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Woodrow Wilson's Congressional Government: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

November 14, 2005 // 2:00pm4:00pm

Would Woodrow Wilson recognize the Congress today as the kind of party government he yearned for in his classic treatise, Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics? Probably not, was the consensus of a group of current and former congressional staff members and area scholars participating in a roundtable discussion commemorating the 120th anniversary of Wilson's book and doctoral dissertation at Johns Hopkins University in 1885.

Wilson was enamored of the British parliamentary system of unified party government in which the legislative and executive were combined under a single leader. American legislators, on the other hand, do not last long in the traces of party discipline or presidential dominance; their constituencies and individual inclinations ultimately triumph.

Congressman David E. Price (D-N.C.), who keynoted the roundtable, joked that the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections provided him with "an unsought two-year sabbatical back at Duke University." But he rebounded ands was reelected in 1996 and is now serving his ninth term in Congress. Just prior to his defeat in 1994, Price delivered a lecture at the Wilson Center on "Congressional Government Revisited," in which he assessed Wilson's work from the perspective of a majority party Democrat. Price said returning to Congress as minority party member who had been defeated as an incumbent, has altered his personal perspective and given him "some second thoughts about responsible party government." However, he added, "The second thoughts do not bespeak a reversal: I continue to believe in the virtues of party discipline in the House and to try to help achieve it on our side of the aisle."

But Price was sharply critical of how House Republicans have wielded their majority powers: "Republicans have taken the consolidation of leadership control in the House and partisan unity in supporting a Republican administration far beyond what we Democrats aspired to, much less achieved." In the process, Price said, "GOP control took a harder edge in terms of tactics designed to eliminate dependence on, or participation by, Democrats, while keeping the narrow Republican majority in line." Price cautioned that party government carries with it a need for balanced to be struck and excesses to be avoided involving "legitimate issues of fairness and institutional openness," the danger that a party regime can "magnify the effects of irresponsibility and error if badly used," and that Congress still needs "a capacity for bipartisan as well as partisan capacity." Price said it was important "to temper party efficiency and discipline with processes that foster diverse input, due deliberation, and the building of consensus." Price saw three major changes in Congress since 1994: committees are in decline, deliberation is diminished, and because Congress is deferring too much to the president today, and consequently it is failing to exercise its oversight responsibilities of the Executive Branch. In summary, Price said, this era of "hyper-partisanship and its effects are "compelling and consequential" subjects for "common counsel, and it is time for our country's political leaders, scholars and citizens to take heed."

William F.Connelly, Jr.,, professor of political science at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, drew a close comparison between Woodrow Wilson and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Both were strong believers in party government and disliked committee government. Both "admired the parliamentary ideal and saw Congress as central to our constitutional system" and viewed presidents as mere administrators. [Wilson would later change his position on the potential for the president to lead both his party and the nation (Constitutional Government, 1908).] Both Wilson and Gingrich also viewed party government as a "competition of ideas" as opposed to a struggle among various special interests. Wilson was especially critical of the separation of powers system mandated by the Constitution because it made government ineffective and inefficient. Connelly added that what Wilson really despised were the checks and balances between the branches that made unified party governance impossible. Wilson did not recognize the inevitability of Madisonian pluralism, of interests fighting interests, thinking these defects could be overcome by parties which engaged in debates over lofty ideas about the national interest as opposed to bargaining over how to appease the special interests.

Connelly concluded that parties are about both ideas and interests, and that over time our system "oscillates between presidential government and congressional government," and within the Congress, "between party government and committee government."

Rochelle Dornatt, chief-of-staff to Congressman Sam Farr (D-Calif.), and Lee Rawls, former chief-of-staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), led off the roundtable discussion with brief remarks on the themes posed by Wilson's work. Dornatt said it would be oversimplifying to concluded we are either a government of committees or parties in Congress. "It's probably neither or both." But she did agree with Price that committees have been in decline and "are pretty irrelevant today." "The majority party rules," she added, "but that does not translate into governing." Citing responses to Hurricane Katrina and the lack of planning in Iraq, she noted that "control of the government does not mean governing effectively." Moreover, "because a party is in control, it exerts discipline; but that does not necessarily mean unity," as recent cracks in unity over budget and other matters have revealed. Wilson feared "parochialism and individualism would run wild under committee government," Dornatt said, "but it is under the current party system that members are struggling to remain relevant and make a difference for their constituents." Rawls said Price's critique of the current party system may well apply to the House, but "the Senate is quite different." It is slower, much more deliberative, and individual senators still matter. "We're like an old, water-logged rowboat. We don't sink; we just keep moving along slowly."

One of the central questions the roundtable struggled with was why party government did not generate better deliberation and public enlightenment as Wilson had envisioned it should. One of the answers suggested was that strong committees are essential to deliberation, and, given their current weakened state, there is not much thought or discussion given to policy problems and possible solutions. Instead, solutions are often dictated from the party leadership down instead of from committee councils out.


 

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