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With the ascension of Representative Henry Waxman to the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, it is apparent that Nancy Pelosi has become the most powerful Speaker of the House in the last hundred years. Though Democrats held the numerical majority in the House throughout most of the mid- to late-twentieth century, their party was a coalition of progressives and Southern conservatives–today, there is more party unity. Under Pelosi, the trend toward increased power for the Speaker–at the expense of committee chairmen–has continued.
John C. Fortier
Representative Henry A. Waxman’s ouster of Representative John Dingell as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee can be seen as liberals triumphing over moderates or environmentalists triumphing over Detroit. But more important, it signals that Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-California) is the strongest House speaker in a century. Her political skills and the culmination of historical trends have put her in charge of a majority that is sizable, cohesive and governed centrally, not by committee chairmen.
How can a speaker at the end of only her first two years holding the gavel claim the mantle of most powerful? What about Sam Rayburn’s more than 16 years in the speaker’s chair, or Tip O’Neill’s 10 consecutive years? Or Denny Hastert’s eight-year and Newt Gingrich‘s four-year revolutionary speakerships, which attracted national attention?
In the place of party discipline and a strong speaker, norms developed that gave committee chairmen great power.
The answer lies in the previous era of Democratic control of the House, when the party ran the House continuously from 1954 to 1994, and for all but four years from 1930 to 1994. Democrats often had large but divided majorities. This division made it hard for speakers to rule the House; instead, most of the leadership came from committee chairmen.
The House Democratic Caucus had two parts: a Southern conservative wing and a progressive wing. On many issues, conservative Democrats allied with Republicans to form a conservative coalition. Democrats had a numerical majority but often not a working one. The caucus could not discipline members for straying from the party line.
In the place of party discipline and a strong speaker, norms developed that gave committee chairmen great power. Advancement on committees was based strictly on seniority, and chairmen served for life. Chairmen often forged alliances with their ranking Republicans to enhance the independence of committees, and they resisted House leaders’ poking their nose in committee business.
Even the Rules Committee, which today works to further the speaker’s aims, was often at odds with the leader. For many years its chairman was Representative Howard Smith, a conservative Virginian who regularly killed bills by not allowing them to get out of his committee.
As the late Nelson Polsby wrote in “How Congress Evolves,” the middle of the 20th century saw a battle between progressives and Southern conservatives, with progressives pushing to get their agenda around Southern chairmen. In 1974, the large Watergate-era Democratic class–whose members included Waxman and his chief supporter, George Miller–made progressives enough of a majority to effect some change. But even with a more dominant progressive wing, the independence of committee chairmen persisted up until 1994, when Democrats lost their majority.
Gingrich and Republicans radically changed the way the House operated. No House Republican in the 104th Congress had ever been in the majority, much less served as chairman, and the party owed its majority status to Gingrich, who had led it to victory in 1994.
Gingrich operated by frequently convening task forces outside of the committee system. In committees, the party established term limits under which no chairman could serve more than six years. Seniority was regularly disregarded as the criterion for choosing a chairman, as the party selected chairmen based on ability and loyalty to party. In this system, it was hard to be a disloyal committee chairman, as the party could easily find a replacement.
Hastert returned a bit to the regular order by abandoning task forces and relying more on committee chairmen, but the power of chairmen was still far from what it had been under Democrats.
During the 12-year Republican majority, I had several occasions to ask Democratic members and leaders what a return to power would look like. Democrats all had disdain for the changes Republicans had wrought and swore that they would never have committee term limits or chairmen working under the supervisory eye of party leaders.
But in two short years, we have seen the imposition of party term limits on chairmen, forceful leadership from the speaker’s chair, and now the ouster of the dean of the House from his chairmanship in favor of a new chairman more in sync with the policy positions of the party and the incoming president.
One of the great benefits of the new order is that Democrats are accountable to the people, who can reward or punish Democrats on Election Day.
On the other hand, as my colleagues Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann have argued in their book “The Broken Branch,” before Republicans took over, committee chairmen were independent enough to hold oversight hearings on presidents of their own party and to exercise judgment independent of their party.
Pelosi sits with a majority larger than Republicans had during their 12 years in charge, a party much more unified than it has been in the past, and with power shifted from committee chairmen to the speaker. Will we see disciplined accountability to a Democratic Party plan or a Congress strong enough to stand up for itself, even against a president in the same party? The Waxman victory means that, for now, party unity rules.
John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.
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