Rep. Michael Forbes, R-N.Y., and Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., are quitting the Republican Party--Forbes to be a Democrat, Smith to be an independent. Nevertheless, Smith insisted that he should retain membership in the Senate's Republican caucus and his chairmanship of the Ethics Committee and two subcommittees. What are the rules for joining or leaving a political party?
For voters and politicians alike, party "membership" is a surprisingly fuzzy concept in the U.S. political system. Basically, you are what you say you are.
Forbes and Smith nominally switched their affiliations by filing new state voter registration forms--the same ones used by regular citizens. But Forbes' form will remain in a lockbox until the first Tuesday after the general election in November (New York state instituted this delay in the 1940s to deter voters from switching parties right before the primary). Smith's move awaits rubber-stamping by a panel of state-appointed supervisors who meet every few months to review batches of registration changes.
The only purpose of the party designation on voter registration forms is to determine which party's primary you vote in. Half the states don't even ask for a party affiliation when you register and allow you to choose when you go to vote. And there is technically nothing to prevent someone registered, say, as a Democrat, from running as an independent--or even as a Republican.
In Congress, the majority party gets to appoint all the leaders, and defectors risk losing their committee chairmanships. But political expediency may allow some to preserve their status. The Republican leadership, fearful of alienating Smith's fellow conservatives, will reportedly allow Smith to retain his positions until the next election. Choice committee assignments and chairmanships are often used as enticements for politicians to switch from the minority party to the majority--as several Democrats did after Congress went Republican in 1994. The Democrats can't offer chairmanships, but they reportedly have promised that Forbes at least will be able to keep his seat on the Appropriations Committee.