Spring 2005

Special Orders

Republican Congressional Leadership in Historical Context


Nicol C. Rae

Florida International University, Miami


           The post-1994 Republican regime on Capitol Hill has been characterized by high levels of party loyalty and a powerful and highly visible party leadership.   Yet while these features may have become more apparent in the decade since January 1995, both were well underway in the final decade of Democratic rule.1 This article compares the contemporary Republican congressional leadership with previous eras of Republican control of Congress, and assesses the extent to which today's Republican leaders are "different in kind" from their historical predecessors.  Given the fundamentally different nature of party leadership in the House and Senate, each chamber is discussed separately, followed by a conclusion highlighting tendencies common to both chambers and continuing points of contrast between the chambers as far as Republican party leadership is concerned.  One underlying theme is that today's Republican congressional leaders – at  least in the case of the House – are not as different from their partisan predecessors in the 1890s and 1920s as might first appear.


The House

           As a far larger chamber the House has traditionally required more formal rules and stronger leadership than the Senate. The House Speaker provided for in Article 1 of the Constitution has functioned as a party leader since serious political parties developed in the U.S. rather than as a nonpartisan presiding officer as in the British House of Commons and most parliaments in contemporary democracies.2 Yet strong, partisan Speakers have still been more the exception than the rule in the course of US history.  Since the Civil War two figures (both Republicans) stand out: Thomas "Czar" Reed of Maine (1889-91, 1895-99),  and Joseph Cannon of Illinois (1903-11) whose overweening leadership provoked the Republican Party split in 1910 that ushered in the era of the committee-seniority system and a generally weak speakership until the mid-1970s.  During this long period, Speakers – even when serving for a relatively long period of time such as Democrats Sam Rayburn of Texas (1940-47, 1949-53, 1955-61) and John McCormack of Massachusetts (1962-71) – operated more as brokers between party factions and committee chairs than programmatically-oriented party leaders.  Possible exceptions to this norm were Republicans Nicholas Longworth of Ohio (1925-31) and Joseph Martin of Massachusetts (1947-49, 1953-55).

Interestingly, since the Civil War the more assertive and more partisan House Speakers have almost all been Republicans. This is probably not accidental. Since its inception the Republican Party has been more homogeneous in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, and ideology, while the Democratic Party has been a coalition whose components cut across the lines of cleavage just mentioned. From the Civil War to the New Deal, the Democratic Party was composed of groups such as white southerners and northern Catholic immigrants who were united on nothing else but a mutual dislike of the prevailing Republican, northern, white Protestant political regime. Given these conditions it is hardly surprising that the Republican Party would generally be more programmatic and more likely to submit to strong and assertive congressional leadership, while Democrats would prefer a more coalition-building, consensual approach.3

Following the New Deal the Democratic coalition expanded to encompass more groups such as African Americans, farmers, and northeastern progressives who had become alienated from the Republicans due to the Great Depression.  Given the internal contradictions and conflicts within their New Deal majority coalition, a consensual style of congressional leadership became even more imperative for congressional Democrats By the same token, as the Republican coalition shrank to a northern, rural and upper middle-class, WASP core, it became even easier to lead the party in Congress, although securing congressional majorities with such a narrow electoral base became more problematic.

All this having been said, the Republican congressional majorities that prevailed between the civil war and the New Deal, and even the post-New Deal Republican party had clearer regional and ideological diversity than the Republican House majority elected in 1994.  Since the Civil War, a clear division had existed within the congressional GOP between the economically WASP conservative elites of the urban, industrial Northeast and Upper Midwest, and the small city and farm voters of the Midwest and Plains.4  During the Progressive Era, a further division opened up within the dominant northeastern faction between the "old guard" corporate and machine politicians and patrician progressive reformers such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge: a division that led to the revolt of 1910 in Congress and the split between Roosevelt and Taft in 1912.  Right up through the 1920s the GOP retained an extremely radical bloc of congressional members from the Plains and western states, while the party's presence in the most conservative section of the country – the South – was negligible. Still grounded in the Civil War, the congressional Republican Party reflected the electoral and governmental order created by that war: northern, white, Protestant, and capitalist (although tempered by mild reformism after the progressive era). The Great Depression and the New Deal electoral earthquake shattered the dominance of that political order, but the congressional Republican Party still reflected it for another generation.  Joseph Martin's narrow House majorities in 1947/48 and 1953/54 included a sizable fraction of northeastern progressives who were as liberal (if not more so) than most northern Democrats. 

