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You Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone

Ryan Grim reports in Politico today that the Republican leadership in the House is growing annoyed with several of the retiring members of the GOP caucus who are bucking the party line on important votes, even though they have no electoral incentive to do so. This is making life difficult for vulnerable Republicans who aren't retiring:

When the soon-to-retire flee the party line in droves--as they did last week on a bill that would have extended unemployment benefits for jobless workers--other members can feel stuck casting votes that they, too, might prefer to avoid.

At least eight retiring Republicans joined Democrats last November during a bitter fight to pass a funding bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. President Bush's subsequent veto was sustained by a mere three votes; seven retiring members joined Democrats in the override vote, meaning Republican leadership needed vulnerable members to vote with the president against funding for nurses, schools and other politically popular programs.

Part of what's going on here is that a bunch of the retiring members--like Jim Ramstad, Ray LaHood, and Tom Davis--are among the few actual moderates left in the Republican caucus. But I think this also illustrates one important aspect of how Congress works. There's a popular perception in some quarters that in their hearts most politicians are down-the-line liberals or conservatives, but only stray to the center to in order to win re-election. In fact, the reverse is probably closer to the truth: Quite a few members of Congress hold fairly moderate views, but end up with more extreme voting records in order to please party leaders and interest groups, secure better committee assignments, prevent primary challenges, and generally avoid being too disruptive in a legislative body that's structured to be very partisan. So it's not surprising that once members no longer care as much about advancing their careers or offending their colleagues, they feel freer to vote their real preferences.

--Josh Patashnik