In preparation for an upcoming vote the phrase "Whipping" and "Whip count" is frequently heard. In fact there are legislators whose title it is to be "the Whip".

Whipping conjures up an image of coercion (the master will stop beating the horse, if the horse does exactly the master's will or the master promises something, say a carrot, if the horse behaves the way the master wants).

Could legislators be coerced, (by denying access to congressional campaign funds, or losing a coveted committee assignment, or rewarded by endorsement by senior party members, or rewarded by military contracts for their districts?

The answer to that question is probably yes. Moreover, both political parties do this. (Frankly, the desire to avoid punishment and seek reward is innate in all creatures)

However my question is focused on whether "whipping" Senators (that is promising either reward or punishment for a particular vote, in the context of an impeachment trial appropriate?

  • 3
    It generally means getting everyone to go in the same direction; more analogous to "herding cats" than "whipping a horse".
    – Mayo
    Jan 29, 2020 at 16:32
  • never heard of whipping cats. Are you saying that the John Thune should really be called the Senate Majority Herder? FWIW, according to wiki: "A whip is an official of a political party whose task is to ensure party discipline in a legislature. This means ensuring that members of the party vote according to the party platform, rather than according to their own individual ideology or the will of their constituents." What that description lacks is the methods that are used (left for the imagination).
    – BobE
    Jan 29, 2020 at 17:39
  • the job of House / Senate whips are to corral and lead their members in a particular direction. In most cases this is a matter of persuasion as opposed to coercion. The point is that you have a lot of very powerful people, most of whom are not easily lead and you want them to act in a particular manner. Hence my use of the phrase "herding cats". "Whipping", in a 21st context implies the use of force. In 18th C parlance you would use your whip on a team of horses to have them go in tandem. The use of the whip was not to hurt. The modern reader equates whipping w brutality / slavery, etc...
    – Mayo
    Jan 29, 2020 at 18:22
  • @Mayo - is there any doubt that a senator that bucks the "party-line" , risks the backing of the party at that senator's next primary? In the current impeachment context, is there any doubt that a Senator that does not vote in block with the party, will face a primary challenge that is supported by the party.
    – BobE
    Jan 29, 2020 at 20:29
  • of course. There are times when coercion is in play. This is certainly one of them; but this is not the average course of business. Usually it's Senator X who wants things in a bill but didn't get them all; and the whip explains how playing ball today gives him what he wants tomorrow. This kabuki performance is almost over. The sound bites have been made for the key constituents and now we're wrapping it up.
    – Mayo
    Jan 29, 2020 at 21:02

2 Answers 2


Senate whips are basically deputies whose job it is to marshal votes for partisan interests. They do not generally use coercive tactics as much as persuasive tactics; I believe outright coercion would be against federal law (in the quid-pro-quo or extortion sense), but whips generally speak with the voice of the party, and the party might not look favorably (in terms of support) on those who buck the system too much.

An impeachment trial in the US system is not meant to be non-partisan, so whips can still fill their marshaling role.The problem we're facing right now is that the Founders anticipated that the Senate as a body would be sober, deliberative, and fiercely independent of the other branches and bodies, with each senator protecting his own interests and defending the power of the Senate as a whole.

  • 1
    Whips will leverage committee seats and (if majority) chairs to reward or threaten their party members. It's perfectly legal too.
    – hszmv
    Jan 29, 2020 at 17:43
  • 1
    @hszmv — Yes, but I don't believe they can overtly threaten things like funding, party nominations, or offer any tangible exterior good in exchange for support. Jan 29, 2020 at 18:26
  • They can do that too, but the American Political Parties are not as powerful as European Political Parties anyway, so it's rather empty if they threaten it. And you do see this currently going on in the Democrat Party with the infighting between the Pelosi and AOC wings of the house.
    – hszmv
    Jan 29, 2020 at 18:40
  • 3
    Impeachment isn't meant to be non-political, but it is supposed to be non-partisan. Senators are sworn in as impartial jurors, which is directly at odds with partisanship. Hamilton's fears of impeachment are that "in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt." Impeachment should be non-partisan, but unfortunately, that has never been the case. Jan 29, 2020 at 18:53
  • @NuclearWang — Oh, I agree, I just think that a certain amount of partisan feeling is tolerable. I think we have to look less at Hamilton, here, and more at Madison's justified fears of organized factions. Jan 29, 2020 at 19:00

The Whip (often refereed to Party Whip or Majority/Minority Whip) is typically the second most powerful person in their party's leadership in either house and are tasked with making sure everyone in the party "falls in line" and while no case of whipping out of line backbenchers has every historically been documented in so far as I am aware, the idea that the party whip will coerce his fellow party members into voting one way or another.

The term derrives from British Parliment, where the role is much more powerful than the U.S. Congressional equivalents. Because the most important parliment member is doing the job of both the President of the United States and The Speaker of the House in Britain, the Prime Minister doesn't have the time to call up the backbenchers and figure out what they need from him in order to vote the way he wants. It's not the same way in the U.S. so the Whip isn't as powerful, but the party Whip still has a kingmaker role. In the U.K. the whip could help get a back bencher onto a committee or into a cabinet position (Very big deal) while in the U.S., they can get them a committee or even a chair (both are very important in the U.S. Congress). Both sides can also threaten so promoted members with demotions to back bench if there is some dissent in the upper ranks.

Because of this, the Whip is pretty reliable to the leader of his house's party because he know who are going to vote yay, vote nay, are still considering, and most importantly how to best turn the nays and shrugs into yays. Which is important to the leader because he's the guy who actually names the comitee members and sets the expected vote and why (if he plays the reasons right, an undecided may side because the case for or against is not built on point he dislikes on principal. For an example of this works, watch the film Lincoln when Thaddeus Stevens, an ardent abolitionist, has to disavow the then politcally radical notion that blacks were not inferior to whites, in favor of a more face saving argument of "equal under the law" only, and when called on this, scores a blow against the notion and allows the more moderate Republicans some justification... by brutally insulting a Democrat Representative to his face and showing how he's still "equal under the law" (The real life Stevens actually did something similar but the film changed the speech a little... apperently the real Stevens' speech would had to be adjusted cause Spielberg wanted a PG-13 rating and not an R. And most sources available are thought to have further sanitized what Stevens actually said).

For a good look at how a Whip works, check out "Yes, Minister" episodes where party politics are heavily discussed. Typically, it involves Hacker and Humphrey trying to foil the Whip's attempts to push Hacker out of his office and not the Prime Minister (who wasn't seen on screen at all until Hacker became PM for the final two seasons.).

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