Representative Democracy ‘Not a Day at the Beach’

Nancy Pelosi is tired of Democrats voting to please their constituents.

A bizarre look behind the curtain at POLITICO (“‘This is not a day at the beach’: Pelosi tells moderate Dems to stop voting with GOP“):

House Democrats held an emotional debate behind closed doors Thursday over how to stop losing embarrassing procedural battles with Republicans — a clash that exposed the divide between moderates and progressives.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took a hard line at the caucus meeting, saying that being a member of Congress sometimes requires taking tough votes.

“This is not a day at the beach. This is the Congress of the United States,” Pelosi said, according to two sources.

Pelosi also said vulnerable Democrats who had the “courage” to vote against the Republican motions to recommit would become a higher priority for the party leadership and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In theory, at least, each of the 435 Representatives are there to, well, represent their districts. They’re not there to vote lockstep with party leaders as though we had a parliamentary system. Taking a “hard vote,” in essence, is voting against the wishes of one’s constituents which, well, one shouldn’t do—unless in exchange for enough others taking “hard votes” on another issue to, in the exchange, better benefit one’s constituents than would have been the case without such exchange.

So, what problem is Pelosi trying to solve?

Pelosi argues that Democrats must stick together on procedural votes, which is the traditional view of party leaders on both sides of the aisle. Hoyer and Clyburn, however, have suggested that moderate members can vote with Republicans if they think it will improve their political standing.

Republicans have already won two motions to recommit this Congress, including a Wednesday vote that angered Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives. In contrast, Republicans stuck together and never lost a single such motion when they controlled the House from 2011 to 2019.

Thus far—well beyond the point where most would have stopped reading (I have skipped several paragraphs from the original story in excerpting here)—this seems like a complaint over a team sports mentality rather than anything substantive. Finally, we get to something meaningful:

The latest defeat came on Wednesday, as the House debated legislation requiring background checks on all gun sales — a position overwhelmingly favored by Democrats. When Republicans moved to amend the bill to require Immigration and Customs Enforcement be told of any undocumented immigrant who tries to buy a gun, 26 Democrats voted with the GOP. The language was added to the gun bill, spoiling an important Democratic legislative achievement.

First, there was no “legislative achievement,” important or otherwise here. This measure will be dead on arrival when it hits the Senate. So, at best, there’s the ability to campaign on the issue in two years.

Second, it’s not obvious to me why a popular amendment—as evidenced by being able to get bipartisan support—“spoils” the bill. It does nothing to diminish whatever public safety gains passage would achieve and aids in the enforcement of another existing law that has actually gone through the Constitutional process of having been passed in identical form in both Houses of Congress and signed by the President of the United States. Win-win, no?

An earlier GOP motion condemning anti-Semitism was successfully attached to a House resolution barring U.S. involvement in the Yemeni civil war. That maneuver, which was backed by every Democrat, later caused parliamentary problems in the Senate and upended Democratic attempts to challenge President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.

So . . . an amendment that passed unanimously in the House later caused “parliamentary problems” in the Senate. Okay.

And these are the only two instances of the problem. Not just two instances cited as examples. The only two incidents. Granted, we’re pretty early into this Congress, so it may be the first two of many. But, thus far, I’m not seeing an argument in favor of requiring Democrats in highly-contested or Republican-leaning districts to take “hard votes” that might cost them their jobs and the Democrats the majority come 2021.

During the closed-door meeting on Thursday, Pelosi said Democrats who vote for the Republicans’ motions are putting pressure on other vulnerable colleagues who would prefer to stick with the party.

“We are either a team or we’re not, and we have to make that decision,” she said.

That’s easy: You’re not a team!  You’re 235 Representatives (plus 3 non-voting delegates) out of 435 who happen to have gotten elected under the same party label. But you’re there to represent people from far-flung districts that have wildly different cultures, interests, and concerns. It would be absurd, indeed, for all 235 to vote in lockstep on every issue.

