through a representative with another group that is likewise made up of people who are generally in agreement on most issues. So yes, I guess I'm a bit of a hypocrite because I do appreciate what the party structure provides but I'll be damned if I'm going to be a member of a party.
Today's news brings two stories that I think highlight the pros and cons of our party systems. Here in North Carolina the General Assembly just voted to override the Governor's veto of a controversial abortion bill. One member of the Senate Republican caucus originally voted against the bill before it was vetoed by the Governor, but when the override vote came along he abstained, which in effect enabled the override. Here's what Doug Clark wrote in the Greensboro News & Record:
"He said the Senate Republican caucus made this abortion vote a 'caucus issue,' a vote where members would face sanctions if they voted out of line with other Republicans. Such sanctions could range from everything from being tossed out of the caucus or losing committee chairmanship to facing party-sponsored opposition in a primary."
Bingham yielded. He didn't vote yes or no, but simply took a walk. Without his opposition, the Republicans captured the necessary number of votes of "those present" to override the veto…
This kind of bullying — and it goes on in both parties — clearly is effective, but it wouldn't be if enough legislators would stand up for what they truly think is right. If the rank-and-file break ranks, the power of the leaders erodes.
Good legislators have backbone, and good legislation is not likely to be achieved by the threat of discipline.
I agree that legislators should always vote their conscience, but I also think that when you commit to a party you're committing to upholding the party's position and it would be difficult to turn the party for support on a bill you're sponsoring if you don't support the party's position on other bills. I'm not saying it's right, but I think that's one of the problems inherent to political party membership.
The other news item is the increasingly frantic debate in Congress about raising the debt ceiling. The news du jour is that the Republican Speaker of the House can't get his party unified behind a Republican proposal in the House. It seems that members of the conservative Tea Party segment of the Republican party, a group that swept into the House in last year's mid-term election, are refusing to budge from their own philosophical ground and are refusing to play ball with the Republican party leadership. In other words they want to vote their conscience and they're being beaten up by the party bosses for it:
A frustrated House Speaker John Boehner had a blunt message Wednesday for his cavalier Tea Party colleagues: "Get your ass in line" behind the GOP's debt ceiling plan…
Boehner believes Senate Democrats will cave if Republicans in the House can rally behind his nearly $1 trillion proposal to raise the nation's debt limit ahead of an Aug. 2 deadline, when the Treasury will run out of money to pay all its bills.
So "get your ass in line," Boehner demanded.
His spanking of rank-and-file Republicans came after it looked like an all-out war was erupting within the House GOP, which has nearly 100 Tea Party fiscal hawks.
Many Tea Party-backed conservatives insist Boehner's debt plan is too soft.
The infighting has forced Boehner to postpone a vote on his proposal until Thursday.
When you think about it from the individual legislators' perspective they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. Defy the party bosses and vote their conscience? Well you're gonna be skewered by the party and risk losing their backing when you need it. Toe the party line even if you don't agree with it on a particular issue? You risk being seen as a party hack who's more loyal to the party than the country (or state or county) and you could lose favor back home. That, in a nutshell, is why I could never see myself belonging to a party. Heck, even as a rank and file member I'd spend all my time defending why I was not with the party on particular issues and, even worse from my perspective, the minute people see that "D" or "R" next to my name they're going to assume I agree with the party's position on any given issue. I can't stand the thought of being labeled like that.