Editor's Introduction



Congress and the Permanent Campaign

Ronald M. Peters, Jr.


This issue of Extensions explores the phenomenon of the "permanent campaign," something familiar to politicians and political scientists if not to the public at large. As the phrase indicates, American politics is now characterized by perpetual campaigning, with each election cycle beginning the day after (if not the day of) the preceding election. This is particularly true for members of Congress. Senators' six-year terms insulate them from the demands of campaigning to the envy of their House counterparts, but even senators face the need to raise campaign contributions, to cast and spin votes, and to anticipate opposition on an ongoing basis. Members have a presumed concern for reelection, and party leaders have a presumed concern to retain or obtain control of the chamber. This leads to a continuous effort to raise money, position the party, and sell its image to voters. Many factors have contributed to the evolution of the permanent campaign, including the realignment and homogenization of the two major political parties, a relatively even division in the electorate, developments in communication technology, and the inexorable demand for money to fuel the system. Here, our purpose is not to parse all of them but instead to examine the permanent campaign through three prisms: the individual member, the party leadership, and the effects of 9/11.

Burdett Loomis considers the permanent campaign from the perspective of the member. He notes that for members, there are really two permanent campaigns, one to attain reelection in the state or district and the other for control of the chamber. These two campaigns are obviously linked - if individual members do not win seats, then their party will not win a majority of them - but are still substantially distinct and can be at odds with each other. The party and its leadership will seek to articulate party messages that resonate with base voters, while members from marginal districts may have more success by distancing themselves from the party. Tip O'Neill's aphorism that "all politics is local" suggests that the party is best served by members who manage their districts effectively; yet, the party leadership's job is to burnish the party image.

Two generations ago this tension was muted due to the lower profile of the two congressional parties that the long period of Democratic dominance produced. Southern Democrats and Northeastern Republicans were happy to manage district affairs with little interference from national party leaders. Members were assiduous in attending to their districts, but could do so by raising relatively modest sums of money, by visiting the district or state during legislative recesses, and with less concern that every vote would be held against them (in the House many key votes were unrecorded). Today, the buffers between the member and the national campaign have been removed. Members must pay continuous attention to their districts, travel there regularly, raise money continuously, and expect every vote to be fodder for an opposition campaign.

Under these circumstances, party leaders have a greater stake in member campaigns and have become more involved in the electoral process. Barbara Sinclair reviews the many ways in which the role of legislative party leaders has expanded, including especially three: fund-raising, enhancing party image, and legislative agenda setting. With respect to fund-raising, it is clear that the party leadership has become a central mechanism for funding campaigns. While it remains true that the aggregate amount of hard money raised by individual members substantially exceeds that provided by or through the party (thus buttressing Loomis's claim that members remain substantially autonomous), it is also true that the amount raised by the parties and the party leadership has increased enormously. Since leadership money is channeled into the most important races, it assumes more importance. And since subordinate leadership positions (including committee chairs and ranking members) are now expected to assist in raising money for member campaigns, the leadership has become more systematically enmeshed in the campaign process.

At the same time, the party leaders have stepped forward to speak on behalf of the members. Both legislative parties in both chambers have developed sophisticated message operations relying on polling to define party image and shape public perception of it. Party leaders are point persons in this effort, presenting the public face of the party through the media. In seeking to position the party for the next election, party leaders become adept at "issue framing." Issue framing is highly desirable if it enables voters to distinguish between the positions that parties will take in the governing process. When party image building and policy articulation become disconnected, issue framing turns into spin and has the inevitable effect of confusing voters.

