By Philip Wallach
How can one legislator in 435, or even in 100, change the way things are done in his or her chamber? Putting aside the highly unusual cases where the member is the pivotal voter in a closely divided body (Susan Collins in the 115th Senate comes to mind), acting independently is a recipe for futility. The clearest path to influence is to become a good partisan soldier, accumulate influence with copartisans and especially party leaders, and work the system as a committee member or subcommittee chair or eventually committee chair. Power is gained and exercised as a member of the team, especially in the House.
But what if you want to change what that team stands for, against the immediate wishes of its leaders? Well, then you need a team-within-a-team to pursue common goals. In her impressive new book, Building the Bloc: Intraparty Organization in the U.S. Congress, Professor Ruth Bloch Rubin explains what kind of work goes into building such groups and what kind of work they can ultimately do to reshape the institution in their members’ interests. Using extensive archival work and interviews, she shows how intraparty blocs were decisive in determining the structure of Congress throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Members of Congress may usually “go along to get along” within the system as it exists, but the system itself has again and again been decisively reshaped by members coming together to change it for their own advantage.
Rubin’s book emphasizes the importance of organization in these efforts, which are much more than spontaneous alliances formed by like-minded members. As Jordan Ragusa’s recent LegBranch.com post also explained, intraparty organizations perform functions that parallel (and compete with) party structures. In Rubin’s words, they solve collective action problems “by providing selective incentives to cooperative members, transforming public-good policies into excludable accomplishments, and instituting rules and procedures to promote group decision making” (4). By credibly threatening to part ways with their copartisans on important issues, organized blocs “can provide political cover, draw public attention, generate a recognizable brand and strengthen members’ future bargaining position with party leaders” (12).
Rubin’s work shows that intraparty organizations have been successfully adapted to a number of different political configurations. Progressive members of the GOP in the late 1900s chafed against the domineering ways of the conservative Speaker of the House (and Chairman of the Rules Committee!), Joseph Cannon. From 1908 to 1910, would-be reformers built up a formidable organization even as they suffered from attacks by Cannon and President William Howard Taft, but eventually they became a sufficiently united force that they could partner with minority Democrats and force Cannon from his Rules Committee Chairmanship—as well as help to lay the groundwork for the emergence of the Progressive Party.
Similarly, southern Democrats were (nearly) always part of the majority party, but they saw it as imperative that they form a cohesive bloc to defend their regional interest in Jim Crow against their northern copartisans. Some might think that unanimity on these issues would suffice to bind southerners to each other, but Rubin shows that this was not the case. Instead, southern opinion about particular issues (like the poll tax, which also disenfranchised many whites) and strategy was often quite divided, such that organization was needed to maximize their leverage. “By furnishing incentives only to members of the Southern Caucus [Senate] and Southern Delegations [House] who contributed their fair share, southern intraparty organization enabled the South’s active defenders to secure the cooperation of their more ambivalent colleagues” (120). That allowed them to take effective stands, such as when they defeated civil rights legislation in 1956, and to beat tactical retreats, such as when they defanged what became the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Organizationally, the southerners’ powers were cresting in the early 1960s, but intraparty organization has its limits: finally, a coalition of liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans were willing to overpower intransigent southerners who had successfully maneuvered to keep race issues more or less off the agenda for so long.
In more recent years, the Blue Dog Coalition organized centrist Democrats who found themselves in the unfamiliar role as members of the opposition in 1995. By shrewdly organizing and instantiating strict rules for members, they were able to create a strong brand that certified to conservative voters that (mostly southern) members were resisting liberals on issues such as gun control. When Democrats reclaimed the House majority (2007-2010), Blue Dogs could plausibly claim to be pivotal; its 54 members had a significant impact on the health care bill that came out of the House. They successfully sought to open the drafting process to their influence, and the final House bill was marked by their focuses on deficit-neutrality and limiting the impact on small businesses and rural communities. That their efforts were largely neutralized when they were forced to take or leave the bill written in the Senate isn’t the point here. Instead, we should note the way their shared substantive concerns led them to become effective combatants in the realm of procedure.
Finally, Rubin examines efforts to organize relatively hardline members against the centrists in their parties, featuring the Democratic Study Group, the Republican Study Committee, and now the Freedom Caucus. The DSG sought to shift Democrats to the right by accumulating a critical mass of self-identified liberals that could credibly claim it represented a (near) majority within the caucus—in part so they could counter the organized efforts of conservative southern democrats. Through the late-1960s and early 1970s, the DSG was crucial in reorienting the rules of the House to break the power of the old bull chairmen. After that, it transformed into a service organization working for most members of the Democratic caucus, no longer an ambitious shaper of the rules or agenda.
The RSC self-consciously traveled a similar path, providing a way for conservatives to cheaply band together—though by the 1980s it, too, suffered from brand dilution because of oversubscription. Its revival in the 2000s allowed it to return to its roots, and its brand dilution—again—in the 2010s led to the creation of the Freedom Caucus, which limits its membership by rule and puts a high premium on ideological purity. The Freedom Caucus, which has often been blamed for making Congress unworkable, is helpfully viewed in light of its many predecessor intraparty organizations. Its members, like those of the Progressive Caucus or the DSG, often turn their attention to procedural matters because they feel it is the only way they can force leaders to take seriously their substantive concerns. That motivation has led to the reshaping of Congress in the past, and could (arguably) be in the process of doing so today.
Rubin argues that being attuned to bloc politics in Congress ought to make us somewhat less fixated on the two-party nature of U.S. politics, since the power dynamics between blocs in many ways resembles that seen in multiparty parliamentary systems. She concludes on a note of considered ambivalence: “Intraparty organizations—like parties themselves—can do harm as well as good. Nevertheless, whether amplifying or dampening popular passions, intraparty organizations directly shape who is represented in Congress, and how well. On this account, the electoral connection is rarely a dyadic relationship between a lawmaker and her constituents. For good or for ill, it is a linkage mediated by the existence and configuration of organized legislative blocs” (304). In other words, as we try to discern Congress’s political future (and America’s), we would do well to spend less time trying to read polling tea leaves and more attending to the intraparty blocs that organize our diverse nation’s political energies.
Philip Wallach is a senior fellow in governance at the R Street Institute.