What does a congressional "whip" actually do?

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March 3 2010 5:18 PM

Cool Whip

What does a congressional "whip" actually do?

James Clyburn. Click image to expand.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn

Senate Democratic leaders are moving ahead on a reconciliation vote for health care reform, Sen. Tom Harkin said on Wednesday. What remains to be seen is whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip James Clyburn have the votes necessary to pass the bill with a simple majority. What do party whips actually do?

They count votes. The principle task of a party whip, formally known as "assistant party leader," is to keep track of the number of votes for and against a piece of legislation. They're also responsible, along with the party's leader, for "whipping up" support for a particular position. Not every vote gets whipped. If the party leadership knows that a bill is going to pass easily, they won't go to the trouble of counting every last vote. But when the vote is close—say the Senate leadership has 45 guaranteed "yes" votes and 10 "maybes"—whipping is necessary to get a more accurate head count.

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There are three stages of whipping. The most basic one is a simple head count. That's when the whip's staffers calls those of every other party member and asks how they're going to vote. The information is then entered into a spreadsheet or onto a paper list of members called a voting sheet.

If the vote is close, the whip moves to the second stage, in which members of the "whip team"—there are nine deputy whips in the House and 11 in the Senate—approach the fence-sitters and hear out their concerns. If a concern can be easily addressed, it gets fixed. If not, the deputy whip (or a committee chairman, or the party leader herself) can offer to help an ambivalent lawmaker on another bill in exchange for his or her vote on the bill at hand.

The third and final whip usually occurs the day before a vote, when whip team members approach their designated members—in the Senate, for example, each team member is assigned two or three senators they know well—and report the final tally.

Whipping can be a delicate business. Whip team members want to get an honest sense of how their colleagues will vote, but they don't want to be ham-handed about it. That means approaching senators in an informal way—either on the Senate floor or in their offices—and gauging their support level. Whipping a "no" vote is especially difficult, since senators don't like to admit that they're not going to vote with the leadership. But honesty is expected. If a senator says he's going to vote a particular way and then doesn't, his colleagues tend to remember. Timing matters, too. Whip a vote too early, and members may change their mind before the actual vote. (That leaves time for their constituents to get riled up.) Whip too late, and there may not be time to change their mind.

Whips also serve as liaisons between the members and the party leadership. That means helping mold legislation in such a way that members will support it, as well as persuading members to vote a particular way once the legislation is complete. The whip must also make sure members actually show up to the floor. He sends out a daily schedule of votes and information on how long a given legislative session will last. He may also stand by the chamber door, reminding members how the party wants them to vote by giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

Party whips were first used in the British House of Commons in the 1700s, named after the "whipper in"—the person on a foxhunt responsible for keeping the dogs focused. They weren't used in the United States until 1897, when the Republican speaker of the House appointed the first whip. Democrats followed suit in 1901. Senate Democrats named their first official whip in 1913, and Senate Republicans in 1915.

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Explainer thanks Betty Koed of the Senate Historical Office and Joe Shoemaker of Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin's office.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.