How do whips whip?
Most folks know that Harry Reid leads the Democrats in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi leads the Democrats in the House. For Republicans, it's Mitch McConnell in the Senate and John Boehner in the House. But beyond that, people get a lot hazier on who's in the leadership. Dick Durbin's there, but what does he do again? And can most people name James Clyburn as assistant majority leader in the House? How about Jon Kyl and Eric Cantor, who play that role for the Republicans?
The assistant majority leader is better known as the "whip," which is one of the more awesome titles in American government. And what does the whip do? Chris Beam offers the fullest job description I've seen:
They count votes. The principle task of a party whip, formally known as "assistant party leader," is to keep track of the number of votes for and against a piece of legislation. They're also responsible, along with the party's leader, for "whipping up" support for a particular position. Not every vote gets whipped. If the party leadership knows that a bill is going to pass easily, they won't go to the trouble of counting every last vote. But when the vote is close—say the Senate leadership has 45 guaranteed "yes" votes and 10 "maybes"—whipping is necessary to get a more accurate head count.
There are three stages of whipping. The most basic one is a simple head count. That's when the whip's staffers calls those of every other party member and asks how they're going to vote. The information is then entered into a spreadsheet or onto a paper list of members called a voting sheet.
If the vote is close, the whip moves to the second stage, in which members of the "whip team"—there are nine deputy whips in the House and 11 in the Senate—approach the fence-sitters and hear out their concerns. If a concern can be easily addressed, it gets fixed. If not, the deputy whip (or a committee chairman, or the party leader herself) can offer to help an ambivalent lawmaker on another bill in exchange for his or her vote on the bill at hand.
The third and final whip usually occurs the day before a vote, when whip team members approach their designated members—in the Senate, for example, each team member is assigned two or three senators they know well—and report the final tally.
Whipping can be a delicate business. Whip team members want to get an honest sense of how their colleagues will vote, but they don't want to be ham-handed about it. That means approaching senators in an informal way—either on the Senate floor or in their offices—and gauging their support level. Whipping a "no" vote is especially difficult, since senators don't like to admit that they're not going to vote with the leadership. But honesty is expected. If a senator says he's going to vote a particular way and then doesn't, his colleagues tend to remember. Timing matters, too. Whip a vote too early, and members may change their mind before the actual vote. (That leaves time for their constituents to get riled up.) Whip too late, and there may not be time to change their mind.
It's going to be a busy few weeks for these guys.
Photo credit: Melina Mara/TWP.
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