Pelosi told reporters afterward that she thinks Democrats should simply vote against the GOP motions, saying to do so otherwise gives Republicans “leverage.” But Pelosi didn’t endorse the idea, which some lawmakers support, of changing House rules and nixing the procedural vote altogether some lawmakers support.

It seems to me that Pelosi has this backwards. That is, to the extent that the House holds votes, Representatives must be free to vote their conscience. But I’m highly amenable to an argument for eliminating procedural votes to the extent they’re viewed as political “gotchas” rather than substantive legislative amendments.

Now, I get that Pelosi, as caucus leader, has a different view of the institution than do the individual lawmakers, particularly those in unsafe seats. And I’m even sympathetic to the notion that these “hard votes” put more progressive members of the caucus into a tough spot, as the amedments water down the bill from their standpoint. But, as a wise woman once pointed out, legislating is no day at the beach.

Beyond that, this is exactly the wrong time for Pelosi and company to be promoting a team sports mentality. While it may lead to minor wins on progressive legislation that’s going to die in the Senate, perhaps setting up big contrasts for the 2020 cycle, there are bigger fish to fry at the moment.

Democrats and erstwhile Republicans like myself alike ought want Republican Representatives and, especially, Republican Senators to vote their conscience to stop the egregious excesses of their party leader, President Trump. Indeed, we’re currently hoping that Republican Senators do the right thing and cross the aisle to vote down Trump’s unlawful declaration of a national emergency to siphon funds appropriated to the Defense budget to build his idiotic border wall. But, if the party delegations are supposed to “take one for the team” to demonstrate party unity, why would they take that risk?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. In some cases, I think it’s fair for party leaders to ask caucus members to “take one for the team” when it comes to important legislation, but I agree that these gun bills are probably not the hill to die on in that regard given the fact that they will go nowhere in the Senate.

    That being said, I tend to think that Pelosi has a better handle on her Caucus than either Boehner or Ryan did on theirs. I don’t get the impression that she’s unaware of the need for some of these moderate members to vote with their constituencies back home on their mind. It’s a question, really, of when to ask for party loyalty and when not to.

  2. Eric Florack says:

    What you’re telling us here James is nothing new. The fact of the matter is I have never once in my 60 years met an establishment member of either party that didn’t conflate the interests of the nation with what ultimately turned out to be their own political power.

    It’s just that Pelosi happens to be more blatant about it.

    …and by the way, it was precisely that which caused Trump to get elected in the first place a rejection of establishment entitlement mentality.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    It’s a question, really, of when to ask for party loyalty and when not to.

    Right. I can understand asking people to “take one for the team” on a signature piece of legislation. But these are procedural votes, one of which was passed unanimously. It seems an odd hill to ask people to die on.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Let me suggest several possible explanations for the Speaker’s remark:

    1. She’s convinced that few if any of her caucus will lose their seats over this or similar votes.
    2. She has her eye more on national politics than on individual districts.
    3. IBGYBG
    4. It’s “broken window” policing extended to the Congress.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    I was reading your post looking for some admission that their is an actual dilemma here, given that Republicans have been voting en masse on virtually everything since the days of Gingrich (50%+1) and Hastert (The Hastert Rule, The Actual Hastert Rule as Practiced).

    Look, I agree that it should be the norm that people vote their conscience and not their party. But what you are asking for is that Democrats honor that principle while the Republicans vote as a block based on the iron hard rule that a Democratic president or congress cannot be given credit for anything. If one side plays by their own rules, the other side has to take that into account.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s Nancy doing North Africa. In WW2 there was a lot of pressure from allies, especially the Russians, to have the US launch a direct invasion of Europe. A number of US generals were on-board with the idea. But for all the American hubris wiser heads knew we weren’t ready for any such plan, we had no real war-fighting experience. (Simplifying a bit here.) So we did Tunisia. And at Kasserine Pass the fuel-deprived, battered remnants of the Afrika Corps kicked our butts.

    Nancy Pelosi has a bunch of green troops who think they’re ready but aren’t. She’s instilling discipline. A general needs to know that her orders will be obeyed.

