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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Congressional Dysfunction, Part 3 - The Rise of Conservative Republicans: 1976-1994

Part 3 of an ongoing series exploring the roots of our dysfunctional Congress.

Just as Figure 4.1 shows congressional Democrats moving left beginning in the 1950s, it shows as well that Republicans began their own ideological journey right starting in the late 1970s. Though the congressional elections of 1976 and 1978 did not see significant changes in the balance of power in the House or Senate, they did witness the election of more conservative Republicans. Republicans influenced by an emerging activist and ideological conservatism. In 1978, 35 Republican freshmen arrived in the House, including Newt Gingrich (R-GA) who became secretary of the group. In the face of what had seemed permanent minority status, these activist Republicans sought other means by which to influence the process, frequently raising questions of possible ethics violations by majority party members.

The election of 1980 changed the perspective of many Republicans and raised the possibility of reclaiming control of Congress. Republicans erased all of the losses they had suffered since 1964 and returned to pre-Watergate levels in the House. Additionally, the party continued to build on its presence in the south. Republicans netted 12 seats in the Senate, including four new seats in the south. More significantly, Republicans claimed control of the Senate for the first time since 1953.  A new Republican party was emerging. It was a more uniformly conservative party with a steadily growing southern accent.

The arrival of recorded votes offered incentives to the minority party as well. Prior to 1971 votes on amendments were not recorded. Members of the House might vote simply by stating “aye” or “nay” or simply inform the vote teller of their position – but there would be no list of how each member voted. Only those in the chamber would know how a member voted. With the introduction of recorded and then electronic voting every member’s vote became a matter of public record. This encouraged the minority party to offer amendments to force tough or even embarrassing votes for majority party members – especially those from districts competitive districts. The change was dramatic. All told there was an eightfold increase in the number of floor amendments subject to a recorded vote between the 84th Congress, convened in 1955, and the 95th Congress, adjourned in 1978. 

Newt Gingrich saw the potential afforded by the new openness created in the 1970s. Gingrich and likeminded Republicans formed the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS) in 1983. The COS served as the conservative Republican counterpart to progressives’ Democratic Study Group established in the 1950s. The COS took advantage of House rules and used floor amendments to force Democrats to make politically challenging votes. This was an effective way to embarrass Democrats from vulnerable districts in an era of televised floor proceedings and recorded votes. The minority party lacks the power to overcome majority party advantages in the House, so the COS instead used the House floor as a platform to undermine confidence in the Democratic majority.

Republicans used ethics reforms adopted in the 1970s to target Democratic leaders. In quick succession ethics inquiries and investigations led to the resignations of Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright and Majority Whip Tony Coelho in 1989 – that same year Gingrich gained election as Minority Whip, the second highest-ranking Republican leadership position in the House. A scandal involving the House bank in 1991 and the House Post Office in 1993 followed the resignations of Wright and Coelho. Though Democrats and Republicans alike were found to have overdrawn their accounts in the House bank, the scandal contributed to a COS narrative of a corrupt Congress controlled by Democrats. Nearly 80 House members either retired or were defeated in 1992 because of the bank scandal. The election 47 freshman Republicans to the House accompanied the election of Democrat Bill Clinton as President in 1992. Figure 4.1 clearly shows the growing conservatism of House Republicans during that time.  Senate Republicans steadily followed suit. Conservative House members, first elected after 1978 and subsequently elected to the Senate (Theriault and Rohde 2011), helped to produce the growing polarization within the Senate.

The House Post Office scandal erupted in 1993 and effectively ended the career of Democratic Representative Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) the very powerful Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. The cumulative effect of the scandals and public dissatisfaction with President Clinton was the Republican sweep of the 1994-midterm elections. In the 1994, election Republicans realized a net gain of 54 seats in the House and 8 seats in the Senate and assumed full control of the U.S. Congress for the first time since 1954. Gingrich gained election as Speaker of the new Republican controlled House. Republicans would hold the majority in the House and Senate until 2007, with the exception of a brief period in the Senate from 2001-2003.

 Next: Part 4 - The Contemporary Congress – Polarization, Professionalization and Competition