21st Century congressional leadership challenges

Today’s legislative leaders face daunting challenges managing congressional parties. Fostering internal unity, accomplishing policy goals, and marketing the party brand are all part of a complicated calculus. Success requires skills not taught in a classroom – and sometimes even the luck of a winning gambler.

For the current majority in Congress, big-ticket items like grappling with ObamaCare repeal and replace, or the current test on tax reform, represent a couple high-profile examples. But the refereeing, pleading, and cajoling occur every day, as predictably as Washington rush hour traffic.


Over the past two decades, one trend in congressional politics – the nationalization of legislative agendas – has gone largely unnoticed in terms of its impact on the leaders’ job challenges. Republicans and Democrats will experience more success if they recognize the challenges of nationalization and take steps to give rank-in-file members the space and flexibility they need to retool these agendas (or how they talk about them) to better fit the political dynamics of their districts.

Both parties in Congress, over the past two decades, repeatedly tried to create unified national brands for their issue platforms, usually when they don’t control the White House. Some recent examples include the Republican “Contract with America” (1994) and the “Better Way” (2016) and the Democrats “Six for ’06” (2006) and the “Better Deal” (2017).

These efforts, while differentiating the parties, also create challenges for rank-in-file lawmakers and leaders alike. Agenda nationalization, for example, significantly raises the public’s expectations about the prospects of party platforms getting enacted into law. “Elect us and we’ll get this done” is what voters hear.

Yet ramming through a purely partisan agenda is both difficult and rare. More often success requires some bipartisanship, which means a different type of messaging.

When constituents realize that lawmakers “over promised and under delivered,” these dashed expectations quickly turn into frustration and anger that’s directed at legislative leaders. The “establishment” failed to deliver. Sound familiar?

Nationalizing congressional agendas also creates some more subtle challenges. For example, not all voters view Washington-formulated programs in the same way.  Lawmakers need some political space and flexibility to frame ideas in a way that resonates with their own core constituents, not simply embrace plans developed by someone else.

As political scientist David Mayhew wrote over forty years ago in his classic, “Congress: The Electoral Connection,” if Members of Congress have a choice between party unity in Washington or pleasing their key electoral constituencies, they’ll side with the folks back home every time. That’s still true in 2017.

Other changes in our political and media culture exacerbate the challenges of nationalization. In the past, party organizations, congressional leaders and other stakeholders now labeled “the establishment,” inoculated members who supported their party’s agenda. Today, that immunity has eroded.

Jonathan Rauch outlines these changes in a 2016 piece in The Atlantic titled, How American Politics Went Insane https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/07/how-american-politics-went-insane/485570/


He calls the new malady, “chaos syndrome”… “the weakening of the institutions and brokers…that prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time.”

A changing media landscape also plays a role here. As the news environment fragmented, and lawmakers found themselves under attack for supporting a nationalized “Washington” agenda, the normal bulwarks of protection – the political parties, congressional leaders etc. – lost their protective power.  

These leadership tests are not likely to get easier any time soon. Despite the trends toward nationalizing legislative agendas, the maxim “all politics is local” remains a constant. Leaders need to give the rank-in-file the space they need to satisfy the concerns of constituents back home.

Giving members the opportunity to talk about how they helped shape the agenda is one idea. Providing an opportunity to restyle legislation, later in the process, is another. These adjustments, however, can be extremely complicated. Yet in an era with no earmarks, and when other institutions like the ones Rauch described have all been weakened, figuring out how to give the rank-in-file a way to reframe the agenda may be the new normal.

To paraphrase Mayhew, no one ever won reelection saying “I give my party a high level of support in Washington.” Despite all the changes in politics, media, and technology, one thing remains constant – lawmakers need to get reelected. That motivation and its impact on legislative behavior remain the same and leaders must manage these challenges. Recognizing that reality – and accommodating it – will build both good will with the rank-in-file and produce more success for congressional leaders trying to foster party unity and achieve legislative wins.

Gary Andres was the Majority Staff Director for the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 2011-2017. He also worked in the Office of Legislative Affairs for Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He is currently the Senior Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at the Biotechnology Innovation Association. The views expressed are his own.