Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Jeffords' Defection: The Tip of an Iceberg

Jack Boeve


June 4, 2001

Just when everybody was, like it or not, beginning to acquire their sea legs onboard the Republican-controlled ship, Jim Jeffords, moderate GOP Senator, defected from the party, declaring himself an independent and aligned with the Democrats. That action set off an earthquake from Vermont's Green Mountains, with shockwaves rippling from coast to coast, weakening the four-month tenuous grip of Republicans on both executive and legislative branches.

While it certainly has not been completely smooth sailing in the Senate prior to this shakeup, everybody knew what the Senate sailing manual said under the unique power-sharing agreement hammered out between helmsman Trent Lott and Tom Daschle. With Jeffords' shifting weight on deck, the highly-prized committee chairs get new occupants, the agreement basically gets tossed overboard, and the ship will likely assume a different course. Negotiating a new agreement with Daschle in charge is guaranteed to be contentious and could take weeks. In the interim, we must weather confusion.

President Bush says he plans to continue on his bipartisan course, even if it takes longer. His attitude: "This is what we've been dealt. Let's make it work."

Politicians have changed parties in the past, and however dramatic Jeffords' defection has been, apart from upsetting the power balance so easily and so sharply, it illuminates a simple and mundane but troubling problem below the waterline. The links between elected officials, political parties, and voters can be—and often are—quite weak and easily broken. Consequently, officials with low levels of loyalty to their parties are less accountable to either the parties or the voters, meaning that no one has that much control or discipline over them. The Jeffords switch is only the tip of this larger iceberg.

This being the case, we should not be surprised at the general free-for-all nature of today's politics. Members of Congress either link and de-link with other elected officials around diverse issues, or they demonstrate greater fealty to special interests than to the position of their parties or the wishes of the voters. The effect is a kaleidoscope of shifting alliances that may change ever so swiftly and dramatically.

As voters, we must note well how fragile our electoral influence is and how little our votes may count, particularly when the power balance is delicate. We must recognize, too, that we might elect a public servant who might not be strongly committed to the party of our own affiliation. He or she may, of necessity, in these circumstances be a calculating, free-wheeling politician who feels compelled to play the interest-group game and even change parties on us overnight. After all, parties do not so much decide who will be their members; officials choose the parties with which they want to be identified.

For stability's sake in the governing process, I propose here a partial remedy. Elected officials desiring to change party affiliation other than at the start of a campaign should resign from office and let voters again have the right and responsibility to elect their representatives. We also need measures to handle committees justly when party changing occurs.

If you are the least bit uncomfortable with the Senate's (or the House's) authority structure lacking control and discipline, or appearing out of sync with political realities, consider carefully two matters: 1) the candidates you will vote for in upcoming elections; and 2) what else we might do to reform the system to strengthen the links between voters, officials, and parties. Healthy government requires full accountability by officials to an informed electorate.

—Jack Boeve, Assistant Development Director
   Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”