The roots of our polarization in Congress

The debate about the roots of “polarization” in the US Congress was primarily about whether it resulted from the polarization of the broad electorate or the polarization of the elite in the parties, regardless of any electoral dynamics. Whether caused by changes in the party elite or in the electorate, fingers mostly point to the Republican Party as the main cause of polarization, with the decisive moment under Newt Gingrich occurring around the time of the 1994 congressional election. The Republican Debt Festival, however, largely overlooks the central role played by the Democratic-initiated Congressional reforms in the 1970s, which reduced the power of committee chairs to block legislation and increased the power of the Democratic caucus over house rules and regulations. These “reforms” are usually overlooked as contributing factors as the institutional changes have managed to shift the results of the legislation to the left without changing the underlying membership in the House of Representatives. The movement of the House results to the left was not an unintended by-product of the reforms. The obvious purpose of Democratic Congress reforms was to restrict moderate and conservative members of the Democratic House and to give more heed to the political preferences of the more liberal Democratic representatives.

“Polarization” has different definitions. These definitions are not mutually exclusive. you can mix and match. What the main definitions have in common, however, is that they represent changing personnel and thus changed political preferences among the representatives as the main cause of polarization. Cynthia Farina summarized the most important polarization theories in literature:

First, the two major political parties have internally become more ideologically consistent on all social and economic issues (ideological coherence). Second, the members are better sorted by party (partisan sorting). The moderate Republican and Conservative Democratic wings that emerged for much of the 20th century have largely disappeared. Finally, the gap between the middle party preferences in both chambers has increased (ideological divergence).

These theories mainly tell of changing political preferences and take the internal institutional organization of Congress as a constant.

The institutional organization of the Congress, however, is not a constant. Over 20 years before Gingrich and the treaty with America, the members of the Democratic House implemented reforms apparently aimed at removing legislative power from the conservative and moderate members of the Democratic House and steering the actions of the House of Representatives in a decidedly liberal direction. This liberal shift would only come through institutional changes without substantial membership or ideological changes. Indeed, the institutional reforms would later catalyze changes in partisan membership of Congress.

As David Rohde explains in his careful study of reforms to Democratic Congress in the 1970s:

Goals and preferences aren’t the only factors influencing the voting pattern. The type of agendas from which decisions are made is also important. . . . Since the selection of the floors depends in part on the type of alternatives, changes in the processes with which alternatives are generated can lead to shifts in the voting patterns. . . even if the distribution of operational preferences on this topic remains unchanged. A decrease in the power of committee chairmen or an increase in the influence of party leaders, as was sought in the reforms of the 1970s, therefore have great potential for influencing partisanship not only because they can influence the preferences of members on the ground, but also because it can also affect the alternatives these members choose from (both priorities added).

The emergence of the democratic congressional reforms of the 1970s is well known. As a result of the US Civil War, the two political parties have long been associated with regional rather than ideological identities. As a result, a sizable section of the Democratic Party was made up of conservative Democrats from the South, and a sizable section of the Republican Party was made up of moderate – even liberal – Republicans, mostly from the Northeast and the upper Midwest.

After World War II, Conservative Southern Democrats often partnered with Conservative Republicans to block more liberal policy proposals by the Northern Democrats. The power of the conservative South Democrats was not limited to coalitions they had formed with Republicans in the last votes. The institutional structure of Congress at the time gave the Southern Democrats an overwhelming influence on the legislative agenda due to their institutional power in the democratically controlled House of Representatives.

The main purpose of the reform proposals of the Democratic Congress was obvious: to remove institutional control from the Southern Democrats and thereby reduce the moderating influence of these Democrats on the outcome of the legislation.

The roots of southern democratic power go back decades earlier. Because of Spokesman Joseph Cannon’s tenacious leadership in the early 1900s, a group of progressive Republicans joined forces with Democrats to reduce the institutional powers of the President of the House and wrest the spokesman’s power of appointment over the important House Rules Committee.

The institutional result has been an increase in the relative powers of the congressional committees, and in particular an increase in the powers of the committee chairs. Due to party disagreement, committee chairperson positions have been assigned primarily on the basis of seniority rather than the views of members. The views of neither the median member of Democratic Congress nor the party leadership were guaranteed to be reflected in the committee chairs.

Committees became small fiefdoms, with disproportionate control that was later exercised by senior Southern Democrats. The regulatory committee accordingly reflected the bipartisan preferences of a coalition of Southern Democrats and Conservative Republicans rather than reflecting the preferences of the median member of the Democratic House caucus. All of this was at the expense of the more liberal Northern Democrats, who nonetheless held the majority of the seats in the Democratic House.

Pressure for institutional change rose from these more liberal Democrats in the 1950s, leading to the creation of the Democratic Study Group in 1959, a group led primarily by liberal and moderate Northern Democrats. The pressure for change among members of the Democratic House increased with the Democratic gains in the House from the 1964 elections.

The main purpose of the reform proposals for the Democratic Congress developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s was evident: to remove institutional control from the Southern Democrats and thereby reduce the moderating influence of these Democrats on the outcome of legislation. That is, the reforms were deliberately aimed at increasing the leverage of the more liberal preferences of the median member of the House’s Democratic caucus.

Democratic reforms went several ways. First, the Democrats passed a secret ballot in the election of committee chairs, which made it politically easier for members of the Democratic House to reject high-ranking Southern Democrats whose conservatism was inconsistent with the middle member of the Democratic caucus. The Democrats also reduced the power of the committee chairs and increased the power of the subcommittees accordingly. (Subcommittees, for example, would have their own staff in the future.) This decentralization step, however, went hand in hand with increased control of the committee-specific democratic assemblies via subcommittees. Committee meetings could vote to remove seniority-based “offers” for subcommittee chairpersons and subcommittee membership. The net result was an increase in the power of the middle members of the Democratic House in these assemblies. Again, even at the committee level, these median caucus members were often more liberal than the committee chairs, who had exercised excessive control over committee agendas prior to the reforms.

At the same time, reforms increased the speaker’s power, although control was expanded through the entire caucus to control the speaker’s actions and appointments. For example, the nominations for speakers for the major rules committee have now been approved by the entire Democratic Assembly.

The effects of these reforms have only gradually made their way into House results over a decade or so. This is one of the reasons why the impact of these institutional reforms has been underestimated compared to preference-based polarization reports. The liberalizing purpose of the reforms was clear, however: the majority within the democratic caucus wanted the reforms, Rohde concludes, in order to “advance the liberal policies they support”.

In addition to the direct effects of the democratic Congress reforms on the liberalization of the House’s political outcomes, they also catalyzed preference-based polarization. With members of the South Democratic House now being deliberately disfigured, much of the reasons why the voters and elites of the South stay with the Democratic Party have remained scattered. Southern voters would, of course, only indirectly see the effects of these reforms over time with the increasing impotence of their elected democratic representatives. But the effect undoubtedly accelerated the development of the “Solid South” from Democrat to Republican.

Democratic reforms – specifically, the centralized party’s deliberate increase in control over the results of the House – were also an example for Newt Gingrich and the Republicans almost 20 years later. And not just by setting a good example. It wasn’t to be expected that Republicans would stand by simply in response to the now more aggressive institutional liberalism of the House Democrats in the 1980s.

Despite the popular narrative that Republicans are almost entirely responsible for the polarization of modern national politics, the roots of polarization are in part the intended result of democratic reforms in the House in the 1970s.

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