Though Democrats as well as Republicans in Congress occupied a middle ground for several decades, Democrats began a trek away from the political center near the end of the 1950s. Indeed, the election of 1958 brought with it an influx of new Democratic members in the House (48) and Senate (15), mostly northern liberals. In the election of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson crushed Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. The tidal wave of Johnson’s victory brought 48 freshman Democrats to the House of Representatives and the defeat by Republicans of several southern Democrats. As shown in Figure 4.1, Panel A, the ideological make-up of the Democratic Party was beginning to move left. The balance of power was shifting within the party as well, prompting greater pressure for internal reforms to empower individual members of Congress. The post-Watergate midterm election of 1974 sealed the fate of the Southern Democrats and the era of the textbook Congress referenced by Mayhew. In the election of 1974 Democrats netted 49 seats in Congress, but elected 75 freshman members. The vestiges of the textbook Congress were disappearing, as approximately 85 percent of the members in Congress in 1975 had not been in Congress prior to 1958.
Pressure from Within
The freshman class of Democrats elected in 1958 still lacked power, but they began the pursuit of institutional reforms that would distribute more evenly the powers in Congress. They formed the Democratic Study Group (DSG), a caucus of progressive members dedicated to advancing liberal causes in the House. The efforts of these members and of the DSG met with significant resistance.
Though many issues during the late 1950s and early 1960s contributed to the frustrations of progressive Democrats, few were as crucial as the push for civil rights protections. In 1959, a civil rights bill was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee (chaired by a liberal Democrat from New York), but was then held captive by the Rules Committee when its chair Howard Smith (D-VA), a conservative civil rights opponent, refused to hold hearings. In the Senate, the measure was referred to a Judiciary Committee chaired by a Mississippi Democrat. In the end, civil right opponents viewed the legislation that ultimately emerged in 1960 as a toothless measure watered down to ensure passage. However, the battles of 1959 and 1960 did result in important changes in Congress. The Senate changed its rules to ensure that every member received one major committee assignment, resulting in greater committee participation by junior members. In the House, following the election of John Kennedy in 1960, progressive Democrats convinced the Speaker to increase the size of the Rules Committee to avoid the embarrassment of having the president’s agenda blocked. This change proved crucial as the House considered the bill that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Though Smith tried to block the legislation, he was compelled to send it to the floor by a majority of his committee members.
The election of Republican President Richard Nixon and the arrival of divided government made the seniority situation intolerable for progressive Democrats. Congress became the repository of the progressive Democratic agenda and the push for internal reforms accelerated after the loss of the White House. The Democratic caucus adopted a rule in 1969 requiring monthly party meetings rather than a single meeting at the start of each Congress. Another new rule provided for party ratification of committee members. As these were changes to party rules, and not House or Senate rules, they enhanced the power of the party caucus and precluded Southern Democrats from colluding with Republicans to thwart reform efforts on the floor. A “subcommittee bill of rights” received passage in 1973 granting subcommittees and their chairs independence from their parent committee chairs and subcommittees gained budgets and support through staff. Between 1971 and 1975 series of party rules changes subjected committee chairs to the secret ballot approval of the Democratic caucus. In 1975, as the new Congress was organizing, the Democratic caucus ousted three prominent committee chairs, among them two Southern Democrats. The seniority system that had been the source of power for the now minority Southern Democrats and a hallmark of the textbook Congress was gone.
Under the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 closed door committee meetings were discouraged, committees were required to have formal written rules, committee roll-call votes were to be made public, the rights of minority members were protected, and committee hearings were opened to radio and television coverage. The act provided for the recording of roll call votes on the floor. Until then, the only way to know how a member of Congress had voted was to stand in the viewing gallery and watch the vote.
In this new era, the number of subcommittees grew rapidly, reaching 139 by 1976 – twice the number as in the House just 20 years prior. The growth in number and power of subcommittees, coupled with an influx of new Democratic House members and an increasingly liberal Democratic caucus, saw power distributed among 139 subcommittees and the party’s 291 members. The era following the reforms of the early 1970s received the labels of the era of the subcommittee and the era of the individual member. Regardless of the label, it was a period of decentralization and diffuse power.
Individual members long enjoyed the ability to influence the legislative process in the Senate. In a chamber where most business requires the unanimous consent of members, it was the unwritten rules of the chamber, the behavioral norms, which prevented obstruction. Among the “acceptable” behavior for Senators of the time was an expected period of apprenticeship and deference to senior Senators, courtesy and reciprocity toward fellow Senators, and a commitment to the institution over all else. This often meant exercising restraint in the use of formal powers.
The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 signaled a move away from powerful committees and toward more power for subcommittees and individual members in the Senate. Committee members gained the ability to call for hearings, minority members received the ability to call witnesses, and individual members gained additional staff and resources. The Senate changed its rules in 1975 to reduce the power of the filibuster as a means of minority obstruction. The two-thirds (67 vote) majority required to invoke cloture – to end debate – was reduced to a three-fifth majority (60 votes).
