SOME HOUSE Democrats are already stirring up a fuss over the effort, expected next month, to expel Rep. Phil Gramm (D-Tex.) from the Budget Committee. Such a move, they say, would amount to persecution of an elected representative for his exercise of independent judgment and would make Mr. Gramm a martyr for attending to the wishes of his constituents. To all of that, the appropriate reply is: baloney. Budget Committee membership is temporary, and all committee slots are within the gift of one of the two major parties. It is up to the Democrats to decide what degree of deviation from the party's norm justifies such unusual punishment. But Mr. Gramm not only voted against the party position on the budget; he participated in Democratic budget caucuses and in strategy sessions with the Republicans at the same time. If that is not enough to entitle the Democratic Caucus to take disciplinary action, what is?
To many citizens, of course, the idea of party discipline itself seems unpalatable. But for public officials, there is much to be said for party unity. It presents voters with clear choices and makes candidates and officeholders accountable for their actions. If you want to have strong political parties, then you will have some displays of party discipline. No member of Congress, in any case, has a proprietary right to any committee position, and if Mr. Gramm is displeased with his treatment by the Democrats, he can always join -- and he has been invited to join -- the Republicans.
Throwing Mr. Gramm off the Budget Committee, if that happens, can be seen as the latest in a series of changes that strengthen the parties and their leadership in Congress, and ultimately make congressmen more accountable for the policies they support. The most important of these changes has been the election of House committee chairmen by the Democratic Caucus; it ensures that chairmen do not get too far out of line with -- or obstruct -- policies most Democratic congressmen support. People who don't like these policies are not helpless; they have a ready remedy: support Republicans in the next congressional election. In the meantime, there is nothing in morality or political ethics that says a party has to select for an important committee position a colleague who, on the year's most crucial issue, works closely with the leaders of the other party.