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Two Senators are refusing to vote for Joe Biden's infrastructure bill, so I was wondering why the U.S does not have a party discipline system.

As the name suggests, if a majority of people in a party are in favor of a bill, the entire party needs to vote in favor of it.

Is there any other countries that has something like this implemented?

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  • Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Oct 6 at 16:49
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    VTC, I see it as seeking to discredit two Democrats.
    – Rick Smith
    Oct 6 at 16:52
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    How does one know if a majority of people in a party (I assume you don't mean the party's elected representatives but the voters or party members) are in favor of a bill? If that's really what you're asking, maybe take out the US as an example, add the democracy tag and focus the question on that proposed system entirely?
    – JJJ
    Oct 6 at 16:54
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    the term you're looking for is "party discipline". I recall that India actually has something almost reaching this.
    – Fizz
    Oct 8 at 6:01
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    @RickSmith I'm interested to understand how you think writing about a politicians voting intentions that they have repeatedly made public discredits them? The question doesn't assign any (false?) motive to the stance, which I could understand being a problem.
    – Jontia
    Oct 8 at 7:44
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Discipline is a combination of the carrot and the big stick.

In Westminster type Parliaments there are both: The carrot of "Vote the right way and you'll get a chance at promotion" and the stick of "losing the whip and facing automatic deselection at the next election."

Neither is very effective in the US system. Ministers are not Senators, so a President can't favour those senators that vote the "right" way with jobs in the administration. And selection is very much at the whim of the State's primary voters, not the national party. The Democratic party leadership can't deselect a senator who isn't toeing the line.

There are countries with quite strict and constitutionally implemented systems of party discipline. India comes to mind. There is an anti defection law

...A member of a House belonging to any political party shall be disqualified for being a member of the House—

(a) if he has voluntarily given up his membership of such political party; or

(b) if he votes or abstains from voting in such House contrary to any direction issued by the political party to which he belongs or by any person or authority authorised by it in this behalf, without obtaining, in either case, the prior permission of such political party, person or authority and such voting or abstention has not been condoned by such political party, person or authority within fifteen days from the date of such voting or abstention.

and the 91st amendment states:

A member of either house of Parliament belonging to any political party who is disqualified on the ground of defection shall also be disqualified to be appointed as a minister.

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  • The wikipedia article on Whips in the US suggests the committee system is the most potent tool available to impose party discipline in the US. Given this system appears required to provide Bernie Sanders with the chair on the Senate Budget committee you can probably see how weak this system is.
    – Jontia
    Oct 11 at 7:22
  • Re "...selection is very much at the whim of the State party...", that's not exactly true, unless you consider the state party to be all the registered voters of that party who vote in the primary election. Of course backing by the state party organization helps, but there are plenty of cases where the candidate favored by the party loses the primary, and many more where the party doesn't express a preference.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 11 at 16:43
  • That was what I meant, but I'll clarify
    – James K
    Oct 11 at 16:44
  • Even without constitutional restrictions or laws on the matter, Canada has very rigid party discipline. Party leaders have the final say on who is allowed to be a candidate for the party and they don't hesitate to exercise that power. If you defy the leader and vote against the party line, you'll get kicked out of the caucus. You'll only be able to run for re-election as an independent, which is quite difficult because in practice most voters are voting for a party rather than specifically for the local candidate on the ballot, who may often be fairly obscure and easily replaceable. Oct 11 at 21:41
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With US democracy (and many others) it is a principle that a person is elected as representative. In other words the people of District A do not just vote for "the Democratic party" but for "John Q Smith" who happens to be a member of the Democratic party. The Democratic party has specifically chosen to put John Q Smith as their candidate by running primaries in which he won. (In other countries a "riding association" would have chosen him.)

Implicit in this is the the idea that it is John Q Smith who gets to decide how he votes, not the Democratic party. If his constituents dislike his decision they will vote against him next time. If it was just a party choice, there would be no point in electing John Q Smith (as opposed to Jane A. Robinson). All elections would be just votes between parties.

Note that often in the US individual representatives vote against party policies because they know their constituents are actually on their side. Their electorate may (for example) be generally Democrat but strongly against gun control. Their representative is highly likely to vote with the Democratic party on most things, but against gun control. If the Democratic party doesn't like it when John Q Smith doesn't vote on party lines they can try running another nominee, but if the electorate wants their representative to vote against gun control then they will vote for John Q Smith.

This happens quite often in other countries, but it is particularly prevalent in the US because of the US very narrow two party system, which means that many representatives (and many electorates) are members of whichever of the two main parties is closest to their views, even though they differ from them in significant ways.

