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The Role of Minority Parties in Congress

Former Congressman Robert Walker (R-Pa.), who, as a backbench Member, helped Newt Gingrich engineer the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, told a Wilson Center Congress Project seminar audience Nov. 15 that "the chief job of the minority party is to become the majority."

Date & Time

Nov. 15, 2010
3:00pm – 5:00pm ET


Rep. Vic Fazio, (D-Calif.), Former House Member and Senior Adviser, Akin Gump; Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), Former House Member and Executive Chairman, Wexler Walker Public Policy Associates; Matthew Green, Assistant Professor of Politics, The Catholic University of America; Jackie Calmes, Staff Writer, The New York Times

Former Congressman Robert Walker (R-Pa.), who, as a backbench Member, helped Newt Gingrich engineer the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, told a Wilson Center Congress Project seminar audience Nov. 15 that "the chief job of the minority party is to become the majority." It does this by offering an ongoing "critique of the majority party, in committees and on the floor, spotting weaknesses in the majority's policies and using them to draw distinctions between the parties."

Walker, who spent 18 of his 20 years in Congress in the minority, said, "being the minority can be exhilarating at times because you can lose and still feel good," whereas "in the majority you can win and not feel good because you had to compromise away so much." Walker says the Conservative Opportunity Society, the rump group of junior Republicans he and Gingrich started coincided with the advent to C-SPAN coverage of the House. So they took full advantage of free speech periods on the floor and the amendment process to exploit the majority party's weak spots. "We got almost instantaneous positive responses from the viewers." Walker rose to being Gingrich's deputy whip in the minority and then chairman of the GOP leadership committee under Speaker Gingrich.

Former Congressman Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), another 20-year House veteran, served two terms in as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee campaign chairman in the run-up to the Republican takeover in 1994. He went on to serve two terms as Democratic Caucus chairman in the minority. Fazio said, "Bob Walker did minority well. He drove us nuts." Commenting on the current political situation, Fazio said, "What's going on down the street now [in Congress] is a lot of pain and suffering. Democrats are very good at forming a circular firing squad." Everyone has different explanations of why Democrats lost the House, Fazio said, and they all have a bit of truth to them. Fazio added that the mixed interpretations are supported by exit polls that reflect a conflicted, ambivalent public, with no clear-cut, single explanation for the "wave election" loss by Democrats except for the high anxiety over job losses in a sagging economy.

Fazio commended the Republican's top campaign committee recruiter, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for doing "a wonderful job" in fielding a strong group of candidates. "It's great to have the wind at your back in the form of public support to attract good candidates to run." Fazio added that the GOP wins will help them with reapportionment given the gains in state legislatures and governorships. In the House, he observed, Democrats got much better at politics while in the minority [1995-2006] by copying the tactics of the previous Republican minority. This time around, Fazio added, Republicans won even without a clear alternative: "They just stood against the Obama Administration," and that seemed to be enough given the public mood.

However, he added, "just saying ‘no' won't be enough now. We're going to have to govern somehow; there have to be some areas for compromise between the president and Congress." However, given current partisan polarization, he continued, "compromise has been taken out of the process. Committees are told to toe the party line. The left and right are heading for the hills when confronted with the tough choices. We will need a center to get things done."

Catholic University politics professor Matthew Green said the minority party in Congress has been largely ignored in the past by journalists and political scientists, and when it has been looked at it's usually the Senate where the minority is more empowered through the use of holds and filibusters. Green has therefore concentrated his research on the largely neglected House minority parties and their goals and tactics. His research poses the question: Why is the minority party doing so many things if they are so powerless? He looks specifically at what the minority does, why it does it, and whether if affects outcomes.

In addressing the question of why the minority does what it does, he points to four collective goals: to be in the majority; to influence policy; to protect procedural rights and powers; and to achieve party unity. To accomplish these goals the minority party devotes its energies to campaign related activity like candidate recruitment and fundraising; to legislative activity, through floor amendments, to highlight differences with the majority; to public position-taking, through such devices as the 1994 Contract With America and the 2010 Pledge to America; and to dilatory tactics to obstruct the majority's agenda. While Green says his research has not yet concluded to what extent the various goals and tactics of minority parties produce desired outcomes, they at least prove useful in engaging party members and forging unity and spirit.

New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes shared some of Fazio's concern about where things are headed with the amount of polarization between the parties and the seeming unwillingness to compromise on anything. She said "the one time when Congress should come together is when the country is undergoing a national crisis." And yet we saw just the opposite during the economic crisis of 2008-2009, when Republicans did not come around to help, and Democrats did little to reach out to the Republicans for help. Even the bipartisan fiscal commission proposed in Congress was voted down by many of the same Republicans who originally cosponsored it.

Calmes began her Washington reporting career in 1984 with Congressional Quarterly and came to understand over time "how it was a bad thing for one party to control the House for four consecutive decades. It had a corrupting influence within the Democratic Caucus." The other downside to such extended, one-party rule is that "the minority party has no idea of how to govern. The minority might claim it knew what it wanted to do when it took power," she said, "but it didn't know how to deliver on it." After two government shutdowns, which hurt the Republicans most, and things settled down, President Clinton and the Republican Congress found ways found to work together. But this also meant an end to the revolution. Calmes said something similar could happen now if Republicans over-read their mandate when exit polls contain mixed signals on everything from health care to tax cuts. The Tea Party movement adds a new dynamic, however, "with every move the new Republican majority makes being carefully watched and judged."

Congressman Walker concluded that much of the partisan tension could be eliminated if the majority party simply allowed fuller debate and a more open amendment process in committees and on the floor. The more legislation is tested and refined, he said, the less partisan rancor and the more acceptable the final bill will be. He expressed confidence that presumptive Speaker John Boehner will give more authority to committees given his own past experience as a committee chairman.

By Don Wolfensberger, Director, Congress Project


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