A Differerent Kind of Whip
The following article recently ran in the National Journal
A Different Kind of Whip
Rep. James Clyburn is designing his whip operation to give diverse House Democrats increased input on legislation.
By Richard E. Cohen
New House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., is off to a fast start. While coordinating the vote counting to assure that Democrats prevailed on the House floor on their first-100-hours agenda, and also preparing for more-arduous challenges that lie ahead, he has begun to expand his job description. With little fanfare, he has launched plans that would give his whip organization unprecedented
influence in crafting policy.
As envisioned by Clyburn, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the senior chief deputy whip, will work with seven distinct House Democratic groups—from the Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, to the moderate Blue Dogs and New Democrats—along with committee chairmen and party leaders to assure that all views have been taken into account before committees begin preparing major legislation to send to the floor. An early example will be immigration reform, Clyburn said.
“Members get very nervous in being asked to vote for something where they were not intimately involved,” Clyburn said in a January 12 interview in his spacious third-floor Capitol office overlooking the Mall. “The committee chairmen will reap the benefits of whatever product we [in the whip operation] have, to make sure that concerns are addressed.”
Clyburn conceded that his approach will trigger a big change in House operations, affecting the committee system and some once-autocratic chairmen. “One-person rule is the
most efficient but the least effective,” he said. Clyburn added that he has presented his plan to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and “they thought it was a great idea.”
In a separate interview, Lewis said that the goal is to head off potential problems early. “We will take a long look down the road and anticipate issues that are coming,” he said. “The Democratic Caucus is a very diverse group. We have to hold everyone together under the big tent.” Clyburn and Lewis expect to flesh out more of their plans during the House
Democrats’ retreat, scheduled for February 1-3 in Williamsburg, Va.
Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., a veteran Blue Dog leader and a chief deputy whip, said that Democrats must operate differently now than they did when they held considerably larger majorities in the early 1990s. Back then, “we got on the airplane at 30,000 feet. That won’t work now,” Tanner said. “Members should have a chance for input before things are set in
stone. It’s easier to get on the plane when it’s on the tarmac.”
Ever since the Democrats’ electoral victories in November gave them a 233-202 House majority, considerable attention has focused on Pelosi, her onetime rival Hoyer, and the hard-charging Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. Compared with these Type A colleagues, Clyburn, the team’s No. 3 leader, has been relatively low-key.
As an African-American and a Southerner from a heavily rural district, Clyburn brings a different voice to the leadership. (He is the second African-American to serve as House majority whip, following Rep. William Gray, D-Pa., who held the job from 1989 to 1991.) And Clyburn will be interesting to watch as he tries to put together a different type of whip operation. Whether his approach works will go a long way in determining the House Democrats’ ultimate success or failure in the 110th Congress.
Already, Clyburn has shown that he’s not afraid to challenge the House Democrats’ old bulls. As an example, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., cited mine-safety legislation that the House enacted last year with significant bipartisan support in the wake of a series of deaths in the industry, including an explosion at West Virginia’s Sago Mine that killed 12 workers. “Some Democrats opposed it as not strong enough,” Cummings recalled. “But Clyburn said at a caucus meeting that we need to be careful not to get caught up in small issues, and let’s look at the big picture.” Although most Democrats eventually went along, Cummings added, the opponents included Rep. George Miller, DCalif., now chairman of the Education and Labor Committee.
The son of a Baptist preacher, the 66-year-old Clyburn once planned to go to seminary. He is deeply religious and often invokes spiritual metaphors. And, in the Southern tradition,
he is a rich storyteller with a deep cadence. So, questions about his role in the new Democratic majority can prompt lengthy and seemingly indirect replies.
