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Representative Jim Cooper has written an elegant cri de coeur elaborating his views of a dysfunctional Congress. I want to pick up on one of his themes, namely the difficulties of properly organizing a legislative chamber.
I am especially struck by the timing of Representative Cooper’s essay. If he had written this piece exactly a hundred years ago, in 1911, he might have said many of the same things. This was the end of the period of “Boss Rule” in the House, symbolized by the overbearing speaker, Illinois Republican Joseph Gurney (“Boss”) Cannon. Cannon was the last of a two-decade run of speakers who had a considerable grip, if not a stranglehold, on parliamentary ebbs and flows. For example, although most speakers in this era delegated committee assignments of minority-party members to the minority leader, they tenaciously held onto majority-party appointment power. It should be noted that during this period a nominal property right to committee positions as well as a seniority norm were emerging, and, accordingly, returning members were usually assured reappointment to the committees on which they served in the previous Congress, with the most senior majority-party committee member assuming the chair’s position. But “usually” did not mean “always,” the difference between the two determined by the preferences (whims?) of the speaker.
Although there is some dispute among political historians, it is generally believed that Cannon, more than most speakers, made a number of exceptions to these emerging practices, mainly to punish his enemies (progressive Republicans). But he went too far, several of his rulings were reversed, and, ultimately, he lost committee-assignment authority. After the Democrats captured the House in the 1910 elections, their leader, Missouri’s Champ Clark, occupied a much-weakened speakership.
The recent speakerships of Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich and California Democrat Nancy Pelosi were not as excessive as those of the Boss Rule era. But the look and feel of the House a century ago and the House during these more recent periods were those of a legislature tightly organized by the majority party and its leaders. Representative Cooper’s complaints about parliamentarianism are spot-on for this latter time, as they would have been in the early twentieth century.
If, on the other hand, Representative Cooper had written on this subject 50 years ago, in 1961, he would have reached very different conclusions. In January of that year, as the 87th Congress was organized with Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn as speaker and a new Democratic president about to be inaugurated, the House was no parliamentary regime. To the contrary, Speaker Rayburn was structurally quite weak and accomplished as much as he did by dint of personality and political wisdom, not formal authority.
Congress has enjoyed periods of reduced partisanship, but they never last.
Indeed, power had been radically decentralized in the 50 years since Boss Rule. Committee barons, their positions guaranteed by a strict application of the seniority norm, were in a commanding position. Speaker Rayburn, together with liberals in the party caucus, felt the major obstacle to legislative success for the new president was the House Rules Committee, in charge of regulating plenary time. Two of the twelve-member committee’s eight Democrats (including the Chair) and all four Republicans together formed a blocking coalition. Rayburn felt he had to move against the committee. In a historic 217–212 vote, Rayburn and the liberals prevailed in passing a resolution increasing committee membership to fifteen, allowing for the addition of two liberals from the Democratic side, while the Republicans added another conservative from their ranks. This was Rayburn’s last gift to the new administration (he died shortly thereafter): a relatively reliable working majority on the committee that was the legislative traffic cop.
If the revolt against Boss Rule at the beginning of the twentieth century led to more decentralized control, the move initiated by Rayburn had the opposite effect. Though not apparent at the time, speakers following Rayburn would grow increasingly powerful. Speakers O’Neill and Wright, among Representative Cooper’s heroes, accumulated growing power over the flow of legislation—multiple and sequential referral of bills and the imposition of time limits for committee consideration of bills, for instance—and appointment of committee members. Gingrich’s Republican revolution following the 1994 elections completed the resurrection of the speakership to its full powers. Speaker Pelosi did not look this gift horse in the mouth. The jury is still out on Speaker Boehner.
Placing Representative Cooper’s essay in this historical context, it seems there are two powerful equilibrium modes of legislative organization that need to be considered. The first is a majority-party arrangement tightly organized from the top—Boss Cannon, Gingrich, and Pelosi are the exemplars. The second is also a majority-party arrangement, but it is more decentralized and less controlled by party leadership. The golden era of powerful committee chairs, roughly 1940–1974, illustrates this latter equilibrium.
Political scientists have argued that the equilibrium that arises depends upon the level of cohesion within the majority party. A highly cohesive majority party is permissive in delegating authority to its leaders. A more internally divided majority party is less trusting of concentrated power. Republicans under Gingrich and Democrats under Pelosi exemplify the concentrated-power model of organization, while a highly diverse Democratic party in the mid-twentieth century (Northern liberals, Southern conservatives, suburban moderates) and perhaps Boehner’s Republicans today provide the circumstances in which the rank-and-file members of the majority are more nervous about empowering party leaders.
Representative Cooper’s wish is for something in between. A strong partisan model, whether with concentrated or dispersed power within the majority party, is not his cup of tea; it smacks of parliamentary, not congressional, democracy. Yet a more deliberative and reflective, and only mildly partisan, legislative politics is difficult to sustain.
History does not mysteriously alternate between one extreme—an empowered speaker—and the other—decentralized control by committee chairs. Instead, there are understandable conditions under which one or the other is likely to prevail. And though we have experienced a kinder and gentler legislative politics from time to time, such periods appear, alas, to be but temporary resting places between the extremes of centralized and decentralized majority power.
In politics as in life, you get what you pay for. In politics today, taxpayers are hiring mediocre talent, candidates who think their job is to duck the big policy issues in order to get elected and reelected.
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