This raises the question of the relationship between the permanent campaign and the governing process, as Sinclair notes. The most direct connection occurs though agenda setting. Legislative party leaders have had greater incentive to shape the issue agenda so as to favor the party, its policies, and its image. Of course, the majority party has greater opportunity to shape the legislative agenda than does the minority party, but even minority party leaders can seek to affect the legislative agenda by offering alternatives to majority party proposals. However, because the United States Constitution frames a presidential rather than a parliamentary system, the articulation of party agenda does not lead to the definition of responsible party legislative programs. The separation of powers imposes formidable barriers to agenda setting, all the more so when there is a division in control of the separated institutions sharing power, as has been the case over the last thirty years. When legislative party leaders know that they cannot enact their policies even though they may be able to pass their bills, they have incentive to market proposals for public consumption rather than for governing. This temptation is especially acute for the minority party, which can do little but posture.

The close division of the government and the country during the past decade has added additional impetus to the permanent campaign. A widely noted consequence is the decline in comity within each chamber and across party lines. The two parties are engaged in a prolonged struggle for political power, in which each election is but a battle in an ongoing war. The permanent campaign is like a protracted war between two known and settled adversaries. What happens when a third power intervenes? That is the question that James Thurber addresses in his discussion of the effects of September 11, 2001 on the American political process. Thurber assumes the permanent campaign as a settled feature of contemporary American politics, and wonders if an event as profound and shocking as 9/11 might in any way affect it. Outlining six key features of the permanent campaign, Thurber considers each in turn and comes to the conclusion that all remain fully operative.

Immediately after 9/11 there was an apparent pulling together of the two legislative parties, their leaders, and President Bush and his administration. Crisis overrides partisan considerations for a while. Forcing Republican and Democratic leaders to spend time in a bunker has therapeutic effects. As the sense of crisis wanes, bonding erodes, and the political calendar begins to drive the legislative process, the government experiences a "return to normalcy" in which the permanent campaign reasserts itself. The most enduring effect of 9/11 so far has been the weekly meetings of the bipartisan congressional leadership with President Bush. One might reasonably say that this could not have been imagined in the Clinton administration during which the permanent campaign took root, and did not appear likely to emerge during the Bush 43 administration either. As time has passed, however, connections between camaraderie and governance are not apparent. Senator Daschle blasts the Bush administration regularly during his press conferences ("issue definition") and the Republicans have started referring to the "Daschle Democrats" with an emphasis reserved, in an earlier day, to "Trotskyites" or more recently, "Clintonites."

The re-emergence of the permanent campaign illustrates an aspect that is worthy of additional comment, its affect on legislation or (in Sinclair's term) governing. Recently I had an opportunity to visit with a House Democratic staff member who served the party leadership. She was offering insight on the question of how the party's relegation to the minority had affected its organization and leadership. In particular, she recalled the Democrats' efforts to delay or defeat the Republican legislative program, starting with the Contract With America. They had, she told me, always to consider the relative benefits of actually passing a bill. For the Democrats to pass a bill, they needed the votes of moderate Republicans. Yet it was precisely these Republicans whose seats the Democrats coveted in their quest to regain control of the House. To put a "good" bill on the floor meant giving the GOP moderates a "good" vote, one that they could take home to their districts demonstrating their moderation and independence. With the Senate in Republican control, the House Democrats had little hope of enacting legislation anyway. Therefore, the party had little incentive to compete with the Republicans, less to compromise. Instead, it made sense for the party to define issues for political purposes.

There were, of course, many occasions when the Democrats worked hard to develop alternatives to Republican proposals. But the goal was usually to attain near unanimity among Democrats rather than to swing Republicans to the Democratic side. The Republicans, realizing that they often had little prospect of obtaining Democratic votes, sought to unify their membership. The result is a sharply divided House in which positioning is more important than legislating. Many examples could be adduced to illustrate this point. Two main examples will suffice: the Democratic approach to social security and medicare, and the Republican approach to tax reduction.

Thus, the permanent campaign does indeed have consequences for governance, the conditions under which members participate in the governing process reflects this fact, and the events of September 11 have not fundamentally altered the situation. What would affect it? The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 aims to diminish the role of "soft" money in campaigns while increasing the importance of "hard" money contributions and the role of interest groups. In due time we shall see what effect the legislation has had.



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