  7. James Joyner says:


    But what you are asking for is that Democrats honor that principle while the Republicans vote as a block based on the iron hard rule that a Democratic president or congress cannot be given credit for anything.

    I get what you’re saying vis-a-vis Pelosi’s strategy here and you have a point. But I’m actually arguing just the opposite—that Republicans ought not do that going forward, specifically with regard to Trump. And I opposed Mitch McConnell’s using that tactic, for example, in the successful ploy to deny Obama the right to appoint Scalia’s successor. (I would have agreed with demanding a moderate rather than an ideologue given that McConnell had the votes. But Obama’s starting position (at least publicly) was Merrick Garland.)

  8. Jay L Gischer says:

    Well, I agree that a Representative should advance the interests of their district. AND, it’s probably good if they are strategic in doing that, rather than simply responding as if there is a poll back home on every vote.

    The legislative process often sets up a maze of conflicting interests, not all of which can be satisfied. The faster all these new Democratic reps learn this, the more effective they will be.

  9. Eric Florack says:

    I confess I’m a little surprised that nobody has mentioned to AOC and her threat of keeping a list of Democrats who didn’t vote with the remainder of the caucus.

  10. Blue Galangal says:

    @James Joyner:

    But I’m actually arguing just the opposite—Republicans ought not do that going forward, specifically with regard to Trump

    Given that Republicans are going to continue to do that – we have seen no signs to the contrary with the possible exception of Justin Amash – do the Democrats unilaterally disarm? It’s easy to say that the Republicans ought not to do that but is there any basis for presuming that they will follow your advice? If not, why is it the Democrats’ responsibility to “play fair” under current circumstances? I’m eagerly awaiting the return of Senate majority control now that the blue-slip rule has been ditched by the Republicans, for example.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    It’s early in the term and the electorate remember next to nothing older than six months. Rove/W were in permanent campaign mode, ‘everything for the base.’ You could watch Obama switch from governance mode to election mode. This is a time to get stuff done, including establishing discipline, even if the Senate will stop everything and ultimately all you can do is political posturing. Worry about placating your district next year.

  12. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Merrick Garland was an ideologue??? WTF, James? On what planet? What McConnell did was absolutely unacceptable and he can’t be defeated too soon to benefit the country and waft the stench of GOP out of the Senate.

    Look, if Pelosi is pointing out to her caucus the meaning of concepts like the greater good and winning together then hurray for her. Seems pretty mild to me.

  13. James Pearce says:

    While it may lead to minor wins on progressive legislation that’s going to die in the Senate, perhaps setting up big contrasts for the 2020 cycle, there are bigger fish to fry at the moment.

    On a sliding scale of difficulty, it has been impossible to get Dem partisans to accept that the GOP gains in the Senate meant that a maximally partisan strategy was no longer feasible. The “blue wave” meant they get what they want.

    Not that they have to collaborate with “Nazis,” ie, Republicans.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Blue Galangal:

    why is it the Democrats’ responsibility to “play fair” under current circumstances?

    I’m not arguing for “fair play” but representative democracy. I’m all for Pelosi shutting down actual Republican shenanigans. But these were seemingly legitimate amendments that peeled off significant Democratic support—one from literally every Democrat in the House.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    Merrick Garland was an ideologue??? WTF, James? On what planet?

    I was making precisely the opposite point. Given that there was a Republican majority in the Senate, an election was a year away, and the opening was to replace a conservative ideologue, I would have supported McConnell playing hardball to stop Obama appointing, say, another Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Elena Kagan. But Obama instead appointed a moderate—one originally appointed to the Federal bench by a Republican President, no less—and should therefore have not only been given a hearing and up-or-down vote but, absent some Kavanaugh-like revelations, easily confirmed to the seat.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    Representative democracy is not direct democracy, it is not about elected representatives slavishly obeying their constituents, rather it is about electing someone to lead the way forward. You can’t lead if all you see is in a rear-view mirror. You lead by going where most people don’t know to go.

