A Historian in a House Divided: A Personal View of Recent Congressional History

John Lawrence, December 2008

In this essay, I offer some observations about the changing nature of Congress over the past three decades from the perspective of a historian who has had a very strategic, insider’s view of that evolution.

Over the past 34 years, I have held a number of senior positions in the House of Representatives, on personal, committee, and more recently, leadership staffs. Throughout those years, my training as a historian has very much been a part of my daily work in the Congress, providing me with a unique perspective for assessing political developments while offering antecedents and analysis for how we might respond and plan for the future. I arrived on Capitol Hill during the Ford Administration, fresh from graduate school, as a young staff aide to one of the so-called “Watergate babies” elected to the House following Richard Nixon’s resignation. Scandal had rocked the nation, reform and change were the cry of the press and the electorate, and an unpopular war still raged consuming American lives and billions of dollars. For me, the awareness of personal change came quickly. Just a couple of years after studying labor history at Berkeley, I found myself sitting on the lawn at the White House Labor Day party next to President Jimmy Carter, singing “Solidarity Forever.”

Some 32 years later, scandal, reform, and an unpopular foreign war again dominated the national elections, and this time, Democrats regained control of Congress, and I was thrust into my current job as chief of staff to the Speaker. Looking at these parallels, a cynic might conclude that in Washington, it is business as usual; history repeats itself.

But much has changed—though not enough to satisfy many voters or critics. Indeed, virtually everyone who works in Congress shares, at some point, the outsider’s frustration with the slow pace of the legislative process, the ability of a strong-willed minority to obstruct change, and the disproportionate power exercised by a few powerful members and special interests. It is a challenge for many to avoid the cynicism and defeatism that often accompany the dynamics of the legislative process.

One of the significant changes I have witnessed has been the alteration in the distribution of power within the Congress. The traditional, domineering power of the committee chairs has never recovered from the dethroning of three of the “old bulls” by those incoming “Watergate babies” in 1975. Newer members became increasingly assertive in promoting their legislative initiatives—such as institutional reform, environmental protection, and opposition to overseas military intervention—all challenges to the authority of the leadership and chairs to set the agenda largely independent from input from the broader membership.

The emergence of a vigorous congressional oversight process has enabled newer members to play a more aggressive role early in their House careers. Rigorous oversight became a standard activity when opposed parties controlled the legislative and executive branches, an illustration of the checks and balances designed by the framers of the Constitution. Oversight slowed to a trickle, however, during the first six years of the George W. Bush administration when Republicans controlled the House and largely abdicated their constitutional responsibility, allowing the President broad discretion to act with little fear of congressional scrutiny. Over the recent past, since Democrats regained the majority, hundreds of oversight hearings have been held on numerous issues which have helped to shape legislation, particularly in examining the conduct of the war in Iraq, the misuse of prewar intelligence, the use of torture and secret prisons as instruments of U.S. policy, and the extensive financial irregularities by Halliburton, Blackwater, and other contractors favored by the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The evolution toward a leadership-driven House accelerated with the dominant role of Newt Gingrich following the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. The trend was sustained as power shifted to the majority leader, Tom DeLay, following Gingrich’s resignation as Speaker in 1998. The Republican leadership kept the Republican troops in line with rigorous party discipline: for example, the chair of the Veterans Committee was dethroned and even removed from the committee for acting as too vehement an advocate for veterans. Under Gingrich and his Republican successors, committee chairmanships, long allocated on the basis of seniority, were dispensed as rewards for ideological loyalty and fund-raising prowess. Upon reassuming the majority in 2007, Democrats restored the traditional seniority system for awarding chairmanships but retained the Republicans’ three-term limitation on any chairman’s tenure.

In the early years of the Republican majority, the Democratic leadership was unwilling to enforce similar discipline, having misread the 1994 election as an anomaly. Democrats erroneously believed that a restoration of their four decades-long majority was imminent. To ensure that no current members were lost while awaiting a restoration of their majority, marginal Democrats were regularly given a “pass” during politically difficult votes, a luxury that had long been permitted during the days of a large Democratic majority, when defections rarely affected the outcome of votes. Party discipline dissipated, as did the ability to construct an effective counter-message to the Republican majority.