“I had two younger brothers,” Clyburn explained in a two-hour interview in the Capitol a few days before Christmas. “As kids, we were having a disagreement one day that turned into a fight. After my father thought it had gone on long enough, he called us over. And he gave a piece of cord string first to Charles, who was the youngest, and asked him to pop it. Charles
couldn’t. Then, he gave it to John and asked him to pop it. John couldn’t. Then he gave it to me, the oldest and the strongest, and he told me to break the string. I couldn’t break it. Then he took that piece of cord string in the palm of his hands and started rubbing his hands together. The more he rubbed, of course, the more friction he created. And the cord string started to unravel.” Then, the father gave his three sons the lesson: “Don’t you let the little disagreements that crop up among you cause so much friction. Because if you do, the world will pop
Lewis, who was a young disciple of Martin Luther King Jr., said that he met Clyburn in Atlanta in 1960, when each belonged to the fledgling Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “I was impressed with him,” Lewis recalled. “He was always focused, with no backslapping. He was very serious.”
Clyburn was among nearly 400 people arrested in 1960 when he helped to organize lunch-counter sit-ins in Orangeburg, S.C., and he became the chief witness in the trial. His conviction was later overturned after a second trial. One benefit for Clyburn: He met his wife, Emily, during his three days in jail, and they married in 1961.
“What made Dr. Martin Luther King so successful was his ability to recognize the worth of every individual,” Clyburn said. “He didn’t organize the  March on Washington by himself.… I remind members that everyone has a role to play.”
Clyburn later spent two decades as a senior state official in South Carolina, including Human Affairs commissioner, before winning a seat in Congress in 1992. When he discusses his background, he prefers emphasizing that state government experience, contending, “My long suit is management.”
In fact, when National Journal reporters and editors interviewed Congressional Black Caucus members last September, Clyburn complained, “You always look at black members of Congress from the civil rights aspect. You never give us credit for developing legislative experience and congressional know-how and governmental background. I came here after running government agencies for 25 years. I didn’t come here after marching in the street.”
Now Clyburn heads a House team—assembled by him and the other leaders—of nine chief deputy whips, plus a few dozen regional and deputy whips. During the first few weeks of the new Congress, the famously fractious Democrats have often been unified on House floor votes, and they have attracted considerable GOP support for their first-100-hours agenda.
When several dozen members of the larger whip organization met on January 11, Lewis was impressed by their enthusiasm and goodwill. “We spoke of our unity… and the need to keep the solidarity going,” Lewis said, adding that Clyburn sees himself as “the shepherd of a flock, and he wants to include everyone.”
Other members of the organization have observed that Clyburn takes nothing for granted. “He’s spit and polish,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a close Pelosi ally and another chief deputy whip. “No stone is unturned to make sure that members are voting with us.… None of this is accidental. It’s carefully orchestrated with the leadership team.”
Like all but two of the chief deputy whips, Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., also held the post when Democrats were in the minority, most recently with Hoyer as the whip. “Each leader brings his own approach,” Crowley said. “Jim is a consensus builder. He has many great expressions as a Southerner, such as, ‘You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.’ ”
Crowley added that he was impressed when Clyburn visited his largely minority district in Queens and the Bronx in 2005. “I saw a whole new side to him when he talked to parts of my community about his background and experiences,” Crowley said. “He’s a soft-spoken, passionate worker for whom people have strong feelings.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who is the junior member of the chief deputy whips and was not born until three years after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, received an early introduction to the demands of her new position. Over the Christmas break, she telephoned Democratic colleagues to respond to their queries and concerns about the internal rules package that party leaders had prepared for action when the House convened on January 4.
“Some of them needed more information to get them to ‘yes,’ ” Wasserman Schultz said. “We have been prepared to respond, compared with Republicans, who were presumptuous with their members.” She called Clyburn “a warm and giving man who can build consensus through goodwill,” adding, “His genteel exterior belies a very savvy interior. He knows how
to play the chess game.”
