Spring 2005
Editor's Introduction


The Republican Congress

 

Ronald M. Peters, Jr.


            Whether this Republican Congress is a good thing for the country is a matter upon which Americans will differ, but it is undeniable that it has been a good thing for congressional scholars.  Two generations of scholarship on the Congress had been framed by its Democratic majority.  The "Textbook Congress" was the Congress as the Democrats had shaped it. For the past ten years, we have had the opportunity to study the Congress under Republican control.  That examination has revealed both continuity and difference.

           This issue of Extensions addresses the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress and its leadership. The issue's genesis lay in a symposium on the topic hosted by the Carl Albert Center on March 22 and 23 of this year.  It consisted of a panel discussion among former Oklahoma Senator Don Nickles, former Michigan Congressman Guy Vander Jagt, and the current Oklahoma 4th District congressman, Tom Cole, and a separate luncheon address by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas.  Mr. Armey, a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oklahoma, has donated his congressional papers to the Center.

           In anticipation of this event, I invited three excellent congressional scholars to contribute articles for this issue based on their ongoing research.  Professor Nicol Rae of Florida International University offers "Republican Congressional Leadership in Historical Context," in which he discusses historical patterns in both the House and the Senate.  Professor Bruce Oppenheimer of Vanderbilt University examines more recent trends in Senate leadership in "Delayed Republican Revolution?: Testing the Limits of Institutional Constraints on the Senate Majority Party." Professor Bill Connelly of Washington and Lee University takes a closer look at House Republican Leadership in "House Republicans: Then and Now."

           My task in this space is to synthesize what we learn from the comments offered by our symposium participants and the observations of our three scholars, adding along the way a few of my own. 

           As moderator of the panel, I asked each participant to assess the factors that had led congressional Republicans to their majority. Congressman Vander Jagt served as the chair of the House Republican National Campaign Committee for eighteen years, during two of which Congressman Cole (this was prior to his election to the House) served as staff director.  Senator Nickles served for two years as the chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, during one of the Senate GOP's interludes in the minority.  So all three legislators had direct experience in directing their party toward its current majority status.

           Given that each had been deeply involved in the mechanics of elections – recruiting candidates, raising money, and so forth – I anticipated some technical analysis.  And indeed, each felt that the ability of the Republican Party to create the infrastructure of modern electioneering had been critical to its long-term success.  But this is not where they began. To a person, they felt that the most critical factor in enabling the Republicans to claim and maintain their congressional majorities was due to a long-term realignment that was historically overdue. In their view, the country has moved to the right and the political pendulum has swung to the Republican Party.

           Of course, this is what we might expect Republican politicians to say.  But there may be some truth to it. It seems unlikely that the realignment of the South, which has contributed so much to the foundations of the Republican majority, came about merely due to strategy and tactics.  It also seems doubtful that the Republican majority would sweep up so much national square footage if it did not reflect the views of a large number of Americans spread across the country.  From the New Deal to the Great Society, America moved to the left; since the 1980 election, it has swung to the right.  A rightward shift in our politics should produce a Republican majority.

           This is not to say that the Democrats did not help the Republicans along.  A second theme stressed by the panelists, and Majority Leader Armey as well, is the contribution that the Democrats made to their majority's demise.  In the view of these Republicans, the Democrats had become entrenched in power long after the vitality of their ideas and programs had begun to wane.  The hardest lesson the Republicans learned during their long sojourn in the minority was that voters will pick a party that is for something over a party that is against everything.  For too long, the Republicans defined themselves in opposition to the program of the liberal Democrats without defining clearly what the Republican alternative would be. It was only when the Republicans offered a clear alternative vision that they were finally successful in winning their majority. Majority Leader Armey's greatest concern is that the Republican Party will now reproduce the experience of the Democrats by seeking to lock in power rather than to build on ideas. 

           This broad historical and conceptual interpretation no doubt needs to be qualified by certain practical considerations.  Congressman Vander Jagt, for example, stressed the critical importance of the 1992 congressional elections in laying the groundwork for the Republicans' ultimate victory in the 1994 House elections.  In an historical anomaly, the Republicans gained ten seats in an election in which their party's presidential nominee, the incumbent George H.W. Bush, carried less than 40 percent of the vote.  In part, however, the GOP's good fortune in 1992 was due to the effects of redistricting, and especially the creation of a substantial number of majority-minority districts after the 1990 census.1  Redistricting plays a crucial role in explaining the emergence and survival of the House Republican majority.  It is, of course, not the only technical factor.  Candidate recruitment and money have played important roles as well. 

           Redistricting has also contributed to the creation of the "safe-seat Congress," in which around 90 percent of districts are not competitive in the general election.  This means that most Republican and Democratic members have more to fear from a primary election challenge than from a general election opponent.  The result is to drag each congressional party toward its base voters, thus polarizing the two parties.  The fight is over a small number of marginal and/or open seat districts in each election.

