With the second season of “House of Cards” set to return to Netflix on Friday, star Kevin Spacey and his character, Frank Underwood – the Majority Whip in the United States House of Representatives (on the show) – teaches us critical lessons about the realities of our democracy. The political thriller exposes, showcases and even mocks the way Washington-style politics works – and even better, it shows us the frightening role of the party whip.
Now, we can’t take a fictional TV show as gospel. Yet, according to Kevin Spacey, those inside politics tell him that “House of Cards” is as close as to how Washington works as we’ve ever seen before. And with “House of Cards” returning on Friday, it means there are lessons that we can learn.
Frank Underwood’s 3 Keys To Congressional Voting (Spoiler Alert)
In the show, Underwood, fresh off helping Garrett Walker secure the presidency, was promised the role of Secretary of State. That promise is broken and not only does Frank Underwood exact his revenge on the man tapped instead to become Secretary of State, he works around to try and secure a bigger prize – the Vice-Presidency.
On his road to doing this was the creation and vote on the Watershed Bill. It would create thousands of jobs for a number of congressional districts including that of Underwood’s pawn and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Peter Russo. In trying to lock up votes for the bill, Underwood meets with two members of the House who are more ‘liberal’ than most in the Democratic Caucus.
He tells them to:
- Vote your conscience.
- Vote your district.
- Don’t surprise [Frank Underwood]
Underwood then emphasizes the importance of the last one – don’t surprise him. This is the role of the Whip in governments all over the world. Party Whips make sure that members vote the way of the Party and not the first two – which you would think are more important.
The Power Of The Party Whip In British Columbia
Here in British Columbia, we’ve been exposed to it and the results have been well documented – journalist Sean Holman produced a documentary called “Whipped: The Secret World Of Party Discipline” exposing the role of the Party Whip in the B.C. Legislature. Just 0.8% of votes in the B.C. Legislature between 2001 and 2012 went against the party line.
In British Columbian politics, the governing party holds all the power. Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) aren’t allowed to vote their conscience or vote their riding. They vote in line with what their Party Whip tells them because the Party needs every single vote to get their bill passed. If they don’t follow the party line, they won’t get any political favours from the party and are vulnerable to threats from within, as “Whipped” points out. Furthermore, the last time a government bill was defeated in the B.C. Legislature was 1953 – over 60 years ago.
In “House of Cards”, the two ‘liberal’ dissenting members are told by Frank Underwood’s wife to vote against the bill – in other words, surprising Underwood. This is due to outside pressures to kill the bill and in the end, the bill does not pass. The work of Underwood’s wife undid the work of Underwood and the two members were able to either vote their conscience and/or vote their district.
This wouldn’t happen in the B.C. Legislature. And of course, with just one single House of government in Victoria, there are no real checks and balances on the governing party. They have 4 whole years to run the province – accountability be damned.
If MLAs were able to dissent and break with their party on bills and matters that their ridings might not want, democracy would actually work the way it should. Members would be able to vote their conscience and/or vote their district. Real representation would actually occur.
But Does A Frank Underwood-Type Figure Help Get Legislation Passed?
At the same time, there is the argument that the mere existence of a Frank Underwood or a Frank Underwood-like figure in politics allows decisions to actually happen. The argument is that having people wrangle votes out of other like-minded legislators is how bills pass and how things get done.
The reason this hasn’t broken as a mainstream issue is because people simply don’t know about it. ‘House of Cards’ and Frank Underwood are just samples of evidence of how the Party Whip is adversely affecting democracy and how things get done in legislatures – not just in B.C., but across the country. It’s time to re-think this.
What are your thoughts on the existence of the Party Whip? Are you a fan of “House of Cards”? Are you a fan of Frank Underwood? What have you learned from the show? Leave a comment below.