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Rohde: Parties and leaders in the post-reform House

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Rohde. 1991. Parties and leaders in the post-reform House.

Main Point

Conditional Party Government means that party responsibility exists only if there is a widespread policy agreement among the majority party. Among the consequences of Conditional Party Government is an acceptance that leaders would support (or at least not block) policy initiatives in which there was a party consensus.

Greater homogeneity of both parties based on changing electoral conditions and aided by institutional reforms created the context for the operation of conditional party government.

The Argument

The reforms in the House in the early 1970s and the growth of partisanship in the 1980s are systematically related. Both were the result of important electoral changes, specifically the realignment of democratic constituencies in the South that led to increased intraparty homogeneity. The reforms of the 1970s were proposed by liberal Democrats frustrated by the inability to pass legislation favored by a majority of the rank and file. The reforms created incentives for party leaders to push legislation that reflected the interests of a majority of House Democrats. Following the reforms, further changes in the electorate brought coalitions of representatives that were more similar within parties and more different between them. Both the rules and the intraparty homogeneity brought about by elections set the conditions for strong party government. This book lays out the theory of conditional party government, whereby intraparty homogeneity and interparty heterogeneity determine the extent of partisanship in the House of Representatives.

Place in Literature

This book challenges claims by Mayhew and others that parties do not matter in the U.S. context. The book traces its theoretical heritage to the earliest analyses (Wilson, 1885) of political parties and committees in Congress. Instead of choosing sides in a debate (committee or parties), Rohde puts his and other arguments about how Congress is organized into their historical contexts. During the periods in which Wilson and others wrote (the 1880s, 1950s), committee government prevails. During other periods (particularly the postreform era), the "textbook" view of Congress is less applicable. Rohde draws on past research on partisanship in Congress, especially Brady, Cooper and Hurley (1979), Brady and Ettling (1984) and Collie and Brady (1985). He also incorporates the findings of more recent scholarship on parties and leaders by Sinclair (1978, 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1989), Smith (1989), Smith and Deering (1984), and Smith and Ray (1983).

Rohde argues that there are three necessary and sufficient conditions for a strong party leadership in the House: (1) a homogeneous party membership, (2) enhanced sources of institutional leverage at the hands of the leader, and (3) a leader willing to use his powers

Historical Story

What Happened: The Decline and Resurgence of Parties in the House

  • High partisanship under Speakers Thomas Reed and Joseph Cannon at the turn of the century (revolt against Cannon in 1910)
  • Partisanship continues decline as Northern Democrats are pitted against Republicans and Southern Democrats. Committees and committee chairman, dominated by the conservative coalition, rival the majority party.
    • Party voting reached a low point in 1970 and 1972 with only 27% of members voting with a majority of their party on party-unity votes
  • Dominant literature on the decline of partisanship through the 1970s assigns two root causes: 1) the reduction of partisan influences in the electorate and 2) the weakening of party organization within the institution

Why it Happened: Electoral Changes

The central force behind the resurgence of partisanship in the House is the exogenous influence of electoral change.

  • The elections of the 1950s-1960s brought many new liberal Democrats to the House. These congressmen saw institutional biases in favor of the conservative coalition, particularly the disproportionate power of committee chairmen. The imbalance was addressed formally in the 1970s through House reforms.
  • The elections following the 1970s reforms further strengthened both parties. Electoral changes (due to Southern realignment and the Voting Rights Act, for example) resulted in coalitions of representatives that were more similar within parties and more different between them. A homogeneous majority party was able to more aggressively take advantage of the House reforms.

The Results: House Reforms

House Reforms (passed in 1970s): Weakened chairmen and strengthened majority party leadership.

  1. Restriction of Committee Chairmen
    • Moved away from rigid adherence to seniority in choosing committee chairman
    • Committee chairman were made accountable by regular secret-ballot, caucus votes at the beginning of each Congress
    • Removed power to determine membership and jurisdiction of subcommittees
    • Reduced power to block the consideration of legislation
    • Subcommittee chairs received own staff
  2. Increased accountability in House proceedings
    • Recorded committee votes
    • Recorded floor amendment votes
    • Required most committee meetings to be open to the public
  3. Increased Power of Democratic leadership
    • Transferred committee assignment powers to the Steering and Policy Committee
    • Granted the Speaker the power to choose Democrats on the Rules Committee
    • Granted Speaker power to refer bills to multiple committees and set time limits on committee consideration
    • Caucus rules to give the majority party firm working-majorities in committees

Theory: Conditional Party Government

The reforms effects on partisanship in the House were gradual, particularly given the lack of party homogeneity and changing conceptions of strong party leadership (the collective membership becomes "the boss," not individual leaders).

Conditional Party Government entails that party responsibility exists only if there is a widespread policy agreement among the majority party. Among the consequences of Conditional Party Government is an acceptance that leaders would support (or at least not block) policy initiatives in which there was a party consensus.

Role of the President in reducing or enhancing partisanship is contingent on the nature of a president's preferences vis-a-vis those of members of Congress and the inclinations of each side to compromise. Carter's wide-ranging agenda divided his own party and reduced partisanship, while Reagan's conservative agenda made it easier for Democrats to arrive at a consensus on alternatives.

Effects of partisanship (i.e. of conditional party government):

  • Committee Bills were more reflective of the majority party
    • Decline in the proportion of amendments offered to the floor that were Democrat-favored
    • Decrease in Republican ability to pass their favored amendments on the floor
  • Democratic victories on the floor grew