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    "it would be very hard to get any bill passed" Have you looked at how many bills get passed? Oct 7 at 1:21
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    "With almost all the democracies in the world it is a principle that a person is elected as representative": I would question the "almost all" here, as many democratic states use some form of party list system (either alone, or alongside a vote-for-a-person ballot), where you very much do vote for a party, not a person. Oct 7 at 8:25
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    Even in cases where you explicitly vote for a person and not a party its impossible to disassociate the two. The idea that the majority of voters care about their local candidates preferences over the party they represent needs to be proven before it can be used to justify behaviour. The example of New York's 14th district is a good one. Especially with the previous D candidate still being on the 2018 ballot.
    – Jontia
    Oct 8 at 8:16
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    @DJClayworth: for democracies in general (Westminster-style excludes most of Europe and South America, for example), here's a list of states that use PR. Here's a list of places that use a mixed-member system. Oct 8 at 14:41
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    @DJClayworth I'd love to see some study figures on that. I can't imagine they'd be easy to substantiate. Especially mixing in the primary processes in the US. Certainly the shear number of people in the UK who don't actually appear to know anything about their local MP apart from their party, even when those individuals regularly break from the party line is substantial.
    – Jontia
    Oct 8 at 14:41
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The answer by @JamesK is very good but misses some key points that I expand upon here.

In a parliamentary system, when, as the Democrats do now, the majority party holds a very thin majority, a vote against the majority party position by a member of that party (or the majority coalition if it is made up of more than one party) on an issue which has not been designated a "free choice vote" results in parliament being dissolved and new elections being held.

Effectively it disempowers members of that representative's own party from exercising legislative or executive branch power in the future until the new election is held and a new coalition government is formed, because political norms call for the prime minister and the prime minister's cabinet to act as a caretaker government pending the outcome of that election (usually held within two or three months of the vote). Failure to support the majority in these system basically shuts down the entire legislative process for several months with no guarantees that the post-election legislature will be better.

Indeed, in situations where the prime minster and the prime minister's cabinet are elected with the support of a coalition of multiple political parties, a failure to a member of the majority coalition to support the prime minister that triggers a snap election isn't uncommon.

This is particularly common in systems like Israel and until recently the system used in Italy, where proportional representation allows many small political parties to form (unlike in Germany where a party needs 5% of the vote to get seats in the parliament) getting a share of the legislature exactly proportional to their share of the vote with seats filled from party lists. In those systems almost all prime ministers require coalition support to control a majority, and those coalitions often includes many parties. Italy and Israel have each had dozens of short legislative sessions due to snap elections triggered by the collapse of a multiparty coalition government when one or more member parties broke ranks. But, because voters don't change much in the year or two between snap elections in these systems, the parties available to form a new coalition are often very similar to those in the government that fell due to lack of majority support on some key legislative issue. Overall, people in those countries find this experience to be very frustrating and it leads to a great deal of cynicism about politicians and the political process beyond the already ample norm for any representative democracy.

Indeed, the early part of the realignment process in the United States, roughly speaking in the late 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. while it nominally had a two party system, in practice, really had a de facto three party system made up of Northern Democrats, Southern Democrats, and Republicans, in which Southern Democrats sided with Northern Democrats to organize Congress procedurally and on economic issues, but sided with Republicans on many social issues and on military affairs. Eventually, however, realignment proceeded further, and the former Southern Democrats were replaced by Democrats from the South that were genuinely liberal (mostly black) and by Republicans from the South who were conservative. Again, however, because the Presidency was left undisturbed unlike a parliamentary system, this issue by issue decision-making as the Southern Democrats sometimes favored one faction and sometimes favored another, worked out without undue disruption to the functioning of the government.

In contrast, a breach of party discipline in in the U.S. legislative process undermines that party's success only on that particular piece of legislation. The majority party remains in procedural control of the chamber and retains a majority which can allow the majority to pass future legislation on other subjects which even moderates in a party prefer more often than the other party's position, until the next scheduled election.

The U.S. does not hold snap elections when the majority party loses support on an issue (or even loses control of the chamber and loses a majority due to a vacancy, a vacancy election, or a party switch by a member of the majority party). The U.S. has experienced changes of partisan control between elections in a chamber.

In particular, a party with a President in power, like Biden for the Democrats now, continues to control the executive branch and the regulatory process even if it can't enact anything but a minimum common denominator set of appropriations bills necessary to keep the government open and functioning, and approves sufficient Presidential political appointees that require Senate consent for the government to continue to function. Congressional norms and exceptions to the filibuster rule in the Senate generally allow this to happen despite deadlock on other matters.

