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Gramm's defection -- another tear in the fabric of party discipline

Congressman Phil Gramm is giving up his ''D'' for an ''R.'' Will the Texan's actions tighten party discipline in Congress and make it easier to decide what is a ''Republican'' and ''Democrat'' in American political life?

The Democratic congressman announced his resignation from Congress Wednesday, and said he would run as a Republican in a special election for his seat.

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House Democrats at a leadership meeting voted 26 to 4 to throw Mr. Gramm off the powerful Budget Committee because he consistently voted in defiance of party policy. Republicans immediately offered the him one of their prized seats on the committee.

''As a nation we have lost control of our politics,'' wrote historian James MacGregor Burns in his ''Deadlock of Democracy.'' The American party system ''requires coalition government which is notoriously unable to generate strong and steady political power.''

Near the turn of the century, in the days of House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed (R) of Maine, majority leaders cracked the whip and members obeyed: They might wait years to win a committee chairmanship. Obstreperous George W. Norris (D) of Nebraska led the revolt in 1910 against tyrannical Speaker Joseph Gurney (Uncle Joe) Cannon (R) that ended the absolutist rule established by Mr. Reed 20 years before. Today Congress has swung to the other extreme.

''In the 20th Century, the web of the party has been, most of the time, weak and getting weaker,'' writes James L. Sundquist in ''The Decline and Resurgence of Congress'' (Brookings, 1982).

Voter turnout has shrunk in the last five presidential elections, reaching only 54 percent in 1980. Sundquist observes: ''The recent deterioration of parties in the US must be a cause of grave concern.'' He adds: ''millions of young people, in particular, do not identify with any party, do not understand the differences between the major parties.''

Party discipline fluctuates, and the Gramm incident is being watched closely.

The disciplining of Congressman Gramm by the Democrats brought an answer from House GOP leaders indicating an attitude of ''we want him if you don't.'' House minority leader Robert H. Michel (R) of Illinois called the Democratic action ''a grievous assault on the right of an individual member to represent the views of his constituents as honestly and openly as possible.''

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Mr. Gramm could be hard to beat in a special election, and potential rivals mayhold their attack until 1984 in order to organize.

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