The past six fractious years of Republican control of the House do not suggest much cause for optimism. But the approach taken by House leaders in the 1970s and 1980s may offer Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) a blueprint for holding together a conflicted, activist set of members.
Leaders of that era engaged in a form of participatory leadership that brought a large, diverse set of members into organizations to help coordinate the caucus’s legislative efforts. Although these organizations have been less important for coordination in recent years, now may be the time to revive an approach that Republicans and Democrats used in previous decades. In doing so, Ryan could give the GOP its best chance to coordinate and advance the party’s goals in Congress.
The challenges for House Republicans
The troubles of the House GOP since they secured the majority in 2010 are well known. Despite generally high levels of party voting cohesion and strong polarization between the parties, the House Republican leadership has struggled with divisions over substance and strategy on major legislation.
These conflicts ranged from the debt ceiling crisis of 2011 to the budget and appropriations bills this year. Battles between mainstream conservatives and Freedom Caucus members precipitated the 2013 government shutdown and the leadership crisis that led to the departure of Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2015.
Those troubles are hardly history. When the 115th Congress convenes in January, the Republican conference in the House will be slightly smaller, and Freedom Caucus members remain a force that can prevent the majority party from passing bills. Those members have signaled some sharp differences with other Republicans, and Trump’s agenda may divide congressional Republicans further if it ranges beyond traditional conservative priorities.
Parties like unified government, but having Trump in White House is unlikely to solve the conference’s divisions; it may even worsen them.
How previous House leaders dealt with a fractured, activist party
In my new book, I show that House leaders in the 1970s and 1980s developed systems that helped them meet a dual challenge: rising polarization and ideological demands, combined with diverse and fractured party caucuses. The organizations that leaders created — such as party policy committees and the whip organizations — were successful both because of how the leadership used them and who participated in their work.
When the party was divided and leadership faced strong pressure for centralized leadership, leaders chose to include a wide range of members in leadership organizations. Their participation helped coordinate across the divisions in the party.
In the late 1970s, for instance, House Democrats enjoyed a secure majority, and the party had just taken the White House. But Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) faced the conflicting demands of younger activist liberals, old-guard Democrats, and the new outsider Carter administration. As the political scientist Barbara Sinclair noted, O’Neill pursued a “strategy of inclusion,” drawing many members into an expanded whip system and Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
The Democratic leadership used frequent meetings of these organizations to exchange information with different committees and factions in the caucus. This process also helped coordinate with the administration and outside interests.
This participatory model was not confined to the majority Democrats. In the 1980s, Republicans in the minority responded to their own internal challenges by using a smaller, yet still inclusive, leadership system. For example, the Republican Policy Committee, particularly with Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma as chairman, involved many members in decisions about party positions and in refining policy proposals on divisive issues such as campaign finance reform.
But by the late 1990s, both parties had de-emphasized this approach. The strong leaders in both parties maintained large whip organizations and party committees, but members in those formal roles were more likely to be party loyalists. In turn, the leadership became less likely to use some party organizations for broad coordination, sometimes having them craft election-oriented messages instead.
Ryan now finds himself in a situation similar to O’Neill’s in 1977. As a result, he might do well to use the formal party processes designed to promote broad-based participation and serious coordination on policy and strategy.
His predecessors’ experience suggests that this structured approach for airing views and directing key decisions offers advantages over meetings of the full membership, which has been the favored venue for Republicans in recent years. A focus on organized participation may also fit Ryan’s leadership style — the reporting on his first year as speaker has emphasized his inclination toward inclusiveness and his informal efforts to achieve it.
From a speaker’s perspective, there are of course drawbacks to this strategy. A strong leader with a team of loyalists can advance the goals of a mostly unified party more efficiently than a participatory approach. This was evident in the 1990s and 2000s.
And there are limits to what it can accomplish. Building a sense of team play and buy-in through inclusion can’t overcome strong constituency pressure to challenge the party.
Still, the benefits of inclusion in party processes are more easily realized than some other forms of openness. For instance, in a polarized House it has been difficult for Ryan, like other speakers, to maintain a commitment to “regular order” in floor procedures. The use of party organizations to encourage participation and coordination before policies reach the floor may actually help the speaker to keep support within the party when restrictive floor processes are needed to protect the majority’s interests.
The importance of congressional party capability
Party leadership structures also have helped strengthen Congress’s institutional autonomy and capacity in the U.S. system. At the start of a new administration with uncertain plans and priorities, it is crucial for Congress, and particularly its Republican majority, to maintain an independent voice.
However, the need for an independent Congress faces serious threats to congressional capacity that predate the rise of Trump, including the weakening of the congressional staff system, standing committees and nonpartisan congressional support organizations.
These trends, in turn, erode Congress’s ability to push back against pressure from the White House and outside groups.
The parties in the House have also allowed their own organizational capacity to wither, even though the House parties remain very strong in some respects. Effective political parties are indispensable for Congress to function as a strong institution, and the party structures of a quarter-century ago facilitated robust party leadership even when those parties were challenging to lead.
The current House GOP can more effectively work with and also check the Trump administration if the leadership follows earlier examples of using broad-based participation to develop, coordinate and defend the congressional party’s positions.
Scott Meinke is associate professor of political science at Bucknell University. Find him on Twitter @ProfMeinke.