Viewing U.S. Congress from the ivory tower

If Democrats controlled the House, would they manage the institution like Republicans?

That question is at the heart of an ongoing political-science debate on whether the political parties or individual lawmakers determine what Congress does.

If the parties dictate outcomes in the House, a small Democratic majority would shift policy outcomes to the liberal end of the spectrum. But if House leaders build coalitions based on lawmakers’ personal preferences where only the 218th lawmaker — the one in the ideological center — matters, there would be a slightly small shift in policy to the left.

“The fight [is], are we really seeing party influence being asserted or just increased homogeneity” within the parties, said Stanford University’s Morris Fiorina.

Democrats have repeatedly accused House Republicans of abusing their power, pointing to ethics admonishments and the keeping open of roll-call votes well past the customary 15 minutes to secure enough votes.

Asked whether he accepted the premise that Democrats would use similar tactics to govern the House, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who taught political science before winning his father’s seat in Congress last year, said, “It’s just not my style to bash the other side,” he said.

He added, “I think small majorities have a big effect on how parties operate. … Bigger majorities lead to more cooperation when there is a sense that there’ll be no change.”

David Rohde at Michigan State University and Keith Krehbiel of Stanford are premier scholars driving the debate. Rohde was the first to write about the resurgence of party strength in Congress after a long period from the 1950s into the 1980s when a fractious and often-splintered Democratic Party governed the House.
Krehbiel, however, has argued Rohde’s analysis is flawed. “Indiscriminate use of poor measures is causing leading scholars to make inaccurate inferences about party strength,” he wrote in an e-mail. Lawmakers might vote one way because of personal preferences or because of the nature of their congressional districts — not because of party strength.

Other scholars have argued for a middle ground: Members of a cohesive party prize efficiency and empower party leaders to accomplish policy goals, whereas members of a fractured majority party would be reluctant to do so.

Fiorina said that today both parties seek efficiency, adding, “In the 1960s that was impossible for the Democrats [who were] just trying to hold the party together.”

Rohde and Krehbiel have followed a generation of political scientists, such as Richard Fenno, Nelson Polsby and David Mayhew, who did their jobs like reporters, hanging out on Capitol Hill and covering campaigns. Some scholars were given tremendous access; Polsby was once invited to the House gym and steam room.

“They are part of a generation of students of Congress who did research close to the ground,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), a highly regarded scholar before running for Congress. “The field is more methodologically driven now.”
Without a GOP-run House to use for comparison, their work analyzed the importance of seniority, the characteristics of members’ districts and a go-along-get-along comity that characterized the nature of both chambers.

Congress began changing in the late 1980s when Southern Democrats switched parties and congressional districts became less diverse because of redistricting. Those factors, coupled with the growing strength of national political forces, made the parties more unified and enabled Speakers Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to impose a discipline on the House that had not been seen since Thomas Reed and Joe Cannon, two domineering Speakers who ran the House from 1890 to 1910.

The Senate’s country-club politics have proved harder to study than the rule-oriented House.

“The Senate is much less rule-bound, unlike the House, where it’s easier to make predictions and build theories,” said Larry Evans of William & Mary.

Wendy Schiller of Brown University said scholars are gaining a better understanding of the Senate by “looking for ways to see the effects of partisanship on the way the Senate is organized.”

In Oxford, England, last week, a dozen scholars met to discuss the Senate with their British colleagues. Evans and Lipiniski presented a paper they wrote on the use of “holds” in the Senate.

Meantime, a future generation of scholars is asking a series of questions, such as: Are committee chairs more powerful than floor managers? Do House members who seek higher office behave differently than those who do not? Are highly motivated voters more likely to impact policy outcomes?

Still, the reliance on mathematical equations has made political scientists’ work “further and further removed from the real world,” said David Brady of Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

Price is more sanguine, saying, “Some people often think of academia as a Never Never Land. If you think that, you ought to try Congress.”