Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Protecting the party, Colorado style

In their book Legislative Leviathan, Cox and McCubbins describe how one of the main jobs of legislative party leaders is to protect the party's label. People have to run for office with that party label next to their name, and party leaders need to make sure that that label isn't degraded by the behavior of its members.

Colorado has recently been witnessing a great example of this, as the minority Republican leadership in the statehouse tries to deal with the newest member of its caucus, Rep. Doug Bruce (R-Colorado Springs). Bruce is a longstanding anti-tax activist. He's the author of the state's 1991 Taxpayers' Bill of Rights (TABOR), which was amended in 2005 by voters because the state was no longer able to pay for stuff like education or roads. Through a vacancy, Bruce has been appointed to fill out a term in the lower house.

Bruce first apostasy in the capitol was to insist on delaying his swearing in as a new House member by five days. He did so to shorten his time in this session, which makes him eligible to run for an additional term under the state's term limits law. This was considered silly by many, but it was just the beginning. At his swearing in, a photographer tried to take a picture of Bruce kneeling during the session's opening prayer. Bruce responded by kicking the photographer. Let me repeat that. He kicked the photographer. The House responded in a bipartisan manner by passing its first censure resolution ever, 62-1.

Last week, there was more. The legislature was voting on a symbolic measure to honor the U.S. armed forces. This bill was co-sponsored by every member of the legislature, except Bruce, who incidentally sits on the Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. Bruce then asked to be excused from voting on the measure, calling it "a waste of our time." Now, yes, one can see his point. It was a purely symbolic bill that did nothing to measurably affect the U.S. armed forces. But symbols do have value in politics, and members' mailboxes have reportedly been flooded with letters condemning Bruce's behavior.

How did the Republican leadership respond to this? Just as Cox and McCubbins would predict. House Minority Meader Mike May stripped Bruce of his committee assignment. Democrats, for the most part, are watching Bruce with a mixture of amusement and mild annoyance. Republicans are outright embarrassed. And they're punishing him to protect the party's brand name.

Now, a new test emerges. Remember how Bruce insisted on waiting five days into the session to be sworn in as a new member? Well, it turns out he charged the state his $150 per diem for those five days in which he was not yet a member. Classy, particularly for a guy so concerned about government waste. Can't wait to see how the state GOP handles this one.

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