Fall 2003

Editor's Introduction

Partisanship and Leadership in the U.S. Congress

Ronald M. Peters, Jr.

           On November 12, 2003, the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress and the Carl Albert Center co-sponsored a symposium in the Cannon House Office Building Caucus Room on the speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives. Panel discussions assessed the speakerships of the late Tip O'Neill (D-Mass., 1977-1987), Jim Wright (D-Tex., 1987-1989), Tom Foley (D-Wash., 1989-1994), and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga., 1995-1999). All three living former speakers participated, and the current Speaker, Dennis Hastert (R-Ill., 1999-present) gave a luncheon address. Among many topics broached that day, none featured more prominently than the effects of the increasingly hostile partisan environment on the culture and operation of the House.  Speaker Hastert, indeed, addressed the topic directly in what journalist David Broder characterized as the speaker's "first extended response to complaints from ...Democrats that they are routinely excluded from participating in House-Senate conference committees, are blocked from offering floor amendments, and are subjected to other restrictions on their legislative work" ("Hastert Defends His Leadership," Washington Post, November 13, 2003). 

           Since this day's events commemorated the speakership of Joseph G. "Uncle Joe" Cannon (R-Ill., speaker from 1903-1911), it was striking that so much concern was expressed about partisanship in the House. Cannon was the most partisan of all speakers, dominating the House and with it much of the policy agenda of the nation.  Uncle Joe controlled the Rules Committee, made all Republican committee assignments, referred bills to committees of his choice, and essentially dictated the terms upon which legislation would be developed and considered by the House.  Cannon's power was not absolute; on many issues he compromised and on some he gave ground. But on the issues most important to him, particularly tariff policy, he was in firm control. 

          "Cannonism," as it became known, became a campaign issue for the Democrats.  Local newspapers and the most prominent national magazines offered discourse on the nature and extent of Cannon's power.  Democratic candidates ran against the "tyrant from Illinois."  Cannon's critics claimed that the rights of the minority and of individual members were being trampled by the Republican majority. In response, Cannon and other Republicans articulated a theory of majority party governance that held, simply, that the majority party had the right and obligation to govern, and to use its institutional control for party aims for which it would be held accountable by the voters. Of course, House Republicans were not entirely cohesive, and included among their members a number of progressives.  Cannon, expecting party discipline, sometimes ran roughshod over the progressives, just as he did the Democrats; and it was the progressives who, in the end, brought him down by siding with the Democrats in the famous St. Patrick's Day revolt in 1910.  Cannon's position was not simply that the majority party should govern, but really that the majority of the majority party should govern.  Thus, it is striking that, in his luncheon address, Speaker Hastert said that he believed in "trying to please the majority of the majority" (Broder, op.cit.).

           From the day that Cannon left the speakership in 1911 until the day that Newt Gingrich (R-Ga., speaker from 1995-1998) entered the office in 1995, no House speaker was ever a national political issue. During most of the twentieth century the House was controlled by the Democrats.  Because a third of Democratic members were from the South and voted with Republicans on many issues, bipartisanship frequently characterized congressional policymaking. In some issue areas, the "conservative coalition" controlled policy.  In this context the committee system became ascendant, and the party leadership came to play the role of broker rather than tyrant.  Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Tex., speaker from 1940-1947, 1949-1953, 1955-1961) was the epitome of this leadership system and style. 

           Beginning in the late 1960s, as the political effects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 began to take hold, the Congress began a gradual process of realignment that would eventually swing most southern districts into the Republican column and in 1995 bring to the House its first Republican majority since 1955.  This gradual transformation led to an increase in partisan voting in the House, since there were fewer conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans.  The Democrats, in the majority, used procedural control to facilitate intra-party coalition building, much to the distress of Republicans who complained about the Democrats' tyrannical rule.

           When the GOP took control in 1995, they promised a fairer administration of the House.  But it soon became apparent that the Republicans commitment to their policy goals was more important to them than any concern for the rights of the Democrats. With thin majorities and little support from across the aisle, the Republicans did as the Democrats had done, using procedural control to shape policy according to their own principles. 

