Representative Jim Cooper’s thoughtful critique of the contemporary U.S. Congress highlights important shortcomings in policy, procedure, and politics. And it underscores significant changes in Congress over the past four decades: increasing partisan polarization and the concomitant increase in the power of party leaders in the House. Party leaders in today’s House wield more power over the legislative agenda and over the careers of rank-and-file members than they have in more than a hundred years.
Cooper pins much blame on former Speaker Newt Gingrich, but the roots of partisan polarization extend far deeper.
Under Gingrich’s leadership, Republicans adopted reforms that centralized party control at the expense of committee power. Gingrich personally selected committee chairs, bypassing the most senior GOP committee members on some key committees. Republicans set six-year term limits for committee and subcommittee chairs, sending a clear signal that party leaders, not committees, were in charge. Gingrich even required incoming Appropriations Committee members to sign a pledge of support for the Contract with America. When committees drafted legislation that did not satisfy party leaders, Gingrich circumvented them by appointing special party task forces to craft legislation instead. These changes further reduced the power of Congress’s most effective tool to solve policy problems: subject expertise developed through a strong committee system.
Gingrich’s consolidation of power succeeded for several reasons: Democrats had already adopted reforms that empowered party leaders at the expense of committee chairs; rank-and-file Republicans were grateful to Gingrich for their unexpected majority status; narrow margins between the parties signaled ongoing battles for electoral and policy majorities; and, perhaps most important, Republicans largely agreed with one another on policy issues and disagreed with most Democrats, reflecting their increasingly polarized constituencies.
Party leaders acquired their most significant tools under the Democratic reforms of the early 1970s, when Democrats took power away from committees and empowered party leaders and the Democratic Caucus. From the late 1930s to the late 1960s, Democrats had held the majority almost continuously, but the party’s leaders were relatively weak. Strong committee chairs who maintained power through a strict seniority system controlled the legislative agenda, and a “conservative coalition” of Southern Democrats and Republicans often stymied the Democrats’ policy agenda. By the early 1970s, frustrated liberals and an influx of new Democratic members successfully pressed for reforms, giving the speaker much more control over the legislative agenda and members’ careers. Democrats reformed the seniority system, instituting an automatic, secret vote on all committee chairs by the Democratic Caucus. In 1975 Democrats ousted three committee chairs, and party loyalty increased among those who kept their posts. Democrats empowered the leadership-controlled Steering and Policy Committee to make committee assignments. The speaker was authorized to select chair and Democratic members of the House Rules Committee, rendering the Committee a tool of the leadership. With a 9-4 supermajority of handpicked, loyal Democrats, the Rules Committee could no longer thwart the leadership’s agenda. The Speaker was also given the power to refer legislation to more than one committee, to set time limits on committee consideration, and to expedite the consideration of legislation in committee and on the House floor.
Every speaker since Gingrich has sought to maximize the influence of party leaders.
Despite these tools made available to him, Speaker Tip O’Neill worked across party lines and did not abuse his prerogatives, as Cooper details. However, when Jim Wright succeeded O’Neill as speaker in 1987, the context was ripe for a powerful speaker to challenge President Reagan. Wright articulated a partisan legislative agenda, expanded leaders’ powers, and used procedural maneuvers to block Republican-supported amendments. The rise of Democratic leaders’ power led to a decline in Republican influence. Wright’s use—or, in the view of Republicans, abuse—of partisan tactics fueled Republicans’ frustration and pursuit of ethics charges against Wright, eventually leading to his resignation. Wright’s Democratic successor, Speaker Tom Foley, did not push the limits as Wright had, but partisan policy battles continued under his leadership.
Every speaker since Gingrich has continued to innovate to maximize the influence of party leaders at the expense of the committee system and members’ autonomy. During the speakership of Dennis Hastert, the party-led Steering Committee prioritized loyalty demonstrated by members’ votes and fundraising efforts as criteria in filling vacant committee chairs, sometimes passing over less loyal members with greater committee seniority. And, as Cooper notes, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the gavel after twelve years of GOP control, she benefited from Republicans’ expansion of leadership power. Even with an influx of Democrats from swing districts in 2006 and 2008, Democrats were more unified under Pelosi’s leadership than ever before, not only voting together at record levels, but raising more money for the party and for one another, too.
Parties have become deeply important to members’ careers. My research has shown that party leaders use their expanding arsenal of tools to exert discipline in pursuit of policy control and to reward rank-and-file members for their loyalty by preferentially determining whose legislation is considered on the House floor, allocating campaign resources, and making committee appointments. In this process of assessing loyalty and assigning rewards, party leaders may forgo opportunities to help their most electorally vulnerable members, those who represent districts where the party’s policies are least popular and therefore are most difficult for those members to support. Thus, a member’s ability to represent her constituents is affected by leaderships’ goals.
Narrow margins and fierce partisan competition are likely to persist well into the future, suggesting that leaders of both parties will continue to reward loyalty in both voting and fundraising. Partisan polarization in the House will continue unless more members who value their constituents and the reputation of Congress above the reputation of their party stand up to protest.