When the Whip Comes Down

The Speaker’s Lobby: When the Whip Comes Down

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

22 October 2009

Forty is the new 30.

And on Capitol Hill, “surveying” is the new “whipping.”

The House Democratic leadership this week launched its first official effort to poll where lawmakers stand on the massive health care reform bill. The process provides leaders a metric to gauge whether they the votes to pass the plan. It also lets them know where there are potential problems so they can tweak the legislation.

A senior House Democratic leadership aide indicates that this nose count is not a formal “whip.” Instead, it’s just a “survey.”

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) is one of the chief architects of the health care reform legislation. He characterized the count as a cordial exercise.

“You hold out what the proposal is and you say ‘Are you there? Can we count on you?’” Waxman said. “And when they say they are there, we count on them.”

But this process is not always as pleasant as Waxman described.

Both parties employ “whips” and “whip teams” to canvass their respective members on critical votes. Whips gather intelligence, spot trouble areas, and encourage party discipline.

And the job can be harsh. After all, Congress derived the title “whip” from fox hunting. On a foxhunt, the “whipper-in” helps the huntsman control the hounds. And if the dogs get out of line, they’re “whipped” back in.

Of course, that would ever happen on Capitol Hill. Especially on a major piece of legislation like health care reform.

There are lots of ways to whip a vote in Congress. Many viewed former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) as a master of persuasion. Dole innately knew when to buckle down on a lawmaker and when to back off. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) was known as “The Hammer.” When he was Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson whipped senators with what was called “The Treatment.” Johnson used his towering frame to hulk over a target. A photographer famously documented LBJ backing the late Sen. Theodore Francis Green (D-RI) over a desk while administering “The Treatment.”

House Democrats may yet have to resort to bare-knuckle tactics to lug the health care reform bill across the line. But that isn’t their gambit yet.

Veteran Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) says for now, it’s a survey.

“It’s not whipping in the traditional sense,” Serrano said. “There seems to be an understanding that we’re getting close to something.”

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) is one lawmaker who Democratic leaders enlisted to help with the “survey.” He joked with reporters about his techniques to determine where his fellow representatives stand.

“On some people, I’m doing a Vulcan mind-meld,” Weiner said facetiously. “Some…I’m getting completely inebriated.”

And finding lawmakers at this point  who feel they’ve actually been surveyed, or whipped, are far an few between.

A reporter asked Rep. David Wu (D-OR) Wednesday afternoon if the Democratic leadership whipped him.

“To my knowledge, no,” Wu said.

But Wu suggested there are lots of covert methods the leadership employs to glean where a lawmaker falls on an issue.

“They talk to people. You don’t know how many reporting channels they have,” Wu said.

Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-OH) is someone who Democratic leaders will certainly survey. A freshman, Driehaus is a moderate Democrat who represents a swing-district with an active Catholic population. In particular, Driehaus is monitoring how the final health care bill handles the thorny issue of abortion. And Republicans want to make the Ohio Democrat’s health care vote an issue next year. But Driehaus says no Democratic leaders have talked to him yet.

“Don’t worry. They’re whipping. I have no doubt that I’ll be whipped,” Driehaus said.

However, Driehaus said he doesn’t believe the leadership will pressure lawmakers who face tough re-election campaigns to vote yes on health care reform.

“Being whipped and being pressured are two different things,” Driehaus said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) served as her party’s whip from 2001 to 2003. And Pelosi used those whipping skills to line up votes for a controversial energy and climate bill this past June. Just days before the legislation hit the floor, many lawmakers didn’t see how Democrats could brew enough support for the plan. But Pelosi worked the floor day after day, making personal appeals to wavering lawmakers.

“She surprised us,” conceded a senior Republican aide.

So what’s the magic recipe to whip a vote? It depends on personalities and the circumstances. But ironically enough, most seasoned-whippers agree that brute-force threats don’t spur recalcitrant lawmakers to switch their votes.

Several years ago, former House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) told reporters how elementary school students would ask him if he actually got to whip the members. Blunt blurted that “knee pads” would probably be a better a tool for whips to use in their quest to convince lawmakers to vote a certain way.

Regardless, the role of the whip is essential when big bills roll down the pike.  

Former House Majority Whip Bill Gray (D-PA) used Star Trek to describe the role of the whip. In his analogy, Gray likened the Speaker of the House to Captain Kirk. He then said the Majority Leader was Mr. Spock. And the Whip? Well, that was Scotty down in the engine room. It was his responsibility to get the dilithium crystal mixture just right so the Starship Enterprise could traverse the galaxy.

On Capitol Hill, it’s up to the whip to balance the Congressional dilithium crystal formula to power controversial pieces of legislation across the House and Senate floors.

And for now, the propellant is a “survey.”

House Majority Whip, er, “Surveyor” Jim Clyburn (D-SC) is manning the engine room  on this expedition, navigating the asteroid belts and black holes of health care reform.

“My survey’s going very good,” Clyburn told FOX.

Congress first wrestled with reforming health care in the 1940s. The issue died slow deaths in the early 1970s and in 1994. And if Jim Clyburn gets the legislative dilithium crystal mixture right, House Democrats will approve health care reform. And then they will have gone where no Congress has gone before.

-         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

-         “The Speaker’s Lobby” refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.