That lenient attitude changed markedly with Representative Nancy Pelosi’s ascendancy to the role of Democratic leader. Both as leader and as Speaker, Pelosi has employed a hands-on role in the formulation of the legislative agenda, the formulation and marketing of the party message, and the building of support within the party caucus for key initiatives.

Greater party discipline has become obligatory since 1994 because of the very narrow margins enjoyed by first the Republican, and now Democratic, majorities. There are few moderate Republicans in Congress left to compensate for any Democratic defections, and even that handful of Republicans is rarely of help on key procedural votes. As a result, tight party discipline has become essential to pass legislation, control the message, and retain the majority that affords the primary power within the legislative process: to establish the agenda.

The narrow margins between House Democrats and Republicans over the past dozen years have affected the management of the House floor, in particular the amendment process during floor debate. During the long period of Democratic control, when the party enjoyed majorities of 40 and 50 seats, it was not unusual for a measure like the Defense authorization bill to consume a week of the House’s time, or for 50 or 60 amendments to be offered. It was easy to be magnanimous and allow minority amendments with a sizeable majority that doomed them. With a narrow majority, however, the outcome of many votes is often uncertain. Moreover, the minority typically uses amendment opportunities to fashion poison-pill, “gotcha” amendments, hoping to create opportunities for campaign attacks against marginal members on such volatile topics as abortion and undocumented workers. As a result, the majority is understandably reluctant to provide the minority with opportunities and uses the rules process to restrict the number of amendments that can be offered on the House floor.

A major change in Congress over the past 30 years is the nature of the two party caucuses. Fueled by the organizational and electoral successes of Gingrich and DeLay, the Republican Conference has become increasingly ideologically homogeneous over the past two decades, with a decreasing number of moderate or liberal members, many of whom are targeted for defeat in Republican primaries by conservative, grass-roots groups like the Club for Growth.

In contrast, the Democratic Caucus includes numerous subcaucuses—such as the more conservative Blue Dogs, the New Democrats, the Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus—that have gained influence in a narrowly divided House. Resolving disagreements amongst these diverse, and sometimes contradictory, subgroups often requires the intervention of the Speaker and other members of the leadership, although for most Democrats who endured the loss of power in the 1990s and early 2000s, the recollection of life in the minority is often an additional incentive to find common ground.

As a result, both when they were in the minority, and since last January, in the majority, Democrats have had the highest voting loyalty since the 1950s, when another disciplined Speaker, Sam Rayburn, ruled the House.

The profusion of subcaucuses reflects another major—and beneficial—change between the 1970s and today: a vastly more diverse House membership including record numbers of women, African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans and, increasingly, gay and lesbian legislators. It is true that this diversity exists mainly among House Democrats in contrast to our Republican colleagues and the Senate in general, and it has certainly made the House better suited to serving its representational role. And, I might add, looking up and seeing Nancy Pelosi holding the gavel and being addressed as “Speaker” itself says volumes about the change that has come to the institution of Congress.

These changes are illustrative of the “increased partisanship” that much of the press and public decry in Washington, but which may well be inevitable given the volatility of contemporary issues and the closeness of party alignments.

The partisanship is heightened by the rise of the 24-hour news cycle that provides a ready platform for the theatrics of message-driven issues. As a result, over the past several decades, the press has steadily evolved (with painfully few exceptions) into an exposé-driven, cynical critic of the political process in which careers are built and reputations solidified by uncovering scandal rather than by explaining the nuances of policy. Tabloid journalism encourages tabloid politics: politicians have learned to speak in sound bites and catch phrases that will be repeated around-the-clock by CNN and Fox Television. The opportunities for serious political dialogue have been severely diminished within the mass culture.

For historians, Congress is a far more complex, more challenging subject of study than a president. There is no single congressional leader, for example, who speaks with absolute clarity, as a president can with respect to administration policy. There are the House and Senate, and a majority and minority in each chamber, not to mention Committee and caucus leaders and a host of other spokespersons. The sheer volume of material that must be analyzed discourages many from studying Congress, and encourages scholars to focus on a few prominent viewpoints. Yet, a proper understanding of congressional activities is an essential prerequisite to reducing the cynicism with which they are often perceived.