Clyburn also made phone calls to members over the holidays, and as a result, he said, “we significantly modified” the pro- posed rules changes, to define, for example, when members could accept free travel to campuses and to clarify distinctions between public and private colleges. “With the 103 historically black colleges, most are private. So, we got a lot of push-back from our members,” Clyburn said, “and we had to make some modifications.”
With colleagues describing him in terms such as “soft-spoken” and “warm,” Clyburn might seem a far cry from another recent majority whip, former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas. But
while he lacks “The Hammer’s” in-yourface tactics, Clyburn is making it clear that he doesn’t want to lose on upcoming House floor showdowns.
Like many House Democrats, he is mindful of the party’s failures in 1993-94, which led to the Republicans’ 52-seat gain and capture of control in the 1994 elections. “I felt that we got arrogant in our caucus … to try to pass [President] Clinton’s health care plan without Republicans,” said Clyburn, who was a freshman at the time. “I will remind [the chairmen] that the lack of input from members in the 103rd Congress got us into problems.”
Gray, a former House Budget Committee chairman who served more than two years as whip before resigning in 1991, also recalls the days of a much larger Democratic majority. “A good whip goes to a committee chairman to describe what parts of a bill might keep it from passing,” Gray said in an interview. “But the chairmen didn’t like to hear that from me, and I would get into terrible fights with some who disagreed.… It got pretty rough during our meetings in the speaker’s office.”
“With a smaller majority, Clyburn will have a much more difficult job than I had,” added Gray, who has retired as president of the United Negro College Fund and does some consulting.
At the same time, Gray said that race should be less of a factor for Clyburn than it was for him. “Race mattered for me, because I was the first [majority whip]. People wanted to know if I was a creature of the [Congressional Black Caucus]. I successfully answered those questions,” Gray said. “So, Jim won’t have to.”
Clyburn launched his campaign for whip after some prodding last October from Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., a second-termer who has been a friend of Clyburn’s for about 30 years. “I asked him whether he had discussed his whip aspirations with other members,” Butterfield recalled. “I told him that he needed to make some calls.… As a Southern gentleman, he always put other people in front of himself.”
Butterfield effectively became Clyburn’s campaign manager, as the two were virtually inseparable for 12 days before the November election—in South Carolina and at campaign events across the nation. “I was his conscience and insisted that he make his calls,” Butterfield said. “He called about 200 members, with the help of four or five cellphones and an occasional
staffer. Now he is grateful to me.”
Although Clyburn was elected whip without opposition, speculation increased shortly after the election that Emanuel—who engineered the party’s victory as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman—might make a bid for the job. At a November 9 press conference, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., openly declared, “I hope that Rahm will consider going for whip.”
Later that day, Emanuel announced that he would defer and run instead for the caucus chairmanship that Clyburn had held the past year. But then Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., spent the next several days giving serious consideration to challenging Clyburn. She had won praise from Democrats for sponsoring and winning bipartisan passage last year of the embryonic-stem-cell research bill, which produced the first veto of the Bush presidency. Ultimately, she, too, decided against challenging Clyburn.
“Many members urged me to run for whip,” DeGette said in an interview last month. “But given the Hoyer-Murtha [contest for majority leader], I believed that we didn’t need a second rancorous leadership race. I believe that I would have won.” She previously had been a chief deputy whip, and Clyburn agreed to keep her in that post.
For his part, Clyburn said, “I was confident that I would win, but you always want to avoid opposition.” Asked about any lingering tensions from those abandoned bids, Butterfield said, “There is no residue. We are going forward.” But, when asked about DeGette, he replied, “I have yet to find who was her support.” Crowley added, “The jockeying took
place. It’s over. Now it’s about the business of the House.”
Meanwhile, Clyburn has also shown his political influence back home. His close dealings with Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean resulted in the DNC’s agreement to place the state No. 2 in the 2008 presidential primary calendar. “He’s ‘the man’ in South Carolina, and very powerful there,” Schakowsky said. “Make no mistake. He’s a very nuts-and-bolts politician.”