WASHINGTON -- Alabama Rep. Oscar W. Underwood became the first House Democratic Whip in 1899, serving in the 56th Congress. Underwood's job was a simple one: Persuade his colleagues to show up and to follow the party line. Keep an accurate count of who is with him and who isn’t. And never forget.
The Democrats named their whip in response to a similar Republican move.
“The republican caucus has given Representative [James A.] Tawney, of Minnesota, the position of party whip, giving him full powers to summon attendance of members,” a newspaper in 1899, the Atlantic Constitution reported. “He is to keep a record of every vote, and no republican member is to absent himself without the whip’s permission. … [A]nd in every way is to guard the interests of the party so that the opposition will not be able to take advantage of the narrow margin which the republicans have to go on. They need every vote, and as there is usually laxity in regard to attendance when the majority party has the sort of margin that the republicans had in the past congress, to propose to guard against such a contingency now.”
Today, the Democratic position belongs to Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer and while much has changed in the century since, the job is more or less the same, requiring an intimate understanding of each member of the party and endless face-to-face conversations. Often, when the House is holding three back-to-back votes on seemingly meaningless issues -– the naming of a Post Office, for instance –- the real purpose behind them is to corral members on the floor so a whip count can be taken. A series of three short votes can be enough to get a full count.
This tradition-bound ritual is finally getting a technological upgrade. The scraps of paper the whip team currently uses are being replaced by handheld devices: iPads, iPhones and BlackBerrys.
“There were a number of drawbacks to the old way. It involved pieces of paper, which easily could get lost. There’d be a delay in the whip having the information from when it was gathered,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a member of the whip team.
Polis told HuffPost that if, for instance, he had six names on a whip sheet and managed to fill four of them out, he’d likely hold on to the paper while looking for the other two -- meaning that the whip’s office would need to wait that much longer to get the information. Staffers then put the info from the whip sheets into a database, leading to occasional errors as well as another delay in getting information.
Under the new system, as soon as a whip-team member learns of a member's position, it can be instantly submitted, letting the whip's office know where the member stands.
Polis has been testing the new system on his iPhone. A Hoyer aide said that it’ll be put into full effect during the next vote that will be whipped, though it’s unclear when that’ll be.
“It decreases the error rate. It increases the speed,” said Polis. “It’s overdue.”