           The situation evolved somewhat differently in the Senate due to two factors.  First, several Democratic senators were elected from the South, contributing to a core of moderates from both parties who held the swing votes in many policy areas. Second, the rules of the Senate empower individual senators and minority coalitions, thus preventing the majority party from ramming legislation through.  Still, the Senate became more partisan than before, and when its rules contributed to legislative gridlock Senate leaders and other senators had an incentive to play partisan politics instead of seeking legislative compromise.

           Thus, the American political system at the turn of the twenty-first century was gripped in partisan conflict more severe now than at any time since the turn of the twentieth century.  One thing differs, however.  Now, and not then, American political science has developed a much more mature and sophisticated scholarly understanding of American politics in general and the Congress in particular.  It is perhaps only a coincidence that the inauguration of Joe Cannon as speaker of the House and the opening of the first House office building (bearing his name) came during the same year that the American Political Science Association was founded.  Even though coincidental, this is a coincidence from which we can draw an implication.  American political science and the field of congressional studies evolved alongside the evolution of the Congress from a substantially bipartisan to a substantially partisan institution, and along the way has been able to both document and explain the transition.

           Perhaps no scholar's work is more centrally identified with the role of partisanship and leadership in the United States Congress than that of Barbara Sinclair, Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, who in October 2003 presented the Carl Albert Center's eleventh biennial Julian J. Rothbaum Lecture in Representative Government at the University of Oklahoma. Professor Sinclair's topic was "Partisanship, Institutional Transformation, and PR Politics: The Shaping of the Congressional Policymaking Process." These lectures afforded Professor Sinclair the opportunity to draw together the threads of her previous research on both the House and the Senate, including her extensive writing on congressional leadership, leader-member relationships, and partisan conflict.

           Her first lecture, "From Sam Rayburn to Newt Gingrich: Partisan Polarization and Institutional Transformation in the Congress," traced the evolution of the Congress from an institution defined by collegiality and frequent bipartisanship to one in which neither collegiality nor bipartisanship is much in evidence. The indicators of this "institutional transformation," are numerous.  Party voting has steadily increased in both the House and the Senate over the past twenty years. The parties are more distant from each other in both partisan and ideological terms.  Within the Democratic party, the historical division between southern and northern members has sharply diminished.  After the 1975 ouster of three southern House committee chairs, southern committee leaders such as Jamie Whitten of Mississippi moved toward the Democratic median.  These underlying shifts gave rise to a more centralized party leadership regime. This tendency was accentuated when the Republicans took control of the House in 1995.  Since then, the partisan divisions in the Congress have become even more deep, and the role of party leaders more important. These changes in the Congress were driven by an underlying reconfiguration of the political landscape that, on the Republican side, was driven by ideas and values. Professor Sinclair stressed the importance of both the role of the neoconservative intellectual movement and the grass-roots efforts of the religious right in shaping the Republican party.  On the Democratic side, the growing influence of northern liberals pulled the party to the left. 

           Professor Sinclair's second lecture, "Partisan Polarization and Unorthodox Lawmaking: Process and Policy Considerations," sought to explain the effects of the partisan divisions in the Congress on the policymaking process.  Legislative parties in both houses of the Congress seek to use procedures to affect the substance of policy decisions.  In the House, the majority party typically uses its control over floor procedures to shape the rules under which legislation will be considered. Under both Democratic and Republican majorities, there has been a heavy reliance on restrictive rules that deny to the minority the opportunity to offer amendments to bills.  While the Republicans caviled about restrictive rules when in the minority, they have used modified or closed rules on almost three-fourths of major bills. On occasion, the Republican leadership has made substantive changes to bills in the Rules Committee.  The only right consistently reserved to the minority Democrats is a final motion to recommit bills with instructions. 

