Systems of party discipline differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from party to party, and even from legislative body to legislative body. I seem to remember that at one point while I was in college the Massachusetts state assembly Democratic caucus had very ironclad discipline while the Senate caucus was laxer. Discipline in the United States is generally much laxer than discipline in Canada. At the federal level, discipline is tighter in the House than in the Senate, and the GOP versions of both houses are tighter than the Democratic versions. These things, in part, reflect differences in the constitutional/legal order. But in part they also reflect choices and path dependency. The extremely lax discipline among Senate Democrats is generally quite favorable to the interests of individual incumbent Democratic Senators even if it makes it difficult to advance a legislative agenda. So when it comes to getting recalcitrant Senators to fall into line, what’s needed are not only the potential tools of discipline, but the will to use them.
But Lieberman’s fellow Connecticut senator, Democrat Chris Dodd, who faces a tough reelection fight in 2010, dismissed the idea that Lieberman would incur any retribution.
“No, no, no. People are going to be all over the place,” he said when asked if Lieberman should be punished. “The idea that people are going to be reprimanded because somehow they have a different point of view than someone else is ridiculous. That isn’t going to happen.”
Of course there’s nothing “ridiculous” about it. It’s quite standard in legislative bodies for members who defy the party position to face various kinds of reprimands. A political party, after all, isn’t supposed to be a mutual aid society for incumbent legislators. At their best, parties are vehicles for advancing a somewhat coherent vision of national policy. It is true, however, that it would be an unusual step for the Senate Democratic caucus to engage in discipline-enforcing behavior. That, however, is because Senate Democrats are outliers in their behavior, not because the idea of enforcing discipline is somehow nutty.
Now it should be said that in the particular case of Dodd it’s probably not in his interests to pick a fight with a home state colleague in the midst of a re-election campaign. Consequently, he probably shouldn’t be the go-to guy to ask about this issue.