Nicol C. Rae, Colton C. Campbell, eds. New Majority or Old Minority?: The Impact of Republicans on Congress. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999. xi + 220 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 08-476-91683; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8476-9168-5.
Reviewed by Douglas Koopman (Department of Political Science, Calvin College)
Published on H-Pol (July, 1999)
Political Science and Republicans: Getting to Know Each Other
Views by privileged elites about marginalized groups are remarkably predictable. These views are usually based in either a failure to appreciate the true differences of the marginalized, or a failure to acknowledge that identified differences may be equally valid. In the first failing, elites see the marginalized group as "just like us"--only a different gender, color, or other distinguishing mark. Regarding the second failing, "they" are inherently inferior because of an identified difference that makes "them" particularly unsuitable for equality or domination. These views are often expressed with the best of intentions, based more on unfamiliarity than hostility (although sometimes that as well).
Women, African-Americans, and many other groups have had to suffer a range of misunderstandings stemming from these failures. On a far smaller scale, congressional Republicans have had to suffer the same from the political science community, especially when the GOP was buried in seemingly permanent minority status in Congress. Either Republicans were no different from Democrats or the GOP was so different it was inherently unfit to govern. Either way, Republicans could be ignored.
The "just like us" thesis tends to narrow the areas of research to those where comparisons between Republicans and Democrats are possible. So there is a lot of attention to committees, the floor amending process, and relations between party leaders and rank-and-file. Not surprisingly, Republicans do these things much like Democrats, although there are some significant differences between the parties. Truly revolutionary Republican practices such as "big-picture" strategic planning and privatizing congressional non-legislative support have no Democratic precursors, and therefore no cross-party comparisons are possible. As such, most current comparative work tends to downplay the distinctiveness of Republicans.
The "unfit to govern" thesis has both a "hard" and "soft" expression. Fortunately, the "hard" expression, that Republican rule is so dangerous all sane persons must hope it is only for a brief moment, is largely if not completely missing from scholarly studies of Congress. But the "soft" expression, that Republicans will truly deserve to be the congressional majority only when they learn to run the institution like Democrats did, is more frequently found. Fortunately, as Republican rule extends however precariously into its third Congress, the literature is slowly being purged of this "soft" bias as well.
If you are teaching a class on Congress in the near future, get Rae and Campbell's highly readable edited volume. It is, despite a few minor concerns, the best book so far on how Republicans have redirected the legislative and institutional direction of Congress. It is a good summary of what scholars have studied so far about the Republican Congress, especially the House, and hints at new avenues to pursue. It about the best of the new literature on congressional Republicans except, perhaps, for Rae's 1998 Conservative Reformers, which focused more narrowly on the 104th Republican freshman class.
The co-authors' introductory chapter sets out the themes underlying the book and briefly describes the remaining chapters. The consensus is that the 104th Congress was truly revolutionary, at least in the House, but Republican overreached in both policy and institutional changes. Both policy and institution "snapped back" in the 105th Congress. In the new equilibrium, the question becomes how different are Republicans after all. The subsequent chapters allowed different scholars to advance different answers, depending upon their bias and upon what areas of the Congress they examine.
A few minor mistakes in this introductory chapter reflect the unfamiliar territory to scholars of a Republican House. Misstating House Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Archer's first name as "Ron" is probably a simple editing error. Somewhat more worrying is the assertion that in the 105th Congress a beleaguered Speaker Gingrich hatched a new strategy to ally with party moderates whom he once despised: in fact, activist moderates were always part of Gingrich's intra-party winning coalition since his first attempts to gain power. Even more disconcerting is the assertion that congressional scandals like the House "check-bouncing" mess "involved Republican members to the same extent as Democrats" (p. 12). Yet a review of Congressional Quarterly (CQ) reports about the "bank" shows that nine of the ten worst, and 75 of the 100 worst, offenders were Democrats. Not exactly "the same extent." And as further documented by various CQ articles on congressional ethics, from 1968 through 1993 there were 56 major ethics cases; of these 46, or 82 percent, involved Democrats. This is not argue Republicans are more ethical: more likely fewer corrupters thought the GOP worthy of attention.
Barbara Sinclair contributes the first substantive chapter, on party leadership and institutional constraints. She examines the relationships among party leaders, committee leaders, and the rank-and-file in the Republican House, especially interested in the party leaders' involvement in committee and floor actions. Sinclair looks at both House and Senate, and it seems to me that she gets the Senate exactly right. The election tsunami that swamped the House was merely an excessively high tide in the Senate. Experienced Senate GOP leadership knew first-hand that a simple majority was not enough to do anything revolutionary. They operated from day one cognizant of the constraints brought by a bicameral legislature and separate executive branch and, in the long term, avoided the jarring ups and downs of the House. And Sinclair's review of House Republicans is thorough and nuanced, yet her conclusions do not always seem to follow from her analysis. She acknowledges that the House GOP made significant, if not revolutionary, committee changes such as realigning jurisdictions and cutting committee numbers and staff, continuing but greatly accelerating trends meekly begun by Democrats.