The Republican predisposition to award more power to congressional leaders continued after the New Deal.  In 1949, for example, the House Republicans reinforced their leadership structure – leader, whip and conference chair – by creating a Policy Committee to do research on policy and establish party positions on legislation. But while House Republicans have been inclined to award more power to their party leadership, they have also been ruthless with leaders whom they have perceived as failing to deliver the goods.  Joseph Martin in 1959, Charles Halleck (Ind.) in 1965, Robert Michel (Ill.) in 1993, and Newt Gingrich (Ga.) in 1998, were all unceremoniously dumped by the House GOP, a fate endured by no Democratic Leader, with the exception of former Speaker Jim Wright in 1989, in the post-World War II era. 

The long-term electoral impact of the New Deal finally caught up with the congressional Republicans in the 1950s as the party slipped into a forty-year period (1955-95) of minority status.  During that time, however, the composition of the House Republican minority changed dramatically both in terms of region and ideology. Since the 1950s the Republicans have been making gains in House seats in the formerly Democratic Solid South to the point where it is now the majority party in the region. At the same time, the party has suffered long-term decline in its numbers in the pre-New Deal heartland – New England and the Middle Atlantic states – while just about holding its own in the Midwest. The southern surge has solidified the conservatism of the party on economic and foreign policy issues and turned the congressional Republican Party in a much more conservative direction on social and cultural issues such as civil rights.  Other factors, such as the role of single-issue and ideological interest groups in modern American election campaigns, the rise of national political news media, and the overwhelmingly partisan and noncompetitive nature of contemporary congressional districts, have led to a much more homogenously conservative Republican congressional party, with the surviving, largely northeastern, progressive or moderate members increasingly marginalized.  All of this reinforced the pre-existing Republican tendency to give more power to their House leadership, since a more ideologically homogeneous House membership is more likely to surrender individual member prerogatives to party leaders in order to meet common policy goals.

As southern electoral realignment also led to more ideologically homogeneous congressional Democratic majority, they too began to accord more power to their leaders with the goal of passing a party policy agenda through the House. When the Republican minority saw the wings of the committee chairs being clipped in the 1970s and their own minority privileges ignored or rescinded, they responded by becoming more stridently partisan than ever.  This new ideological context explains the rise of Newt Gingrich on the basis that the Georgia firebrand could fight the necessary partisan battles better than Robert Michel, a legislative craftsman typical of the committee-seniority era. Gingrich, by contrast, epitomized the House GOP of the early 1990s: increasingly "new south", ideological, partisan, message-oriented, and media-savvy.

Once in control of the House in 1994, the Republicans reverted to type in presenting a disciplined ideologically homogeneous majority to the public, while consolidating the more partisan and leadership-oriented House power structure already well under construction in the last of Democratic control. At the start of the 105th Congress, Gingrich literally named the chairs of the House committees and blatantly disregarded seniority in several cases.  (At the same time, the new majority also set a six-year term limit on committee chairs and an eight-year limit on the Speaker.) He also made use of leadership task forces to write legislation and often used the class of 74 new Republican freshmen to put pressure on their elders to implement the 1994 Republican manifesto: "The Contract with America." 

In the increasingly majoritarian House, Gingrich was able to get most of the Contract implemented, but it ran aground in the Senate and under Bill Clinton's veto pen. Gingrich's defeat in the 1995-96 budget battle with Clinton permanently undermined his authority with his Republican troops and particularly with the freshmen, many of whom thought he had quit the field of battle too quickly.  Gingrich's unpopularity with the wider public also reduced his clout over his membership. In 1997, a group of freshmen and some of his own leadership team nearly mounted a "coup" against his leadership, and following the disappointing election results of 1998, Gingrich was summarily dispatched from the Speaker's chair (like other "failed" twentieth century Republican House leaders). When his likely successor, Bob Livingston (La.), looked like being another electoral liability due to the revelation of an extra marital affair (the House Republicans literally were impeaching Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair when the story broke) he too was forced to stand aside. Republicans tend to accord great authority to their leaders – as long as they are successful.

The Dennis Hastert style of leadership has been more collegial – at least in tone – than that of Gingrich.  Hastert (Ill.) accords more respect to committee chairs, other members of his leadership team such as Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and Whip Roy Blount (Mo.), and even to the Democratic minority.  The tough partisan public image of DeLay has also probably helped Hastert by allowing the Speaker to assume the role of "good cop" with press and public by comparison with his controversial deputy. Yet while the leadership has been somewhat more collective under Hastert, House Republicans maintained high levels of ideological homogeneity, party unity, and overall cohesiveness in opposition to Bill Clinton in his final years and have rallied strongly behind the programs of Republican President George W. Bush since he took office in 2001.  The increased party polarization of contemporary American politics has encouraged this, of course, but the Republican attitude toward party unity and leadership since 1994 also reflects the long-standing leadership-oriented "culture" of the GOP on Capitol Hill.