Why, I am often asked, for instance, can’t Congress act more rapidly when confronting complex or divisive issues like the war in Iraq, the deficit, or health policy.

I have often responded to such questions by suggesting, “Put 434 of your friends in a big room, and see how quickly 218 of them can agree on detailed solutions. Then try it with 434 Type-A personalities, who come from immensely diverse regions, backgrounds, and experiences.” The challenge of finding a majority isn’t as easy as it might appear.

The combination of an all too elementary understanding of the complex congressional system and the increasingly divisive and complicated issues Congress must confront leaves much of the electorate vulnerable to the cynical characterizations of critics and the manipulative campaign techniques of the political spinmeisters who exploit message over substance.

Some of this confusion is inevitable—a byproduct of the very nature of the ever-changing institution our Founding Father designed to be anything but efficient. Still, the historian in me demands that we try to make better sense of it, especially through a better understanding of congressional history. It is gratifying that of late, historians are again delving into political history and I am particularly pleased with those who are exploring the Legislative Branch.

However, we all need to take renewed action to promote the study of Congress, and to support those who want to teach and research Congress.

One way of doing this is for the AHA, the OAH, and other groups of historians to improve the inter-relationship between scholarship and the institution of Congress by placing scholars in congressional offices for a year for some serious intellectual interaction (Editor’s Note: The possibility of doing so has become more real, with a bequest toward this goal from Heather Huyck, described in the executive director’s essay as well as in Huyck’s essay). The more that scholars—and through them, the public—are able to know about how policymakers reach decisions, the better for the country.

Unfortunately, there have been powerful efforts to move in the reverse direction. For example, President Bush issued Executive Order 13233 in 2001, providing himself, and future (and past) presidents, vice presidents, as well as their representatives expanded powers to restrict the release of official papers. Such constraints on access to historical records can only contribute to an imperfect understanding of the legislative and administrative decision-making process (for the current post-election position on this matter, see the Coalition Column essay).

Passage of this important legislation, and ending similar efforts to restrain the right of Americans to know about the actions of their government, is a special responsibility the Congress owes not only to historians, but to every citizen.

A renewed emphasis on the teaching of history, particularly at the junior and senior high school level, will help foster improved citizenship. Encouragingly, in the recent past, Congress itself has funded efforts to improve history education through measures such as the “Teaching American History” program, which helps teachers enhance their knowledge and instruction of history. I would also like to see Congress fund National History Day, a popular program for junior and senior high school students (whose federal funding I worked to authorize).

There are many unique advantages to being a historian within the congressional process. In my current position, I am very much aware of being an active participant in meetings and decision-making that have great political, societal, and historical consequence. I have worked with our own staff and the offices of the House Historian and the Archivist to ensure better record-keeping, expanded oral history initiatives, and especially, a stronger sense of the great historical value of seemingly insignificant drafts, correspondence and other records.

I have also been able to apply my historical training to legislation, helping to secure the creation of two sites commemorating long-overlooked Americans: the Rosie-the-Riveter Home Front National Park in Richmond, California, and the Port Chicago National Memorial which commemorates black sailors wrongly charged with mutiny following a catastrophic munitions explosion in 1944—an incident that helped pave the way for the desegregation of the armed forces 50 years ago this year. We are also working to create an urban national park at the Paterson, New Jersey, Great Falls, the birthplace of American manufacturing under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton.

There isn’t a day, as I go about my tasks, when I don’t think about the men and women who have walked on the floors, sat in the seats, and confronted the challenges that I now experience. I also observe the awe in the faces of the thousands of tourists passing through their Capitol, and the enthusiasm with which they hail a familiar legislator. Those reactions provide me with a sense of hope that the frustrations that voters feel—that we all feel—can be positively channeled to encourage or demand or entice the system to work better, to respond to the public’s needs, and to earn—on an ongoing basis—the trust of our fellow citizens.

—John Lawrence, chief of staff to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, holds a PhD in history from the University of California at Berkeley. The essay is based on his presentation at the 122nd annual meeting of the AHA at Washington, D.C., in January, 2008.