The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Will party unity tear Congress to pieces?

Speaker Kevin McCarthy swears in members of the 118th Congress on Jan. 6. (Elizabeth Frantz/For The Washington Post)
5 min

As the Republican adaptation of TV’s “Succession” played out on Capitol Hill, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) told a local TV interviewer that she wished she could be part of a bipartisan “unity” caucus to elect the next Republican speaker and move things toward the political center, where most of her constituents live.

Kaptur has been in Congress longer than any woman in history. She was reelected last fall with 56 percent of the vote in a state that twice voted for Donald Trump. So imagine her surprise when she received a call from Rep. Katherine M. Clark (Mass.), Democrats’ energetic new whip, chiding her for undermining party unity with her comments.

“Party unity?” Kaptur replied. “What about national unity?”

That’s a lonely voice these days, when leaders of both caucuses are all about party unity and message discipline.

On Jan. 5, for example, Clark opened her speech nominating Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York for speaker by repeating the number 212 like a clock chiming eight times: once for each time Jeffries won his party’s unanimous 212-vote support. Gloating over the bitter division across the aisle, Clark was saying that it takes a united party to govern a divided country.

But party unity and message discipline have become the mechanisms by which Congress traps itself in dysfunction. They are the razors with which party leaders shave away the independence and power of members. They are barriers to bipartisan compromise and cooperation.

Under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, party unity became so ingrained in House Democratic culture that hardly anyone noticed when Jeffries, Clark and Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.) emerged as the party’s new leaders last fall without a hint of opposition or debate. Think about that for a minute. All those former high school class presidents jockeying for power and position, all that pent-up ambition, all the tension between progressives and pro-market moderates — and not a single dissenting voice. Party unity or suffocating consensus?

Notwithstanding the circus of the speaker’s election, Republicans esteem the same gods of party unity and message discipline. Just ask former member Liz Cheney of Wyoming and her nine GOP colleagues who voted to impeach Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, most of whom saw their careers sidetracked as a result. But that unity proved short-lived after Republicans won control of the House — and with it the ability to choose the speaker, adopt rules and control the legislative agenda.

The right-wing renegades who put the House and the nation through 15 embarrassing ballots went to great lengths to present themselves as institutional reformers bent on bringing democracy and transparency back to the legislative process. Some of the concessions they forced will do that, but others were just part of a thinly veiled attempt to impose their preferred policies on everyone else. As a result, a weakened speaker has scant room to cut deals to get things done.

With too much unity and discipline in one caucus, and too little in the other, neither was able to see the Battle of the Gavel as an opportunity to experiment with the kind of bipartisan cooperation and compromise that Americans desire.

Do Democrats really think the country or their party are better off by not providing Republican leader Kevin McCarthy the handful of votes he needed to become speaker, forcing him to hand over the keys to the House to the most radical and partisan members of his own party?

By the same logic, we might ask McCarthy and the 200 Republicans who supported him from the outset whether the country or their party will be better off by giving in to zealots who thrive on disruption and discord rather than cutting what could have been a much less costly deal with a handful of moderate Democrats?

To anyone not trapped in the logic of party unity and message discipline, the answers are pretty obvious. That’s why, in recent weeks, centrists of both parties have joined forces to create a bipartisan working majority in the Alaska Senate. In Pennsylvania, Republicans provided the votes to elect an independent-minded Democrat to keep the state House out of left-wing hands. In deeply red Ohio, a moderate Republican was elected speaker of the state House with Democratic support.

Why did something similar not happen in Washington?

The answer begins with the power of base voters and the special interest groups that both parties rely on to fund campaigns and win elections and who think nothing of taking to social media, where they bully, troll and intimidate members who don’t toe the party line.

Certainly some blame falls to political pros and the political media, who now blindly accept that party unity and message discipline are key indicators of political success, and members of Congress from both parties who lack the courage to rock the boat.

And, finally, don’t forget the voters who have such low expectations that they are willing to tolerate another two years of partisan gamesmanship and legislative gridlock and not demand anything better.

Marcy Kaptur was right. The real choice last week was between national unity and party unity. And party unity won.