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Here’s how Republican and Democratic party leaders reward the faithful and punish wayward members

Watch what they give, not what they say.

- December 13, 2021

This past month, some Republican members of the House demanded that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) punish other Republican House members. These demands ranged across the ideological spectrum. Ultraconservative members aligned with former president Donald Trump demanded that McCarthy eject from the party the 13 members who voted to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Two moderate members wanted McCarthy to remove Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) from committees after he tweeted a violent cartoon that depicted killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Instead, McCarthy downplayed internal divisions on the infrastructure bill and followed Gosar’s House-wide censure vote by promising to swiftly reinstate his committee memberships if the GOP retook the majority in the House.

But party and committee leaders don’t have many options for punishing their members. They can remove members from their committees, block members’ legislation or amendments, or publicly rebuke them on the House floor or in the media. But party leaders aren’t likely to do any of this. Not only do public punishments reveal internal divisions, making their party look fractured and weak, leaders also risk angering coalitions within their caucus — and losing their own power as a result.

For example, in 2012, after Republican Speaker John A. Boehner removed members of the House Freedom Caucus from their committees in 2012 for voting against GOP party leadership, backlash was fierce and swift, both from the conservative media and the members themselves. The slighted members continued to undercut Boehner, which most observers say pushed him into early retirement. More recently, the House Freedom Fund, a conservative PAC associated with the House Freedom Caucus, cited McCarthy’s 2019 decision to take Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) off preferred committees in its fundraising efforts — encouraging donors to “fight back” against this suppression by supporting conservatives.

Instead of public shaming, leaders send messages through campaign donations

Party leaders are eager to avoid that kind of conflict over public retribution. The damage makes it harder for them to lead, undermining their ability to pass legislation or even stay in power. So, what can they do? My research finds that congressional leaders show their displeasure with ideologically extreme members through a more covert means: withholding campaign donations through leadership PACs.

Congressional leaders maintain these PACS solely to donate to fellow members and candidates. Any current or former member of Congress can establish and manage their own leadership PAC. Their numbers and size have increased substantially over the past 20 years, as have other campaign finance tools. Using network analysis, I found that this congressional financial support system is vast. In the 115th Congress, which met from 2017 to 2019, all but 33 House members either donated to or received funds from a leadership PAC. Many did both.

We can use this network to analyze where party leaders are directing their money. So, to whom do party leaders donate? To answer that I looked at data from the two most recent Congresses, the 115th and the 116th, which met from 2019 to 2021. I found that party leaders, particularly Republican Party leaders, are less likely to donate to members who differentiate themselves from the party by joining ideological sub-caucuses, or “intraparty caucuses” — such as the House Freedom Caucus for Republicans, or the Congressional Progressive Caucus for Democrats.

These giving trends are notable when compared with moderate and loyal members: Moderate intraparty caucuses such as the Republican Governance Group or Democratic Blue Dog Coalition are more likely to receive funds from party leaders. Members who do not join any congressional caucus at all are the most likely to be rewarded by party leaders. Although all members of Congress in challenging reelection campaigns received leaders’ donations, those donations were smaller for members in intraparty caucuses.

Intraparty caucuses as a source of financial support

But when party leaders refrain from funding members of ideologically extreme intraparty caucuses, those excluded groups counteract punishments by raising funds for one another. Conversely, while moderate groups are more likely to receive funds from party leaders, they are less reliant on donations from intraparty caucus peers.

(While this research considers only intraparty groups, policy or demographic caucuses such as the Congressional Black Caucus could be potential sources of financial support or punishment for members as well, depending on their relationship with party leaders.)

But importantly, Republican and Democrat leaders use leadership PAC punishments differently. In the 115th Congress, a Republican House member who did not join an intraparty caucus had an 86 percent likelihood of getting leadership money, while a Freedom Caucus member was only 30 percent likely to get those funds. Meanwhile, Democratic Party leaders still generally donated to Progressive Caucus members, albeit at lower rates than non-caucus members. Progressive Caucus members had a 60 percent likelihood of receiving leadership funding, while members who did not belong to an intraparty caucus were 75 percent likely to get such funds.

Will Republican leaders punish ideological extremists?

In the 115th and 116th Congresses, Republican Party leaders donated to those who showed ideological loyalty and even moderation — and withheld funds from those who did not. Thus far, for the 117th Congress, these trends seem to be holding. Leadership PACs associated with McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) show no records of donations to Reps. Gosar (R-Ariz.) or Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) in the 2022 cycle. However, one or both of them has donated to every Republican who voted for the bipartisan transportation bill and is running again.

For party leaders and rank-and-file members of Congress alike, leadership PAC donations offer a less public opportunity to show support or disdain for a member’s ideological positioning and vote record. If the ideological purity tests escalate, conservatives may more consistently demand that McCarthy punish his moderate members. We can expect him to speak out in support of those ideological extremists. The test of his sincerity will be whether he puts his money where his mouth is.

SoRelle Wyckoff Gaynor (@sorealwg) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Maryland studying the U.S. Congress, partisanship, and political methodology.

Note: Updated Oct. 5, 2021.