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What insurgent Dems can learn from the Democratic Study Group

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A Nov. 19 letter signed by 16 Democrats promising to vote against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as House speaker emphasizes it’s time for leadership change. The letter followed days of questions about how insurgent Democrats might leverage their votes for procedural reforms, including new leadership opportunities for junior members. These nascent efforts by an emerging party faction could significantly reshape congressional politics — if they learn from the Democratic Study Group (DSG), the faction of liberal Democrats in the House from 1959-1994.

Recent House reforms have been leadership-driven — under Speakers Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Pelosi — but organized party factions long have played a role in driving procedural and policy reform. In the 1960s and 1970s, DSG led a successful reform campaign that sought to balance power between committees, party leaders and junior members.

{mosads}Grassroots-based reforms such as these remain rare in the House. It is difficult to even imagine members of Congress choosing to work together to make the House stronger and more responsive to the public. Today, the pendulum has swung too far, and junior members and committees do not play a significant role in the legislative process.

As newly-elected Democrats approach the first real test of their newfound leverage, they — and others interested in change — would be wise to study the DSG’s successful model of House reform.

For factions such as DSG, the power to drive change emanates not from their size, but from their organization — from being better prepared and more unified than other groups. Junior liberals in the 1960s were keenly aware that their only option to push for reform was to develop their own base of power in the DSG. They met regularly and developed a leadership, a concrete legislative agenda and tools for sharing information. The DSG’s research services alone made them such an indispensable part of legislative work that Democrats could not imagine serving in the House without them.

Now, Democrats risk following the path of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC). Conservatives formed the HFC in 2015 out of a similar frustration with their inability to participate in the legislative process and a desire for leadership change. But, while they succeeded in forcing Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to resign and helped reform the party’s steering committee, they accomplished little else.

If young Democrats want to succeed, they should avoid individual — and often personal — leadership challenges and follow the strategy of liberal Democrats in the DSG. Lobbying for the return of legislative service organizations (LSO) will help. Abolished on the eve of Republicans’ 1995 takeover of the House, LSOs allowed members to dedicate a small portion of their personal office budgets to House organizations that provided legislative resources.

Reinstating LSOs would not increase the federal budget, and would make it easier for overburdened members to study policy issues and identify solutions to making the House, the committee system, and the leadership work better. Popular opinion aside, members are always too busy to do this on their own.

Young Democrats also need to rethink their approach to the leadership. Leveraging your votes in leadership races can garner media attention, but this is not a long-term strategy. The DSG learned quickly that the best way to get the leadership on your side is not to back them into a corner, but to empower them to support your goals. Instead of publicly criticizing leaders, factions can build coalitions around their policy goals — saving the leadership time and potential embarrassment if the legislation fails.

And if insurgent Democrats want to get involved in the selection of party leaders, groom future leaders — provide opportunities for members denied by seniority or personal connections from heading committees. Past and current Democratic Party leaders got their early start in the DSG’s leadership, including Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and former Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.).

And if all else fails, members should look to state legislatures — as the DSG did — for strategies to reform the House. Key reforms over the past several decades, including electronic voting and committee chair votes, were passed in the states before they reached Congress.

Members must resist the urge to champion lobbying reforms that are easily explained to constituents but have minimal impact on policymaking or congressional responsiveness to pressing policy problems. Making it harder for members to work (appropriately or not) with outside groups does little to make it easier for members themselves to work together.

If insurgent Democrats want to democratize power in the House and improve leadership responsiveness, they need to empower themselves first. Challenging the status quo in Congress requires strong organization — and the DSG provides a model for how Democrats today can develop into one.

Emily Baer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. She served as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow for Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn).

Tags Boehner Democratic Party Dennis Hastert John Boehner Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi Rosa DeLauro Steny Hoyer United States Congress US House of Representatives

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