           In order to manage the legislative process and to preserve their majority, the Republicans have had to adopt a more centralized administration of the House in which the committees have been made subordinate to the party leadership.  The House Republican leadership is more powerful than at any time since the revolt against Uncle Joe Cannon in 1910.  The Republicans, who chafed under the Democratic majority, now have taken the techniques developed by the Democrats to new levels, while adding a few twists of their own.  The Democrats are in many ways denied meaningful participation in the legislative process, just as the Republicans had been before.  The Republican congressmen participating in our symposium offered several explanations that qualify as defenses against the charge of legislative despotism.  The first is to say that their more centralized administration of the legislative process is necessary in order to make it work.  The second is to say that their narrow majority requires that they use any means available to marshal unity within their ranks.  The third is to say that the Democrats are not really interested in bipartisan cooperation.  The fourth is to say that the Republicans' paramount interest is to maintain their majority.  The fifth is to say that the Democrats did it first.

           Whether these propositions amount to an adequate analysis or defense of the House Republican regime is for the reader to decide. It appears generally correct, however, to say that the tendency toward centralization first appeared under the Democrats, that it is endemic to the narrow division of the Congress and the country, and is likely to continue until, as one GOP staffer put it to me, "the election is over."  By the election, of course, he meant not this election or that election, but the ongoing struggle between the two parties for the heart and soul of the American electorate. 

           The Senate is, of course, a very different body than the House by design.  Yet is it becoming more like the House?  The Senate has no Rules Committee, and it operates under the principles of open debate, open amendment, and unanimous consent. Every Senator has power under its rules. To the Senate Majority Leader falls the task of negotiating complex unanimous consent agreements and using the majority leader's prerogative of offering the first amendments to limit opportunities for the minority to press its preferred policies.  The use of such tactics as "filling the amendment tree," the threat to abolish the filibuster on judicial nominations, and the use of the budget resolution to enact substantive provisions of law are the Senate equivalents of the "war on the floor" in the House.

           These procedural differences can create tension between the House and Senate, even among Republicans.  The House leadership sometimes expresses frustration at the inability of the Senate to pass bills that have cleared the House; the Senate leadership sometimes takes umbrage at criticism from their House counterparts.  In spite of their shared political interests and values, Senators and members of the House tend to have fundamentally different perspectives on the legislative process.  Senator Don Nickles, for example, expressed concern that the Senate retain its special character as a deliberative institution in which individual senators have considerable independence and the opportunity to advance legislation by amendment of any bill.  The Senate can attain results, but often indirection and patience is required.

           It is clear that these Republican legislators see their party's majority as both natural and effective.  The political scientists who contribute articles to this issue of Extensions offer a detached, if not necessarily a different, perspective.  Nicol Rae, for example, observes that House Republicans have historically demonstrated a greater tendency toward stronger leadership regimes than have the Democrats.  At the same time, earlier Republican House regimes have been marked by greater regional and ideological diversity than does the present incarnation. If the Republicans who participated in our dialogue tend to share a perspective on their experience, it is in part because they are an awful lot alike.  The liberal wing of the Republican Party faded into history a long time ago.  Even the small group of moderate Republicans has shrunk to fit into a modest-sized dining room.  What remains is a relatively homogenous group of senators and representatives who see the world and their place in it in similar terms.

           The difference between the Senate and the House, then, is less that Senate and House Republicans are different, than that the House and Senate are very different institutions.  House Republican leaders can (and do) use their control over procedure to impose order and discipline on members.  Senate Republican leaders must seek accommodation among a group of independent, if not diverse, solons.  Thus, Senate Republican leaders have historically been compromisers and deal-makers and not dictators or directors. 

           This insight is confirmed by Bruce Oppenheimer's account of contemporary Senate leadership.  Oppenheimer notes that the Senate has trailed the House in moving toward more centralized party control.  The House imposed term limits on committee chairs a decade ago, while the Senate is adopting this policy only now.  The Speaker has effectively asserted his power to name committee chairs and to control the committee nomination process among the House Republicans. This year, for the first time, the Senate majority leader is empowered to name one-half of the membership of legislative committees. 

           The enhanced stature of the majority leader at the expense of the committees is conjoined with a more partisan posture. When the Senate Republicans chose Bill Frist of Tennessee to replace Trent Lott of Mississippi for the position, they struck new ground.  Senate majority leaders are historically institutionalists with long experience in and deep dedication to the Senate.  Think Robert Byrd or Bob Dole.  Lott himself was a career legislator with no apparent ambition beyond the halls of Congress.  Not so Bill Frist.  Frist was only in his second term when elected majority leader, and had committed himself to serve only two terms.  It was widely understood that he had aspirations to run for the presidency.  He was chosen majority leader because he was telegenic, would be a credible spokesperson on health care issues, and had the support of the Bush White House.  A more partisan posture was expected, and Frist delivered. In 2004 he campaigned in South Dakota against Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle, a violation of historical norms that says much about the extent to which partisanship has penetrated the Senate.

