Monday, December 7, 2009

A Little Congressional History

Ezra Klein says:
The first problem for people who care about policy outcomes -- regardless of which direction they care about those outcomes from -- is that the Congress has developed an overwhelming bias toward inaction and the status quo. It is much stronger now than it has been in the past, and it's exacerbated because we are much more divided now than we have been in the past.
His link there is to something about the lack of a filibuster against Medicare. And fair enough on the narrow point: Greg Koger makes it clear that filibusters have increased steadily. Filibusters were unusual in the early 1960s, and are of course the norm now. We live with a 60 vote Senate. It's also a fair accusation to make that the American system has a bias in favor of the status quo, and against non-incremental change. But the broader historical point about that bias getting worse over time is not correct.

However, filibusters are not the only way that Congress slows things down, and in general Congressional reform since 1960 has been in the direction of empowering party majorities, with the one big exception of the addition of needing 60 votes to pass major bills through the Senate.

The big changes are in the House. Since 1975, the House of Representatives has been, for all practical purposes, a party-ruled body. As long as the majority party can control 218 votes, they can do pretty much whatever they want. However, in 1960 that was not the case at all:

Strict seniority meant that parties had no control over committees. Committee chairs, not party majorities, ran the House. Committee chairs could and did refuse to report out legislation, even legislation that was important to the party platform. Even if they did report a bill, there was little opportunity under House rules or norms for the leadership to change it on the way to the floor, as Nancy Pelosi did with the Health Care bill this year. The committees were largely autonomous, and the leadership had very little ability to affect anything.

Even worse (from a majoritarian, and I think from any democratic point of view) was the House Rules Committee. The current Rules Committee is an arm of the party leadership, but for decades through 1960, the Rules Committee was an autonomous institution, largely controlled by its chair, that could and did defy both the party leadership and the original committee of jurisdiction. That's right: if the Chair of the Rules Committee didn't like your bill, and he wanted to be stubborn about it, there was pretty much nothing you could do but wait...until he died.

In the Senate, committees have never been as strong as they are in the House, and there was no substantively important Rules Committee. Still, strict seniority and heterogeneous parties meant that committee chairs were far less likely to defer to party preferences then than they do now. And committees were stronger then than they are now. The ability of the party leadership to sort through provisions of a bill between the committee and the floor, refashioning it and tweaking it in order to make sure that the votes are there -- that ability is a fairly recent development.

And the last piece of it is that the invention of reconciliation (which dates to 1981 as a means of passing substantive legislation) has meant that the growth of the 60 vote Senate has been partially matched by a 51 vote alternative.

So, if we compare Congress from, say, 1950 to Congress today, the House is much more able to enforce the preferences of the majority party -- really, it's a huge, huge difference in the House. The Senate is a harder call; the majority party has gained some prerogatives, but now must find 60 votes far more often.

Overall, my judgment would be that for nominations, 1950 was probably easier for the majority party; for legislation, the present is significantly easier.

(I should be clear: mid-century was probably a high point for obstructionism. I'm not an expert in 19th century Congresses, but the deadlock in the House in the 1950s was a result of the revolt against strong Speakers who ruled at the turn of the 20th century up until 1910).

For more on the changes in the House, see Nelson W. Polsby, How Congress Evolves; see also David W. Rohde, Parties and Leaders in the Postreform House. For Greg Koger's posts on the filibuster to the Monkey Cage, see this index. If you're wondering why Democrats don't insist on a "real" filibuster, see Greg's articles or my post here.

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