           The Senate differs fundamentally from the House because in the Senate the principle of unlimited debate empowers every senator. With 60 votes required to impose cloture on debate, a unified minority party can block legislative actions to which it is opposed. The threat of filibuster leads the Senate to rely on unanimous consent for ordinary operations, and has led to a system in which individual senators can place "holds" on Senate action by the intention to filibuster.  Since any senator can place a hold on a bill or a nomination, senators tend to be cautious in exercising this prerogative.  What goes 'round comes 'round.  Historically, the filibuster, the hold, and the reliance on unanimous consent have produced greater incentive for bipartisan cooperation in the Senate.  In the increasingly partisan congressional environment, however, filibusters have become more common and the number of cloture votes has increased.  While the number of successful cloture votes has also increased, the filibuster remains as an important impediment to Senate action on legislation, and a decline in the percentage of major bills enacted into law.

           The resultant political warfare was described by Professor Sinclair in her third lecture, "Filibuster Strategies, Veto Threats, and PR Wars: The President, Congress, and Policy Making." The era of increased partisanship has been marked by permutations in control of the Constitution's separated institutions.  President Reagan dealt with a Republican Senate and a Democratic House for six years.  During the last two years of the Reagan administration and the Bush 41 administration, both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democrats.  President Clinton worked with Democratic congressional majorities for two years, and then with Republican majorities for six years.  The current President Bush has had narrow Republican majorities in the House, but faced a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate during most of the 107th Congress.  At present, the government is under united Republican control.

           These patterns of institutional control shape policymaking. When the government is under united control of one party, presidents tend to work cooperatively with the legislative party leadership. When control is divided, the incidence of conflict across institutional lines increases.  Since there is less middle ground in the Congress, policymaking becomes more confrontational.  Presidents will more often veto or threaten to veto legislation.  Each side will stake out positions acceptable to core party constituencies.  Compromise is more difficult to attain.  Occasionally, to be sure, major legislative initiatives are passed with bipartisan support. One thinks of the welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton in 1996, the 1997 budget agreement, and the Bush education bill signed into law in 2001.  But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.  When the institutions of government are under united party control, the dominant party has an incentive to pass legislation satisfactory to its own members.  Laws are enacted with little or no bipartisan support.  Examples would include the first Clinton budget in 1993 which received no Republican votes, the Bush tax cut in 2001 that received very few Democratic votes, and the Medicare Reform Bill of 2003 passed with mostly Republican support. Even though Congress was able to legislate in these instances, the politics surrounding each bill was highly partisan leaving the losing side to feel as if it had been shut out of the process. 

           Central to both politics and policymaking in this partisan era is the role of legislative party leaders.  That topic has been central to Professor Sinclair's research over the past twenty-five years.  She has carefully described the mechanisms of party leadership that have developed since the reform movement of the early 1970s.  Her preferred theoretical framework is "principal-agent theory."  This approach takes members of the Congress as the principals and the elected parties leaders as their agents.  Just as in a more general sense voters send representatives to Congress to fulfill their goals, those representatives in turn choose party leaders in order to fulfill their goals.  Members of Congress have multiple goals, including a desire to win reelection, a desire to affect public policy, and a desire to further their careers within the institution or with respect to other office or position. Party leaders serve member interests by using the levers of influence and control available to them to satisfy member needs.  When it serves the purposes of members, they will provide more tools to the party leaders, strengthening the mechanisms of central party control. During the recent partisan era, members have preferred a more powerful party leadership.  This is most clearly manifested in the House of Representatives, where there are few barriers to majority party governance, but it is evident even in the more diffuse Senate, as members rely on party leaders to negotiate substantive and procedural agreements.

           The subject of congressional party leadership is among the most important focuses of congressional research among political scientists.  This issue of Extensions features two articles that help place our understanding of congressional leadership in perspective. In their article, "A Précis on Legislative Leadership," Gary W. Cox and Mathew D. McCubbins survey results produced by an array of scholars whose approach to the study of legislative institutions seeks and is guided by "positive theories" of political behavior. "Positive theory" seeks to ground an empirical theory of (in this case) legislative leadership behavior in a framework that assumes that political actors behave rationally with respect to their goals.  Owing much to approaches developed in organizational economics, positive theorists seek to conceptualize legislative institutions in terms of the roles played by individual members holding institutionally defined positions.  In the case of party leaders, positive theories ask, "what kind of organizations are legislative parties?" and "what incentives operate on their members and leaders?" 

