House Party Leadership More Important Than Ever
by Don Wolfensberger
"The Founders had no idea of what kind of leadership Congress would have," observed former House Republican Leader Robert H. Michel (Ill.). "The Constitution speaks only of the House electing a speaker; of the vice president serving as the presiding officer of the Senate, and of the Senate electing a President Pro Tempore. One wonders what the Founders would think of today's party leadership system?"
Michel's comments were offered at the outset of a November 2 Congress Project Seminar titled, "House Party Leadership: Yesterday and Today." Michel said he had no plans to ever run for Congress when he graduated from college, but a job with the incumbent congressman from his hometown practically fell into his lap. And, when the congressman retired, Michel ran for his seat and won. When he got to Congress he had no thought of ever running for a leadership position, but he eventually realized that many previous Republican leaders emerged from the membership of the appropriations committee on which he served, so he figured, "why not?"
He ran for Republican Whip in 1975 and won, and then for Republican Leader in 1980 and won. He served in the top post until his retirement in 1995, just as Republicans were taking control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Michel noted the irony in that he was first elected to the House in 1954 when Republicans lost majority control of the House after just two years in power. "I guess some things just weren't mean to be," he reflected philosophically. Michel said that one thing his father taught him was that "leadership is 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking."
Former Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Barbara B. Kennelly (Conn.) recounted how she was fascinated with politics and power since early childhood. Her father, John Bailey, was Democratic National Committee chairman when John F. Kennedy was elected President and she eventually married the speaker of the Connecticut House. When she was first elected to Congress in a special election in 1982, she knew immediately that she wanted to be a member of the Ways and Means Committee because "that's where the power was."
"I was told there was no way I would get elected to that committee; but I campaigned for it and won. I was only the third woman ever to sit on that committee."
"I then decided I wanted to serve on the House Intelligence Committee because of the great world view it would provide. I failed to persuade Speaker Jim Wright to appoint me, but his successor as speaker, Tom Foley, did, making me the first woman ever to serve on that committee." Foley also expanded the leadership by appointing four deputy whips—a black, a southerner, a Hispanic, and a woman. "I was that woman. In 1994 I decided to move up and run for vice chairman of the Caucus, but knew it would be close because the Democrats' were angry at having lost the House and were looking for a scapegoat. But they didn't want to challenge the top leaders. I won by just two votes." Kennelly said that one of the things she always tried to keep uppermost in mind no matter what office she held, was to find ways to help other women succeed and move up in politics. She said she was delighted by the recent election of Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Democratic Whip—the first woman ever elected to a top leadership post in the House.
University of Oklahoma Political Science Professor Ronald M. Peters, Jr., said that while two distinct parties emerged soon after the new Republic was founded, "it was not until the first third of the 20th century that formal party leadership appeared." Its development "was accelerated by FDR's New Deal and the need for Congress to find new ways to process a whole raft of new legislation." Peters noted, however, that the newly emerging leadership lost power when a backlash against the New Deal occurred in the late 1930s and the House came under the control of a conservative coalition led by southern Democratic committee chairmen who were elevated to power by the seniority system that rewarded political longevity. It wasn't until the 1960s, with a new influx of liberal Democrats, that the feudal system of committee barons was challenged.
The so-called congressional reform revolution that lasted from 1965 to 1975 witnessed a dismantling of committee chairmen's autonomy and stranglehold on progressive legislation. The reforms, carried out through changes in both House and Democratic Caucus rules, had the "schizophrenic effect," said Peters, of devolving some power to subcommittees and individual members and some to the top leaders. This made it all the more difficult for leaders to pull things back together to pass legislation. To accomplish this, the leaders expanded the number of leadership positions and used the Rules Committee more to structure floor debates. The trend toward more centralized and powerful party leadership in the House accelerated with the Republican takeover and election of Newt Gingrich as speaker. Gingrich dominated the legislative process with his ideas and rhetoric, though he was not a legislator himself, said Peters. His leadership mantra was, "Listen, learn, help, and lead." But, "while he listened to other members, he often did not hear, and that led to his being forced out after just two terms as speaker."
Panel member Dan Balz, a national political reporter for The Washington Post and co-author of Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival, noted that the most dramatic development in the last two decades has been the extent to which the two parties in Congress have become more polarized and partisan, playing to their respective ideological bases to ensure electoral success in an era of low voter turnout and interest. Balz said that while media coverage of Congress has always been poor, focusing on scandals and personality clashes rather than issues, the surprise Republican victory in 1994 forced many in the media to take a new look at the Congress and the important role it could play in the policy process.
Balz said the President still gets the most attention from the media since "we are in an era in which celebrity and personality dominate the media, whether in politics or elsewhere." The increased partisanship in recent years is a reflection of the fact that neither party has a firm hold on either branch of government, and this makes everything contentious. This "permanent campaign" affects not only electoral politics with its increased emphasis on fundraising, but the way in which Congress operates as well. This is best summed up in the term "message politics," with both parties vying each day to put their messages across to the people through the media. "I doubt that Speaker Sam Rayburn ever thought about what the political message of the day should be," Balz observed.
This change began when Reagan was elected President in 1980 and Democrats didn't know at first what had hit them or how to react. Eventually they realized that they had to have a more active, powerful, and vocal leadership to lead them in opposition to the new conservative President's policies. When Bill Clinton became president, Balz said, he ceded some of his agenda power to the Democratic leadership to establish better relations. However, this is probably what led to the Republican victory in 1994; Clinton had not established his own political identity as the "new Democrat" he had campaigned as, and instead was seen as being too closely allied with the liberal Democratic leadership in Congress.
The seminar panelists generally agreed that increasing leadership involvement in every aspect of the legislative process sometimes hamstrings committees in developing better policies by working across party lines. As Kennelly put it, "The leadership interferes too much with committees, especially by using the Rules Committee to rewrite their legislation."