The Myth of the Independent Freshman
08-03-2010
You may have already seen former Republican Mayor Frank Guinta’s new negative ad, which uses animation to attack Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. The gist of the Guinta ad is that Shea-Porter is a partisan pawn who votes in line with the wishes of the House Democratic leadership. Guinta closes out the ad by arguing that, in contrast, he would be an independent (and conservative) leader who would shake things up in Washington. This line of argument has been employed by challengers in every election cycle in memory, in order to paint the incumbent as a puppet of his or her party’s leadership team in the House. In this case, it is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who is said to be pulling Shea-Porter’s legislative strings in a liberal direction.
 
The idea of an independently-voting, freshman Congressman is a popular myth.  Unlike the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives is in reality a largely hierarchical political institution, in which leaders have a variety of tools at their disposal for enforcing party discipline. Freshmen representatives (as well as those like Shea-Porter with only a few terms under their belts) who consistently vote against the wishes of their party’s leadership (in the interest of shaking things up) quickly find themselves with the worst committee assignments, little or no time to speak or introduce amendments on the floor of the chamber, and end up with prime office space right next to the Cannon House Office Building furnace room.
 
If you want to argue about the need to substitute one party’s policy agenda for the other, then that is certainly fair game for the Guinta campaign. But Shea-Porter’s voting behavior is fairly standard (and to be expected) for less senior members of the House. The reason why the 1994 Republican Revolution of conservative House freshman was successful was because those junior representatives were closely aligned with Speaker Newt Gingrich in pushing the Contract with America. Gingrich in turn changed the seniority rules so that some of these new members could leapfrog their peers into positions of power, in order to pursue a more conservative agenda.  But you can bet they voted in line with his preferences.
 
Note: Back posting on Thursday. -Dean


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