The decline of party capacity in the House

 Image source:  Politico

Image source: Politico

By Scott Meinke

In the last two decades, the House of Representatives has lost a great deal of institutional capacity.  Sources of expertise and spaces for deliberation and policy formulation are all in decline.  Most of these resources are nonpartisan or bipartisan—but Congress’ capacity does not exist entirely outside of its parties.  The House parties have provided internal mechanisms that have served party goals by complementing rather than replacing a robust committee system and other sources of institutional strength, and they could do so again.  There is no reason why strong political parties cannot coexist with a process of serious policy development and consensus building, a combination that would allow rank-and-file party members a greater investment in the party’s work.

The current House majority is highly centralized, governing from the top with little real involvement by the membership.  This condition is what we would expect from a cohesive majority in a highly polarized House, but it is increasingly in tension with a caucus that is deeply divided over policy and strategic decisions.  House majorities (and minorities, too) navigated this combination of strong partisanship and serious internal division more effectively when their organizations provided structure for member involvement.

The era that brought heightened capacity through staff growth, new nonpartisan offices (e.g., CBO), and the like also brought expanded party leadership organizations, with many House members taking a role in their parties’ decisions.  In the late 1970s and 1980s, majority Democrats built a broadly participatory whip organization and a Democratic Steering and Policy Committee (DSPC) that involved a diverse set members.  At the same time, minority Republicans participated in their own whip system, Policy Committee, and Research Committee.  This strategy of inclusion, as Barbara Sinclair described the Democratic caucus’ efforts, helped to link members, committee leaders, and party leaders in the decision-making process.  It often also provided formal venues for communication between the House party, the White House, and party actors outside of government.

What ends did this system serve, and why was it a form of institutional capacity? 

These organizations were never particularly effective in developing long-term policy options, although Republicans sometimes turned to them for that purpose in the minority.  Much more important was their role in coordinating party policy positions and strategy.  Democrats used the DSPC and broad meetings of the whip organization to facilitate two-way communication between the rank-and-file and the leadership—members could voice concerns over policy and political consequences, and the leadership could explain and develop strategy.  Republicans used their organizations in similar ways, finding them particularly useful for arriving at policy compromises on conference-dividing issues like campaign finance and ethics reform.

These organizational mechanisms supported somewhat more centralized leadership at a time of rising partisanship, but they did so in ways that built rather than assuming rank-and-file support.  At a time when standing committee roles were more meaningful, this participatory system also provided established connections between key committee actors and party processes, striking a balance between these two key centers of House collective action.

What Happened to Party Organizations?

The expanded party capacity of the 1970s and 1980s did not withstand the conditions of the 1990s and 2000s in the House, at least not in its inclusive, participatory form.  Very high polarization fueled greater centralization, while close electoral competition inspired the parties to intensify their organizational focus on messaging.  Whip organizations grew more homogenous and their processes more locked-down, and the parties used their policy committees primarily to shape public electoral messages.  Increasing party centralization, the absence of party coordinating structures, and the decline of committees now leave the top majority party leadership developing vehicles for “legislating in the dark.”  The House GOP has tried to build support for leadership direction through full conference meetings, but these do not appear to be a successful alternative to more organized, inclusive participation earlier in the process.

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The return to more powerful committee government is a worthwhile long-term goal.  At the same time, parties in the House will not soon retreat to a modest role as “important pieces of Capitol Hill furniture,” as David Mayhew described them four decades ago.  As long as the parties delegate significant authority to their leadership and contain real internal divisions—even if they are eventually joined by rejuvenated standing committees—they can improve the legislative process by renewing their own institutional capacity to develop broad support for policy and strategy. 

Scott Meinke (@ProfMeinke) is an associate professor of political science at Bucknell University.