When Florida's Democrats meet for their largest annual fundraiser this weekend, House members are likely to vote on a package of rule changes, one of which seems designed to crack down on the caucus' more centrist-voting legislators.
Rep. Jim Waldman of Coconut Creek, who is leading a committee of five House Democrats looking to rewrite caucus rules, confirmed to Sunshine State News that one of the rules he's proposed would require Democratic members to vote in accordance with official caucus positions, and impose penalties if they vote against those stances without receiving the necessary dispensations from House Democratic leadership.
As a leadership team, we need to know who is planning to follow the direction of the majority actually, a two-thirds supermajority of [members of] the caucus and just to be aware of where all the members stand, he explained. This just clarifies, so all members understand what it means to have a caucus position. The rule defines what a caucus position is and what type of sanctions there might be in the event of someone who does not follow the caucus position and does not have prior approval to deviate from that caucus position.
There's no rule change, what we've just done is put it into writing, Waldman continued --later conceding that, while this procedure is currently customary, there are presently no formal penalties in place to discipline members who ignore the rules. That would change if his proposal is adopted.
Waldman points out that the final draft proposals have not yet been published, but will probably be released sometime between Tuesday and Friday, so members will have time to consider them before voting whether to approve the entire package at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Gala June 15-16.
But several of the caucus' more conservative members expressed reservations about such a proposal, even while they said they would read and consider whatever is set before them before deciding what final position to take.
"I thought Democrats are trying to add people to the caucus, not remove them; I thought that was our mission, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, told SSN. I want to hear the rationale. What is the rationale for penalties? Obviously, they are a deterrent from people dissenting from the caucus, but doesn't that sound like leadership can't hold the caucus together, so we have to penalize [dissenters]?
I would have to look at that on its face to figure out what the penalties being proposed are before I took a position.
Moskowitz's concerns were echoed by Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg.
I'm not sure that I love that plan, but I do want to hear other people's ideas about what the positives and negatives are about taking that approach, why it's necessary and how come all of a sudden, the straight-talking freshman told SSN. I think [the system] already works. It seems to me that it worked pretty well as it is [this past session]; that's my impression.
Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, sounded a cautiously optimistic note when asked about the proposed rule change, suggesting that its soundness will depend chiefly on how it is applied by future House Democratic leaders.
The leader should be afforded the respect of knowing when members may not vote with the majority of Democratic members, but if the leadership just flat-out denies a member's request [to be exempted from voting with the caucus], that's not very democratic," she told SSN. "Hopefully. in practice that's not what would happen; hopefully, caucus positions won't be abused and the discretion to grant these passes won't be abused, either. ... I think those members who come from swing districts [and who] vote differently shouldn't be punished, ostracized, or expelled.
Moskowitz, Dudley, and Edwards are among several freshman House Democrats who have come under fire in recent months from progressive activists for moving their party slightly closer to the right in 2013. The Florida Squeeze, a left-wing political blog authored by several veteran progressive writers and activists, gave them relatively low gradesfor their votes on environmental, economic, and gun issues.
Kartik Krishnaiyer, a Democratic consultant who founded Florida Squeeze and serves as its editor-in-chief, thinks the proposed rule change is an idea whose time has come.
Where I want to see this [new proposed rule] implemented is particularly on economic and environmental issues, he tells SSN. I see more and more Democrats from urban areas, from safe Democratic districts, casting votes against the economic interests of their constituents, and against the environmental and quality-of-life interests of their constituents, taking a position that cannot be reconciled with Democratic primary voters in these safe districts.
He concedes, however, that when it comes to the so-called social issues in particular, gun control and abortion I think you need to be very careful on those, because you have several people who have regional issues or strong religious convictions, and you can't throw them out of the caucus for one or two bad votes.
Waldman insists that the proposed rule change would not make the Democrats a less welcoming party than the Republicans.
Our position is still more democratic: you have to have two-thirds of the members approve a position [before it's adopted by the caucus], he told SSN. Ours is still a much better policy than what the Republicans have, of [leaders] telling their members, 'This is how we're going to vote.'
But Kristen McDonald, communications director for the House GOP, tells SSN that the majority caucus imposes no such ideological or voting litmus test on its members.
According to the rules of the Republican conference, every Republican member of the House 'shall be' a member of the Republican conference, she explains. There are no provisions that provide for exceptions to that rule, nor are there any rules regarding how members must vote on the issues that come before them. We believe that the tent of Republican Party is big enough to allow our members to vote their conscience.
Whatever final rules are put before them, Moskowitz, Dudley, and Edwards hope the Democratic tent continues to stay as open.
The system seemed to work well [last session], Moskowitz told SSN, citing the positions the Democratic caucus tookagainst voting for the budget and in favor of the read-aloud delay tactics adopted the last week of session, both of which were followed by membership. Leadership had to work hard convincing everybody why these were the right things to do, but that's OK; that's their job. I thought that worked fine, and nobody deviated [without permission from leadership].
This may be a solution in search of a problem.
Reach Eric Giunta at email@example.com or at 954-235-9116.