Much of the analysis of the decision by Sen. Jim Jeffords to switch parties is nonsense, especially the idea that he was mistreated by Senate Republicans. For starters, Sen. Trent Lott, in a move less than popular with his colleagues, permitted the Vermont senator to be chairman of the Education Committee, a gratuitously gracious move.
Republicans loyally supported his milk compact, an arrangement by which milk prices to consumers are artificially raised to support dairy farmers an economic device which is anathema to conservatives.
Collegiality was further extended as the singing senators, a group in which Sens. Lott, Ashcroft, and Craig, all musical men with fine voices, invited Mr. Jeffords to join them, despite performances which impelled colleagues to beg for his microphone to be turned off.
During budget negotiations straight out of Lewis Carroll, Mr. Jeffords promised to support the president but only if $12 billion additional dollars were promised for an already fully-funded educational program. Republican leaders went to work to get the White Houses agreement. Mr. Jeffords, having prevailed, then reneged, demanding an additional $7 billion.
At that point Mr. Jeffords staff outlined specific new proposals to the Senate leaders which they then had to clear with the White House only to have them rejected by the senator.
Mr. Jeffords is praised as an independent, but in reality has always been a collectivist and is acting quite naturally in joining his Democratic soulmates, who want to increase government power over private citizens. Some say Mr. Jeffords was a Republican in the first place only because it easier to win in the small pool of Republicans in heavily Democrat Vermont. Of course, the honorable way to change parties is the Phil Gramm way. He resigned his seat, went home, announced his new affiliation, and was re-elected as a Republican clean and clear, a point now-Majority Leader Tom Dashle made when Ben Nighthorse Campbell changed sides, but since then seems to have forgotten.
Mr. Jeffords, believing his own publicity, feels “independent” today, he is in for a big surprise. He will discover that the Democrat caucus in the Senate is sternly governed by its leadership. Sen. Max Baucus, who had been cooperating with the Bush administration on the tax bill, changed overnight: After the Jeffords jump he arrived with a new list of leadership-created demands for the bill. Mr. Dashle decides what all but the most senior senators may and may not vote for and punishes the uncooperative with the loss of choice assignments, a much rougher treatment than was ever meted out by senate Republicans. Mr. Jeffords isnt that senior so whats he going to do if Mr. Dashle is mean to him? Switch back?
The Democrats dont limit their commands to how to vote. On the night of the votathon on the tax bill, 98-year old Sen. Strom Thurmond was, by 11:20 at night, tired. But the old soldier didnt want to miss a vote. Sen. Joseph Biden offered to pair with him, as did another Democrat, so he could go home and get some rest. Pairing is a procedure by which a senator on the opposite side of an issue from an absent senator withholds his vote. This is done when the outcome of a vote will remain unchanged and is a traditional senate courtesy. Democrat Sen. Daniel Innoue and Republican Stevens, senior citizens and old friends, did make such a pact and went home. But then-Minority Leader Tom Dashle, Sen. Reid and Mrs. Clinton, who made a conspicuous dash across the senate floor to intervene, muscled the senator from Delaware out of his kind offer. Republicans have noted that the only possible reason for their behavior was to fatigue the aging senator further. Truly vicious.
If Mr. Jeffords had really wanted to make a difference, he could have become an Independent and declined to organize with either party. In that position, he could have been the deciding vote on a number of issues and able, probably, to collect tribute in the form of support for his pet projects (for his constituents) from both sides of the aisle.
So: Mr. Jeffords, and his power, are gone, and the members of liberal Republican minority, with no blackmail power left over their leaders, are no longer the governing power of the Senate. That power has gone to Sen. Zell Miller, Democrat of Georgia, and such allies as he can organize.
M.D.B. Carlisle was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Daniel Oliver was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission from 1986 to 1989.