In the U.S., with its bicameral system, at long as the President's party controls either the House or the Senate or has an effective filibuster position in the Senate, the President doesn't have to devote much time to fending off hostile legislation which can't pass anyway, and proceeds without significant new legislation.

Also, it bears noting that the party does not entirely lack "carrots" and "sticks".

A legislative party can award desired committee seats and/or leadership posts to loyal members and deny them to members who are disloyal (although the bargain can also go the other way with a swing voting member of the paper receiving favorable treatment in order to vote in favor of party priorities on some issues despite being, overall disloyal). Indeed, in rare cases, members who have engaged in serious misconduct or disloyalty are stripped of all committee seats and leadership posts, and often have trouble getting re-elected even in a safe district, as a result.

Also, the non-legislative part of the party can choose to supply or deny election campaign resources to members based upon their loyalty in terms of party discipline. Again, however, this isn't always how it works out. Unreliable members of the party with poor party discipline tend to be in districts where the majority party is lucky to have anyone in office at all (such as Senator Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia which was one of the most pro-Trump states in the United States in the 2016 and 2020 Presidential elections).

If a member of a party is too disloyal to the party line in a district that is reasonable safe for the party, the rank and file primary and caucus voters in that district can frequently support a primary challenger to the incumbent. But even then, this is not done lightly. This is because so much power in Congress (particularly with regard to earmarking spending for one's home district) is allocated on the basis of seniority. It is also because incumbents empirically have such a strong electoral advantage relative to candidates of the same party in an open race in the same district. So disloyal incumbents are really only at risk of a primary in a seat that is safe for that incumbent's party and the harm done by the disloyalty is perceived to outweigh the benefits that the district receives from that incumbent's seniority.

Allowing deviations from the party line is one way that the party makes its members for districts that naturally favor the other main party or are closely divided to win re-election by appearing more moderate than the party as a whole which the district wouldn't support.

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  • "a vote against the majority party...results in parliament being dissolved and new elections being held." Not necessarily. In some parliaments (currently true in the UK since 2011, though that may be changing), only a no-confidence vote, or a vote for an early election, leads to an election. Any other time a government loses a vote, it adjusts its plans and carries on. Oct 13 at 14:16
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According to a 2009 survey there were more countries that had (at least then) anti-defection laws. Sometimes these laws give the party a lot of power (to enforce party discipline), e.g. in an extreme case if one is expelled from the party for whatever reason, they lose their parliamentary seat as well. Chief examples of countries with such broad provision would be Namibia, Seychelles, or Singapore (article numbers below refer to their constitutions):

Namibia, Article 48. Vacation of Seats (1) Members of the National Assembly shall vacate their seats: (b) if the political party which nominated them to sit in the National Assembly informs the Speaker that such members are no longer members of such political party.

Seychelles, Article 81. Vacation of Seats (1) A person ceases to be a member of the National Assembly and the seat occupied by that person in the Assembly shall become vacant— 27(h) if, in the case of a proportionally elected member— (i) the political party which nominated the person as member nominates another person as member in place of the first-mentioned person and notifies the Speaker in writing of the new nomination; (ii) the person ceases to be a member of the political party of which that person was a member at the time of the election

Singapore, Article 46 (2) The seat of a Member of Parliament shall become vacant— (b) if he ceases to be a member of, or is expelled or resigns from, the political party for which he stood in the election;

The paper did note/conclude that:

Notably absent from these lists are the established democracies of Western Europe. In sum, laws that ban party defections are more common in nascent democracies than in established democracies.

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As for the question "Is there any other... ": there was such a country, the USSR. There was one party, the CPSU, and by the principle of Democratic Centralism, invented and promoted by the founder of that party, V.I. Lenin, every member of CPSU must obey all decisions of CPSU meaning, the decisions of the leadership of CPSU but they are supposed to elect the leadership. I am sure the Communist Party of China now implements this principle too. So I guess, China is another example.

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  • Technically this is correct but irrelevant to the point being discussed here since the USSR didn't have multiple parties. Also, you're underestimating how many countries have something similar to India's anti-defection provision. I actually posted a link under the Q (while it was closed) with such a survey... but it got deleted and I can't find it again right now. There were about a dozen countries, mostly in Africa... Namibia for sure was among them.
    – Fizz
    Oct 15 at 11:39
  • @Fizz: The OP says nothing about multiple parties. And I said nothing about other countries (except USSR and China). Otherwise you are completely right.
    – markvs
    Oct 15 at 11:47

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