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I agree, at least in the abstract. Representatives owe their constituents their judgment, and sometimes that means casting votes in favor of their long-term interests rather than their short-term desires. But that doesn’t seem to be what Pelosi is arguing for here. Rather, she seems to be irritated that Republicans got to score points with some popular amendments.

    If Pelosi were demanding that red district Dems suck it up and vote for Medicare-for-All, for example, I’d see her point. That’s a cornerstone principle of the party and almost certainly the direction the country will ultimately head.

  18. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    This discussion reminds me of some with Steven Taylor a while back, where he argued that the Democrats should not sink to Republicans’ level on political tactics. He never really addressed the rejoinder that if Republicans make gains by flouting traditional norms, and Democrats lose by refusing to violate norms, what incentive do Republicans have to stop violating norms, whereas if Republicans lose some battles because Democrats also violate norms, Republicans may see that violating norms is not cost-free. Perhaps you should view Blue Galangal’s comments as a continuation of that argument.

  19. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    But I’m actually arguing just the opposite—that Republicans ought not do that going forward, specifically with regard to Trump.

    And lions should lie down with lambs, and we should all obey the Golden Rule, and Make Love Not War.

    Now, back to reality… At the moment, voting with Trump against America is what makes them Republicans. If they weren’t Republicans, they wouldn’t be doing it, and if they don’t do it they won’t get to remain in office. There is no representation of constituency interests here; there is only pandering and pants-wetting. And yet you argue that this is somehow the time for Nancy Pelosi to slacken off on the party discipline? Seriously?

  20. James Pearce says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    it is not about elected representatives slavishly obeying their constituents, rather it is about electing someone to lead the way forward.

    No, pretty sure than when elected representatives obey their constituents, it’s by definition a representative democracy. When you elect a strong leader to “lead the way forward” it’s something else.

    Don’t the “far-flung districts that have wildly different cultures, interests, and concerns” deserve some level of self-determination and autonomy? Or must we all do what the Home Office says?

  21. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I’d argue you lead by convincing people where they really ought to want to go.

    But if we had a direct participatory democracy, like the Roman Republic did, we’d have far fewer, and simpler, laws. I mean, how often can you get even a small percentage of the electorate to vote on a law?

    Laws would also be much worse. Had someone held a referendum on banning Muslims from entering the US right after 9/11, I’d bet it would have had a high chance of passing.

    Leaders are also supposed to be able to foresee some consequences of a law or policy.

  22. the Q says:

    I guess the liberal Dems just can’t stand prosperity…win big in 1992….get hammered in 1994 and lose Congress for the first time since Babe Ruth was a Yankee. Win big in 2008, get destroyed in 2010…..get a historic mid term win in 2018….and now it will be another blow out for the GOP if we follow our stupid pattern.

    Why don’t some of you take a look at the districts the 26 Dems are from….lets take Jim Costa for example from the central valley farm area of California. The Dems have been propping this guy up for years now since his district is a toss up. The ill fated bullet train started in Merced in his district as a payoff for his Obama care vote. It makes me sick to think that we could lose him should some redneck gun nut in his district accuse him of coddling “mexican illegal gun toting murderers”.

    When will we learn that not every Dem district is blue blue blue. And its infinitely preferable to have a Dem that you don’t like over a wingnut you don’t like.

    Many Dems disliked Hillary…but of course would be happier than a pig in sh it it she were President right now. Again, lets not eat our own.

    In 2020, we need to sustain the gains we made. If a Dem has to vote against a third trimester abortion bill but will vote for extending Obamacare or increasing the minimum wage, what’s the big deal? The point is to destroy the Republican party forever and to get Trump out of office.

    Turning in illegals who are trying to buy guns to ICE is a mortal sin?????? Pure lunacy and the reason we can’t bury the dipschite GOP once and for all.

  23. Cheryl Rofer says:

    A Republican arguing in favor of representative democracy!

    [breathe, hiccup]