Friday, February 17, 2012

Q Day 2: Centralization and Polarization in the House?

Bryan asks:
I'm working through Polsby's How Congress Evolves, which details how liberal Democrats overcame the conservative coalition in the House. In the course of doing so, the House reforms seem to have aided in the sharp polarization of the parties and tighter Leadership control of the House. Question is a two-parter: In your view, (1) would decentralization of power in the House reduce partisanship, and (2) would that be a good thing?
I'm certainly an easy mark for anyone who plugs NWP and that book.

I think I'd say that partisanship drives centralization, not the other way around. So it's not like anyone could impose less centralized rules on the House and therefore get less polarized results. That said, there are presumably a lot of ways that a polarized, partisan House could be run. I do think that a House in which committees and subcommittees do as much meaningful, substantive work as possible and really develop and take advantage of substantive expertise is a good thing. I hadn't realized until yesterday that committee staff numbers have been dropping while leadership staff goes up; I don't believe that's a good trade-off (although I'd probably be happy with the leadership keeping it's staff and making the House more expensive to run, rather than trading back). It's possible that if the majority party allowed the minority party more substantive input at the committee and subcommittee level, at least beyond the most highly charged items, that the minority might have more of a stake in the operations of the House in general. That's how it was pre-reform; it's not clear whether that's a plausible outcome for today's parties.

Generally, I don't think that partisanship is a bad thing at all: I think strong parties contribute to democracy. On the other hand, the kind of strong parties that I like are less ideological, and less hierarchical, than the ones that have evolved over the last fifty years. For the House, that would mean, I think, both strong majority-party leadership and strong committees. No reason you can't have both; that kind of thing isn't zero-sum.


  1. I quite agree with you regarding partisanship. Especially in an age where voters are so disengaged even on the larger issues of the day, partisanship offers a good shorthand when people step into the voting booth.

    Are you then in favour of moving closer towards a Westminster Parliamentary style of governance? (Not that we ever would need or is likely to move to a Parliamentary system.)

  2. That's interesting, Jonathan. But what would a non-hierarchical, non-ideological, strong party look like? I take it that you find that modern parties are too much of both? Would you then characterize the parties of, say, 1965 as non-hierarchical and non-ideological but weak? Would a better system, in your view, be something like the Whigs and the Democrats from the early-to-mid-1800s before the issue of slavery really caused a regional rupture? I just have a hard time imagining how, given current social and cultural divisions in the USA, a party could be strong without being ideological and/or hierarchical.

    A related question has to to do with that old saw, the differences between presidential and parliamentary systems. Most people who favor strong parties, at least in my reading which admittedly is not vast, seem also to favor parliamentary forms of government. However, I seem to recall you once saying that you weren't very impressed with the superiority of parliamentary systems over presidential ones. How then do you see strong parties as working to the best in a presidential system?

  3. @Anastasios - That's a great point. How else does one define a "strong party" other than the fact that it's hierarchical and ideological? How else would a strong party tie themselves together?

    1. Greg,

      Well, I suppose identity would be one way. If we had parties that represented clear geographic regions, or clear ethnic/social groups, then I suppose their sense of shared heritage and automatic common interests would hold them together despite strong political ideology or hierarchy.

      But in a country as large and complex as ours that would seem to require a multi-party system, which would be quite a change (and would run afoul of several current understandings of political science, I am told). It would also introduce some poisons directly into the electoral system that I'm not sure we really want.

      Of course, one could argue that we are getting there, anyway, with the GOP becoming a white, southern, rural, downscale party and the Democrats a multi-racial, urban, eastern, upscale-and-extremely-downscale party. I just don't see that the results of that have been very positive, however.

    2. I meant "despite LACK of strong political ideology or hierarchy."

  4. FWIW, the notion of party governance through the committees is, in a sense, part of the argument in Legislative Leviathan by Cox & McCubbins. (Note that I'm doing a TON of violence to their model in summarizing it like this).

    In their framework, committees play an important role in how the "party cartel" runs things.

    That said, I gotta say that the classic Conditional Party Government argument is more persuasive (and that is, essentially, the argument NWP makes in How Congress Evolves, except that he focuses on WHY members changed, whereas the CPG argument takes such change as exogenous. In fact, I've always thought that the real title for that book should be WHY Congress Evolves, rather than How. He goes into the how, but his story is so much more interesting on the Why side).

  5. As one of Nelson's research assistants for the book, I have to agree with Matt about the book. It is all about how external shifts in constituent preferences (and what drove those changes) affected the internal structure of Congress over time. As such, it is very much in line with the CPG model. As the preferences of the majority party coalesce and move farther away from those of the minority party, the leadership gains more control over the agenda (and, by extension, legislation passed out of the chamber).

    I too wonder what a strong, decentralized, consensus-model legislative party would look like. The traditional tradeoff for legislative scholars is that you either have strong committees or strong parties. Thus, in parliamentary systems, policy-making proceeds at the ministerial level (i.e., party) and you have relatively weak committees.


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