Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Heather Declares Her Independence

SANTA FE – U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson has declared her independence. Appropriately, she did it in late June, just prior to our nation’s Independence Day celebration.
Wilson, an Albuquerque Republican, declared her independence from House Majority Floor Leader Tom Delay of Texas and other Republican leaders all the way up to President Bush. Wilson’s Democrat challenger Richard Romero has sought to tie Wilson to Republican leaders and hard-core conservatives as being nothing more than a rubber stamp.
For the most part, Wilson has remained true to her military background by being a good soldier, while working her way up quickly among the 228 Republicans in the U.S. House. But recently Wilson has broken GOP ranks three times on important votes, according to material compiled by Internet political commentator Joe Monahan.
Monahan reports that Wilson’s three votes were on matters crucial to the Bush administration and Republican leadership. The first involved a 25 percent cut in CIA funding until the administration turns over all documents dealing with the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. That vote came on the heels of strong words from Wilson condemning abuse of Iraqi prisoners by our military.
Wilson’s second deviation from party lines came on a vote against a corporate tax relief bill that included targeted tax breaks for pharmaceutical companies, which Romero claims have a tight grip on Wilson. In every one of her reelection campaigns so far, Wilson has had to defend her votes for pharmaceutical companies.
Wilson’s third vote against the House leadership came on a budget overhaul measure. Although Wilson’s votes against the administration and leadership were on significant measures, none of them affected the outcome. The leadership’s positions won easily.
At first glance, Wilson’s maneuver may look like tactical brilliance she might have honed in military school. But in reality, it is a device employed in legislative bodies everywhere. When elections draw near, incumbents encountering strong opposition are allowed by their party’s leaders to cross the line on matters important in their districts – but only if it will not affect the outcome.
Democrat leaders use the same strategy in the New Mexico Legislature. Sometimes the party whip position may look somewhat meaningless, but they are crucial in forecasting as exactly as possible how important votes will likely turn out.
If it appears that a measure will have a comfortable margin, members who can benefit by opposing the party line are given permission to cross it. But only if it will do no harm. If the vote gets perilously close, some of the members, who crossed the line with permission, will be herded back.
Of course, it always is possible that Wilson broke ranks of her own volition and without permission. That happens fairly often and sometimes it is a surprise to party whips. Lobbyists sometimes convince lawmakers to change their minds. And sometimes lawmakers will have very strong convictions on particular issues that differ from that of their party.
So we must grant that Wilson might have independently decided she didn’t like her party’s position on each of these three measures. And in that case, she might or might not have informed her party whip of her decision. But it’s likely she did.
It may seem impossible for a whip to keep up with 228 party members, but in Congress each party has several deputy whips and even more assistant whips, each of whom has a manageable number of members to keep informed about party positions. Those assistants then report back to their superiors with vote counts on all important measures.
Wilson’s predecessor, Rep. Steve Schiff, was a master at keeping up with legislation and informing lobbyists exactly how he planned to vote and how any pending amendments might affect that vote. Presumably he also kept the whip assigned to him similarly informed.
Schiff was known for his independence. Maybe Wilson will develop a similar style.


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