           Cox and McCubbins recognize that the reform movement was critical in restructuring the legislative process and redefining the role of legislative parties and their elected leaders.  Sinclair's research on the evolution of the postreform House of Representatives is, therefore, foundational to the subsequent development of theory.  In characterizing subsequent research on party leadership, these authors offer a succinct overview of an evolving body of literature that is marked by the characteristics of a thriving field of developing research.  We see the evolution of theory, competition among alternative theoretical perspectives, a search for evidence by which theory can be tested, and a marshaling of argument in support of specific theoretical approaches.  This scholarly dialogue gives rise to a set of specific research questions that are suggested by the competition of ideas and approaches; the answers to these questions, if forthcoming, would shed light on the theoretical debates and, more importantly, on the nature and operation of party leadership regimes in the United States Congress and perhaps other legislative bodies as well.  Cox and McCubbins survey a robust and progressing field of research.

           Not all scholars tilling the ground of legislative party leadership embrace the approach of positive theory or some of the main conclusions it has produced.  In his article "Studying Leaders and Leadership in Congress," Randall Strahan offers a different perspective on the topic from that presented by Cox and McCubbins.  At the root of Strahan's theoretical interests is the simple question, "what difference do leaders make?" While eschewing the notion that "an institution is but the lengthened shadow of one man," as Emerson had put it, Strahan still believes that individual leaders make a difference and that legislative theory needs to take into account the decisions that individual leaders make.  In the parlance of social science, positive theory regards leaders as dependent variables (agents) whose behavior is directed by the preferences of independent variables (members) who have chosen them.  This is because positive theory takes its bearings from institutions, and sees leadership as one among many institutional roles.  Positive theory does not, of course, deny that individual leaders make choices and that the choices they make are influenced by their personalities, values, and dispositions.  But these personal qualities are, by definition, idiosyncratic, and beyond the reach of theory.  To the extent that they shape legislative leadership behavior, they are in any event contextually determined.

           Strahan offers a summary view of the evolution of legislative leadership studies that fixes the central role that Barbara Sinclair's work has played.  He argues that the assumptions of positive theory make it necessary to regard individual leaders as "interchangeable agents."  Otherwise, the choices that they make could not be explained by the variables that positive theory identifies -- those associated with the structural incentives made available to leaders by members within the legislative milieu.  It would be more difficult to explain the operation of the solar system, for example, if Mars could simply decide to pick up and go away.  Strahan offers a set of arguments about why leaders matter, arguments suggesting the need for research on the individual leaders themselves and the choices they make.  This inquiry would lead in the direction of alternative approaches that are likely to lack the parsimony and elegance that positive theory seeks, but may offer insights of which positive theory is not capable due to the nature of its own assumptions.

           This debate is assuredly ongoing, about which those of us who follow politics for a living should be gratified.  Intellectual discourse is the only catalyst for improved understanding. Amidst the dialogue, however, we can identify some areas of agreement.  Legislative party leadership is important, more so today than during most previous periods in American history.  An understanding of legislative leadership must, in one way or another, take into account both the behavior of the party leaders and the members they serve.  Barbara Sinclair's work is of central importance to the development of the field, and serves as a point of departure for many streams of research, as point or as counterpoint. 

           And this will continue to be the case with the publication of the book that will flow from her 2003 Rothbaum Lectures.  Professor Sinclair is bringing together the several aspects that have defined her previous work: the focus on party leaders, the focus on partisan conflict, the differences between the House and the Senate, and the relationship of institutional development to the broader social and political environment.  In "bringing it all together," she will again set a new benchmark for future research.

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