No congressional scholar knows more about (Democratic) House leadership task forces than Sinclair. Because Republicans also used leadership task forces, she assumes no great innovation there. But it seems to this reviewer that the parties use these task forces for different reasons. Democrats used them to socialize members to party priorities, rewardeding with additional assignments those who changed their views. The "problem" a Democratic task force addressed was the entrepreneurial member. Republicans use task forces more to pull legislative products away from committee medians toward the party median--the "problem" is the insular committee.
Sinclair also looks at floor rules, and notes that both Democrats and Republicans often resorted to special rules governing legislative debate, with Republicans allowing only a slightly higher proportion of open rules. She concludes that not much has changed on the floor. But Republican restrictions on floor activities are of a different type that those used by Democrats. The GOP favorite is a time limit for debate rather than a content limit for amendments. The difference seems very important. The purpose of Democratic content limits was to achieve a predetermined outcome no matter how long it took, whereas the purpose of Republican time limits is to make a decision by a time certain with more uncertainty about the outcome.
Ronald Peters' chapter on institutional context and Newt Gingrich's leadership style is worth the entire book. Peters takes on the dominant Joseph Cooper/David Brady assumption that leadership style is defined merely by institutional context, which in turn is operationalized only by majority party cohesion. The chapter reviews the theory and its implications, pointing out that its weakest explanatory power is during Republican-controlled congresses. This simple fact leads Peters to speculate that the two parties have different "party cultures," a complex concept that includes different views by the rank-and-file on what they expect from and are willing to give to party leaders. Peters asserts that Republicans more often appreciate hierarchy, ideological arguments, efficiency, and effectiveness, and pursue politics more as an avocation or hobby which lends a certain naivete about its processes. Voting loyalty is important to the GOP but votes must be earned through effective persuasion and not through the exercise of brute power. Leaders have special powers in shaping "party cultures"--shaping the conference or caucus understanding of issues, agendas, and even leadership roles. By redefining institutional context as a broader "cultural context," Peter opens the door to a fuller understanding of Republican effects on the House.
The chapter on committee changes is by Christopher Deering, perhaps the best committee scholar around. Deering likes congressional committees the old-fashioned way--large, insulated, and pushing out bills. The article makes three claims about the new Republican House: 1) that the Contract period delayed the point at which committees learned about "normal" legislating; 2) that legislation and oversight was more partisan because of party leader involvement; and 3) that the House GOP leadership trapped itself by stirring up the new members then couldn't calm them down when it needed too. The first claim is right: the Contract pace was excessive and unsustainable in terms of both speed and the amount of party control over committees. A slower pace returned soon after the first one hundred days, and by the 105th Congress the House was being criticized as a "do nothing" one. The articles second point is also true. Republican leaders more obviously meddled in committees early on. But they did so for logical reasons. They had looked at Democratic committees and quite reasonably concded that those committees were plenty knowledgeable about bureaucratic complexity and legislative process, but too ignorant of programmatic coherence and the "real world" effects of federal laws. The solution was to augment traditional committee knowledge with new knowledge--through leadership task forces and the placement of junior members in more powerful roles. Finally, the third assertion is simply not true. Early on the leadership did not "stir up" junior members. Rather, from day one most leaders speculated that the large freshman class created at least as many potential problems as opportunities.
The highest value for Deering is experience in the legislative process and programmatic content. Learning to legislate means learning those things and then expanding upon them. But another view, that committees had too much of this knowledge and not enough other knowledge, seems at least plausible. This alternative view motivated what House Republicans did to committees at the beginning of the 104th Congress. They have since loosened party leadership interference with committees, mostly because committees have been "reseeded" with a wider range of experience and only partly because of a perception they went "too far" in 1995. The article's lack of contact with the Republican view is betrayed in a couple minor flaws. For example, Indiana's John Myers is apparently confused with Kansas' Jan Meyers (p. 98) in discussing incoming committee chair tenures. The chapter also uses only one measure, number of bills passed, to estimate congressional achievement. Because that number is low, the chapter concludes that House Republicans accomplished little. But the figures for total statutes place the new Republican congresses in a better light. And one could argue that the greatest achievement of a new Congress might be to wait and see how legislation works without immediately passing modifications and additions.