The Senate

           The much smaller Senate has always been more informal in its procedures and less disposed to seek strong leadership than the House (in fact the Senate did not create formal floor leader positions until 1924.)  Of course the Senate had great informal leaders as far back as the days of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, and at the same time as Speakers Reed and Cannon dominated the House, Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island was a commanding figure among Senate Republicans. Such power as these legendary Senators attained was based on their personal authority and experience, and until relatively recently these qualities appeared to generate more respect and deference from senators than formal party leadership positions. 

           Since the Senate is a body that has repudiated strong party leadership and discipline for most of its history, discerning a specifically Republican leadership tradition is harder in the Senate than in the House. Nevertheless, there is some evidence for a more specifically Republican tendency to render more status to their informal and (latterly) formal Senate leaders.  At the beginning of the twentieth century Senator Aldrich and Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr. (Mass.) clearly had superior stature among Senate Republicans. Similarly, during the 1940s Robert Taft (Ohio) and Arthur Vandenberg (Mich.) functioned as de facto Republican Senate leaders in domestic and foreign policy respectively.  Senate Republican leadership became more formally structured after World War II when Taft established a Policy Committee (1947), and later assumed the formal party leadership himself shortly before his death in 1953.  Under his successors William Knowland of California (1953-59) and Everett Dirksen of Illinois (1959-69), the Republican leadership structure in the Senate became more established (as in the House, the Republicans elect a leader, a whip, a conference chair, and a Policy Committee chair) and, with the advent of national television news, the role of the Senate leader as party spokesman grew.

After a partial reversion to a more subdued and service-oriented model of leadership under Pennsylvanian Hugh Scott (Republican Leader, 1969-77),  increasing ideological homogeneity within party ranks and pressure from within and without the Senate for increased party unity behind a policy program led to the emergence of a more powerful and assertive Republican Senate leadership.    As in the House, the impact of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the South and the slow decline of the GOP in the liberal Northeast were producing two more ideologically consistent Senate parties with definite policy agendas. This became dramatically evident after the election in 1980 when a Republican Senate majority under Howard Baker of Tennessee (Republican Leader 1977-85) committed to support President Ronald Reagan's conservative policy agenda.  

But while Senate party unity scores rose dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s in tandem with the House, the supermajoritarian requirements (60 votes) to end debate on most legislation and the looser rules for floor debate usually means that party unity per se  is not a very effective strategy for passing legislation in the Senate.  So Senate leaders, in addition to managing their party's legislative agenda, frequently must try (unlike their House counterparts) to engineer bipartisan coalitions.  Senate leaders must also serve as national spokespersons for the party on television: part of what Olezsek and Evans have referred to as "message politics."  In this latter role the party leaders may not even be concerned with passing legislation but merely at making debating points or forcing awkward votes for the other party's members with an eye to the next Senate election campaign.5  

Among recent Senate Republican leaders, Robert Dole of Kansas (1985-96) was probably the most adept at playing all three roles (manager of the party agenda, bipartisan broker, and party messenger) required of contemporary Senate leaders, but while Dole clocked up a record for appearances on Sunday morning television news shows, by the time he returned as majority leader in 1995, he found it impossible to pilot the "Contract with America" through the Senate's procedural roadblocks.  Dole also had to deal with a Republican freshman Senate class including several members schooled in the partisan, ideological environment of the Gingrich House.  This group pushed successfully for the adoption of a formal policy agenda by the Republican Senate Conference at the outset of each Congress, and also six-year term limits for Senate committee chairs and party leaders (except the majority leader).

Dole's successor, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott (1996-2002), had a flurry of initial bipartisan legislative success in the summer of 1996 when the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress, with an eye on the forthcoming November elections, realized they had a mutual interest in passing some substantive legislation (most notably welfare and immigration reforms) to demonstrate their effectiveness.   In 1997 Lott also negotiated a budget balancing deal with Clinton, but afterwards the Democratic minority and the Clinton White House thwarted most of his legislative initiatives.  At the same time, Lott's need to maintain his bona fides with the conservative majority of GOP senators alienated Vermont moderate James Jeffords, whose departure from the GOP led to the Democrats taking control of the chamber in 2001. 

When the Republicans returned to the majority after the 2002 elections, Lott's impolitic public compliments to retiring former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond (S.C.), led to his replacement as majority leader (also indicating a ruthlessness in discarding "damaged" leaders on the part of Senate Republicans akin to their House counterparts) by another southerner, Dr. William Frist of Tennessee.  Frist has found the demands of the position equally frustrating, as the Democratic minority now routinely uses the threat of filibusters to block Republican initiatives, including, most controversially, federal Appeals Court nominations. Republican gains in 2004 promised easier passage of some items of President George W. Bush's policy agenda (such as bankruptcy and tort law reforms), but the Republicans lacked the Democratic votes to pass the president's Social Security reform, and the partisan impasse over federal court nominations continued unabated.