           The House and Senate Republican majorities are, of course, only two legs of the current Republican regime.  The American system of separated institutions sharing power requires coordination between the GOP congressional leadership and the Bush White House.  If the Republicans needed to "learn to govern," in part that has meant learning to govern together.  Bill Connelly's article analyzes the relationship between the congressional Republicans and the Bush administration.  He observes that one factor encouraging cooperation between congressional Republicans and President Bush has been the shared interest in Bush's reelection.  Bush decided to govern from the "right in" rather than from the "center out."  To do this, he pushed his preferred version of legislation through the House, got as much as he could in the Senate, and then sought favorable conference outcomes.  Again and again, Speaker Hastert and his House Republican leadership team delivered the goods, sometimes facing strong opposition within the House Republican Conference.  In supporting Bush, Connelly contends, the House Republicans also served their own interest in maintaining their majority.  The lesson they learned from the Democrats was, "do not self-destruct." They concluded that supporting Bush and passing legislation would, in the end, insulate their incumbents from effective attack from the Democrats. 

           To maintain intra-party cohesion, the Republicans decided to govern the House by the "majority of the majority."  The Speaker has set his mind against propositions that might push a minority of Republicans to align with a majority of Democrats.  This "frankly partisan strategy," as Connelly finds it, has worked pretty well.  In fact, as he observes, it may be the only way for the Republicans to govern the House given the intransigent opposition they face from the Democrats.  But as Connelly observes, Hastert's "majority of the majority" strategy is natural to a majoritarian institution, and in fact represents the "moderate" position among House Republicans, many of whom would prefer to legislate with Republican votes only.

           What, in the end, does this Republican congressional majority stand for?  It is clear that all of the Republicans who participated in our symposium take great pride in their party's accomplishments, in gaining the majority, in holding it, and in enacting public policies in which they believe.  This confidence is perfectly understandable.  Still, an objective observer might wonder whether this Republican majority has strayed from traditional GOP principles.  It has, after all, enacted the largest expansion of federal entitlement programs since the creation of Medicare in 1965.  Federal spending under the Republicans is up and not down.  The federal deficit is at an all-time high in current dollars, and still growing.  A party that proposed to abolish the Department of Education a decade ago, has now increased federal funding for education by 45 percent in just four years. The party that enacted "Freedom to Farm" a decade ago aiming to wean the agricultural sector from crop subsidies, passed a farm bill in the last Congress that provided massive subsidies to the industry. 

           These four Republicans demonstrated differing attitudes toward the party's accomplishments that reflected varying degrees of discomfort with what the party had wrought.  Congressman Vander Jagt, who struggled valiantly to create the Republican majority for eighteen years only to lose his seat two years before his political life goal was attained, expressed a degree of disappointment that the party had not gone further in achieving its policy ambitions. Senator Nickles, whose twenty-four-year career bounced back and forth between the Senate majority and minority, reflected the patient struggle that policy development in the Senate always entails.  The Republicans have substantially shifted the terms of policy debate.  It takes a long time.  Congressman Cole had served a stint as Republican National Campaign Committee staff director.  His goal had been to win the House. He has now joined the majority he helped create, and the goal now is to  retain that majority. By acting as a cohesive team, the Republicans can retain power and shape policy in the future.  This will require legislation based on the party's principles as well as serving the needs of its constituencies.  Majority Leader Armey, who was present at the Revolution and among its most important leaders, offered perhaps the most cautionary assessment. The Republican majority, like its Democratic predecessors, has passed from the zealousness of its youth to its early middle age. Along the way, the revolutionary generation has given way to a bureaucratic generation whose focus is on retaining power rather than realizing ideals.  This is, he thinks, a naturally occurring phenomenon, leading the majority party to lurch, rather than zoom, along.  If the majority must lurch, let it lurch to the right.

And this Republican congressional majority will likely lurch along for some time to come.  The forces that will sustain it will be somewhat different from those that sustained the Democratic majority during its 62 year hegemony (from 1933 to 1995, with only a few interruptions).  The New Deal coalition was natural, arising from the confluence of politics and policy at the local level.  This is why Tip O'Neill said that "all politics is local."  The Republicans seem to want to reverse this axiom, seeking to nationalize political issues in order to generate enthusiasm among the Republican base.  Their majority may be sustained by redistricting, incumbency, money, organization, and pragmatic policy making.  The participants in our symposium believe that the Republican congressional majority will be sustained by a realigned electorate that supports the party's principles, policies, and values.  These are not mutually exclusive possibilities.  Political science will have much to which to attend in the years ahead.

 

Notes

 

           1.  It seems possible that the Republican House majority of the past decade can be attributed substantially to the creation of majority minority districts.  The number of African-American House Democrats has tripled from around a dozen to over three dozen, while the Republicans' largest majority to date comprised 236 seats.

 


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