The cumulative effect of these changes was a significant decentralization of power within Congress. Members in the House and Senate gained access to staff and resources, member offices received computers, and additional funds for their district offices. The Congressional Research Service – which provides policy and legal analysis to committees and members – grew in size and resources. Members of Congress professionalized. Professionalism grew in the legislative branch in the 1960s and 1970s with the lengthening of congressional careers. The number of professional staff grew to help lawmakers become electorally secure by solving constituent problems with “casework” and delivering federal funds for constituency projects – “porkbarreling.”
In 1960, the total individual staff for Representatives was 2,444. By 1974 that had grown to 5,109 and individual member payroll for staff had increased nearly tenfold. Comparable increases occurred in staffs for individual Senators, chamber staffs and committee staff. Committee staff in the House number 394 in 1960, swelled to 1843 by 1981 and remained well above 1960’s total at 1241 in 2005. In the Senate, committee staff stood at 433 in 1960 before jumping to 1022 in 1981 and remained at 883 in 2005. The total congressional workforce grew dramatically during the period between the late 1960s and 1980. We explore the implications of that growth in chapter six.
Pressure from Without
The constituencies of the parties were changing considerably and adding to the newly emerging distance between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 increased voter registration by African-Americans, especially in the south, and brought African-Americans into the Democratic Party fold. African-American voter registration rates jumped from 6.7 percent before passage of the acts to 59.8 percent by 1967 in Mississippi alone. Their increased participation in Democratic party politics contributed to the primary defeats of conservative southern Democrats in states such as Louisiana and Virginia (where House Rules Committee chair Howard Smith (D-VA) lost the nomination to a liberal challenger) at the hands of partisans more in line with the party’s emerging progressive majority. This provided an opportunity for Republican candidates in the south, as they were better able to defeat liberal Democratic nominees. Steadily, either southern Democrats lost elections or they began to tow the party line more frequently.
The south was not the only region to experience change. In a series of court rulings during the 1960s the manner in which states created congressional districts was greatly altered. In 1964 in Wesberry v. Sanders, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that congressional districts must contain approximately the same number of people. Many states had not engaged in reapportionment or the redrawing of congressional districts to reflect population change for decades. Over the course of the next decade states engaged in a dramatic overhaul of congressional districts. Once dominant rural areas saw power and representation shift to newly emerging suburbs and urban areas achieved equitable representation. Reapportionment made Democrats more attentive to the demands of black voters in the north just as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act had in the south.
Sprawling suburban development resulted in more heterogeneous district populations and presented new challenges for representatives in the House. It was more difficult to campaign and to reach out to voters in these new suburban districts as they lacked either the community centers of urban areas or the shared history of rural areas. The varied interests, needs, and demands of these new districts required elected representatives to diversify their legislative portfolios and to reach beyond the committee specific specialization of the textbook Congress. Candidates and incumbents needed a new method for securing victory. The rise of interest groups offered one such method as these advocacy organizations provided candidates and members of Congress with a means for connecting with constituencies.
Concomitant with the rise in the number of associations in the 1960s was a rise in the number congressional staff. Newly empowered members of Congress fought to expand subcommittee jurisdictions to engage emerging policy issues. The dramatic increase in the number of bills subject to multiple committee referrals offers evidence of this expansion. Multiple referrals were once quite rare in Congress, but have become quite commonplace since the late 1960s. Jurisdictional expansion and multiple referrals in turn attracted the attention of interest groups seeking to influence policy. Members derived electoral support from these groups. In return for electoral support, the groups attained access to the policy process. A self-reinforcing mechanism resulted, encouraging both more lobbying by associations and additional efforts by members to expand their sphere of policy influence. The number of congressional personnel grew at a pace similar to the rise in the number of associations between 1964 and 1980.
Though Democrats dominated national politics and Congress for much of the time since 1932, electoral changes were breaking that hold on power. As African-Americans moved toward the Democrats, white southerners and white working class voters began to move away. Republicans reclaimed the White House in 1968 and retained it in 1972. Although Republicans in Congress suffered a tremendous setback in the aftermath of Watergate, the election of 1980 delivered the White House and Republicans claimed just over 190 members in the House for only the third time since 1956. The party captured a six-seat majority in the U.S. Senate – their first majority since 1952. Of greater import, Republicans were now mirroring the Democrats’ trek left and growing partisan homogeneity. Increased competition, the advent of divided government, and the growth of conservative homogeneity among Republicans in Congress set the stage for the next step in the evolution of the contemporary Congress – a return to centralized party control.
Next: Part III - The Rise of Conservative Republicans: 1976-1994