The Republican predilection for strong party leadership, while discernible at certain points during the past century in the Senate, is not as consistently apparent as on the House side of the Capitol.  And while the Republican Senate leadership have gained in power and visibility in the last half-century, this has been equally true of Senate Democrats. As both parties have become more programmatic and ideological they have empowered leaders to help promote and pass a party legislative program.  Senate leaders' powers, however, are still circumscribed by the antimajoritarian nature of the institution.  Even in a more ideologically homogeneous party, then, Senate Republican leaders, perforce, must also be both bipartisan brokers and effective party messengers to be effective.



           Republican Party leadership on Capitol Hill has become much more formidable since the days of the "partyless" House and Senate of the mid-twentieth century when southern Democrats held sway, and more comparable to the authoritarian party chieftains of the late nineteenth century. Even during the lengthy mid-century period of non-ideological congressional parties and weak party leadership, House Republicans appeared both to defer more to their leaders and to be more ruthless in dumping them if they were perceived to be ineffective: a tendency that persists to this day. The emergence of programmatic, ideological parties in both chambers over the past thirty years has created a demand for a more assertive leadership to pass the party policy agenda, and the high degree of ideological and social homogeneity of the House GOP has reinforced the pre-1994 tendency towards a more powerful policy-oriented leadership in that body.  In the Senate by contrast, antimajoritarian rules have entailed that Senate leaders, in addition to being responsible for passage of the party agenda, must also still play the role of bipartisan brokers no longer required of their House counterparts. Moreover, the Senate leaders' generally greater visibility in Washington and national media mean that they must also act regularly as party messengers and spokespersons. 

As a parting thought, we can surmise that if Speakers Reed and Cannon were to return to the House today they would see a Republican Party that, aside from a more ideological tone and more southern accents, still shares much of the social attributes and leadership-oriented party "culture" of the troops they led at the turn of the last century.  While Congress has undergone deep changes since 1900, when viewed from a party perspective, there is a recognizable continuity in Republican attitudes toward party leadership, particularly on the House side of Capitol Hill.



1.  See David Rohde, Parties and Leaders in the Postreform House (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991; and Barbara Sinclair, Legislators, Leaders, and Lawmaking: The U.S. House of Representatives in the Post-Reform Era (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

2.  Ronald M. Peters, Jr., The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

3.   On the differing "cultures" of the two congressional parties, see Ronald M. Peters, Jr., "Institutional Context and Leadership Style: The Case of Newt Gingrich," in New Majority or Old Minority: The Impact of Republicans on Congress edited by Colton C. Campbell and Nicol C. Rae (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999), 43-65.

           4.  See Nicol C. Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans From 1952 to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

5.  Barbara Sinclair, "The Senate Leadership Dilemma: Passing Bills and Pursuing Partisan Advantage in a Nonmajoritarian Chamber," in The Contentious Senate: Partisanship, Ideology, and the Myth of Cool Judgment edited by Colton C. Campbell and Nicol C. Rae (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001), 65-89.

6.  C. Lawrence Evans and Walter J. Oleszek, "Message Politics and Senate Procedures," in The Contentious Senate: Partisanship, Ideology, and the Myth of Cool Judgment edited by Colton C. Campbell and Nicol C. Rae (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001), 107-27.


            Nicol C. Rae has an M.A. degree from the University of Edinburgh (1982) and a D. Phil from Oxford University (1986).  He is the author most recently (with Colton C. Campbell) of Impeaching Clinton: Partisan Strife on Capitol Hill (Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2003).Professor Rae is also the author of The Decline & Fall of the Liberal Republicans: From 1952 to the Present (Oxford University Press, 1989), Southern Democrats (Oxford University Press, 1994), and Conservative Reformers: The Republican Freshmen and the Lessons of the 104th Congress (M. E. Sharpe, 1998), and co-author (with Tim Hames) of Governing America (Manchester University Press, 1996).  In addition Professor Rae is co-editor, with Colton C. Campbell, of New Majority or Old Minority? The Impact of Republicans on Congress (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), The Contentious Senate: Partisanship, Ideology and the Myth of Cool Judgment (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), and with Campbell and John F. Stack, Jr. of Congress and the Politics of US Foreign Policy (Prentice-Hall, 2003). Professor Rae was awarded a Congressional Fellowship by the American Political Science Association in 1995-1996, and served as a Capitol Hill aide to Congressman George P. Radanovich of California, and Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi.  Professor Rae's email address is raen@fiu.edu.

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