The remainder of the edited volume is mostly a very solid review and analysis, if sometime subject to the "edited volume disease" of repetition. Roger Davidson also looks at the relationship between party leaders and committees. This is a solid and fair-minded chapter, with the major point that in their institutional reforms Republicans were trying to reduce the clientele politics of autonomous subcommittees and quasi-official caucuses and task forces. And he correctly notes the power of the Strategic Advisory Group (a small group of the top leaders and their top staff), with its ebbs and flows running in inverse relationship to committee power. A few asides at the Republicans could have been left out, such as singling out Republicans for the common bipartisan practice of having lobbyists write legislative language, even full bills. His conclusion that "[b]asic problems remain not only in committee operations but in the workplace conditions of both chambers" is undoubtedly true. But most references to poor working conditions and employee morale are from surveys conducted during the Democratic era. Things probably haven't changed much, but his sources do not pertain to the argument.
Larry Evans and Walter Oleszek focus on floor procedure, going over some of the same territory as Sinclair but putting it in a more theoretical context. Their helpful essay starts with reviewing two competing theories about the ideological content of legislative outputs; the "conditional party government" (CPG) thesis of David Rohde and John Aldrich versus the "median voter" thesis by Keith Krehbiel. Briefly, Rohde/Aldrich argue legislative outcomes can often be close to the median preference of the majority party; Krehbiel argues that outcomes are far more often at the median of the full legislature. Evans and Oleszek are more sympathetic to CPG, and they describe when leadership prerogatives matter on floor voting, and how this works for Republicans. They share Sinclair's conclusion that "the Republican leadership was one focused on streamlining and expediting the legislative process" (p. 127) while Democrats tended toward more substantive restrictions. There is a minor problem with including journal motions in a measure of minority party dilatory tactics, especially counting that motion as equal in value to motions to adjourn, rise and table (p. 131). Motions to approve the House journal are often a mere "roll call" devise to see who is in town, or a way to send a quick and confidential message to the caucus or conference. Included in the table Democrats appear marginally more dilatory than Republicans when the latter was on the minority: take it out and Democrats appear far more dilatory.
James Thurber has an excellent short review of twenty-five years of budget reform efforts. The primary goal in these efforts have moved from elevating the role of the budget in 1974 (at the creation of the Congressional Budget Office and stronger Budget Committees) to 1985, to deficit control through various permutations of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings in 1985-1990, to spending restraints in the 1990 and 1993 budget agreements. The latter "pay-as-you-go" or "zero-sum" strategy worked to cut the deficit, and Thurber makes the important point that it also served to augment the party leadership. "Pay-go" discouraged program entrepreneurs who had to find spending offsets or new taxes to fund new initiatives. Thurber's main conclusion is that while process changes had some effect on budget totals, the largest effect was the change in party control of Congress that changed the institution's spending and taxing policies toward less overall federal spending.
Robin Kolodny's chapter on House Republican factions is very good, although a little removed from the major theme of the book. It points out Republicans are a fractious lot, an important observation usually overlooked. And it makes the very good point that factions (at least Republican ones) are "negative agenda setters" in that they keep controversial items off the floor. As such, effective factions artificially inflate party unity scores because divisive issues are avoided. It is an intriguing notion to suggest that Republican factions operate differently from Democratic factions in that Republican groups want to retain a greater appearance of party unity, and one worthy of further study.
The concluding chapter by William F. Connelly, Jr. and John J. Pitney, Jr. is also very good. Sympathetic to the Republican view, these authors make the important point that, no matter what one makes of the short- or long-term effects of Republican control of the Congress, the takeover has provided the political science community with the opportunity to test several long-held assumptions. They go on to suggest one major assumption that should be reexamined in light of the Republican takeover--the hoary Mayhewian assumption that the individual drive for re-election explains nearly all congressional behavior and organization. Republican actions in preparing to become, and then becoming, the majority, do not fit that mold and they are not likely to explain how Democrats regain the majority when that happens.
In short, this book goes a long way in identifying the most important things to know about House Republicans: 1) they have a different goal for the national government than Democrats, wanting a smaller national government with the Congress playing a larger role in what remains, 2) they have a different view of the institution than Democrats--they want it smaller and smarter, and don't think those two goals are necessarily contradictory, 3) in pursing these different views, Republicans often use the same tactics Democrats did, although in a generally less heavy-handed way, 4) the 104th Congress was "shock treatment," necessary to clean out the institution and redirect its policies--after that, there has been a partial return to normal operations in legislative and oversight procedures, if not normal policy goals, and 5) House Republicans deserve to govern the House and help govern the nation "in their own way." Scholars need to carefully describe and evaluate what Republicans have done and why they have done it, aware that many of the "norms" of Congress under forty years of Democratic rule may need to be reevaluated.
Most of the essays do an excellent job of making and expanding upon these points. Most, if not all, of the authors tend to believe that Republicans are not just like Democrats, and that the GOP may be as "fit to govern" the House and the nation as their adversaries. That, it seems to me, is great progress.
This review was commissioned for H-Pol by Lex Renda <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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Douglas Koopman. Review of Rae, Nicol C.; Campbell, Colton C., eds., New Majority or Old Minority?: The Impact of Republicans on Congress.
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