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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Political Parties and Legislative Leadership: Can We Go Back to the Future? 

March 20, 2014 — By Daniel Stid

The past few weeks have seen several thought-provoking pieces by friends and colleagues grappling with the question of how to fix our dysfunctional political parties and their influence, or lack thereof, in Congress. We might group these reflections into two schools of thought—one that sees the answer to our present challenges in reestablishing at least some of the authority exercised by the party bosses and political machines of yore, and the other in emulating leading policy entrepreneurs of more recent vintage, several of whom alas have just announced their retirement.

Rick Pildes and Jonathan Rauch have gone contrarian and argue that the problem is not that our political parties are too strong, but that they are too weak. Pildes laments not polarization but rather “fragmentation”, i.e., “the external diffusion of political power away from the political parties as a whole and the internal diffusion of power away from the party leadership to individual party members and officeholders.”  Rauch, invoking the pungent wisdom of George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, argues that “politics needs good leaders, but it needs good followers even more, and they don’t come cheap. Loyalty only gets you so far, and ideology is divisive.” He continues: “Leaders need to be able to reward followers and punish turncoats and free agents. Sometimes that will look sleazy, undemocratic, or both, but it is often better than the alternatives.”

At this point, both Pildes and Rauch are more concerned with elevating the need for stronger party leadership—and followership—than they are in making specific prescriptions. Yet they acknowledge that remedies for the problems they are diagnosing would reverse longstanding thrusts of progressive reform by giving party leaders more say in candidate selection and more control over campaign finance. Rauch puts a fine point on it: “The next round of political reform should make party bosses and political machines stronger, not weaker.” Toward this end he also calls for the return of earmarks, those much reviled but apparently necessary bits of legislative fat needed to grease the skids of policymaking.

Norm Ornstein and Mark Schmitt, on the other hand, reflecting on the recently announced retirements of Democratic representatives John Dingell, Henry Waxman, and George Miller, hold these legislators up as the real exemplars. Over four decades in the case of Waxman and Miller, and indeed for nearly six decades in Dingell’s case, these men have had a tremendous impact on policymaking in Congress, notwithstanding that, as Schmitt notes, they “were neither party leaders nor followers, and they neither dispensed nor collected earmarks.” To be sure, they were partisan Democrats, but they largely made their mark as entrepreneurial legislative craftsmen who developed and carried out ambitious, long term policy agendas from the committees and sub-committees they led over the years.

As Ornstein notes, the problem is that these problem solvers are retiring, and in the current environment it is highly unlikely that they will be replaced by politicians prepared and able to spend their adult lives working the levers of power within the House of Representatives as creatively as their predecessors did. For his part, Schmitt is more hopeful – and explicitly rejects the call for strengthening party leadership in general, believing that “fragmentation of the kind represented by Miller and Waxman in particular—individual political actors with brains, values, and nerve—can create the kind of fluidity and innovation that politics needs. Without them, a politics made up of strong party leaders and docile followers would be like an economy made up of huge stagnant companies and their employees, with no room for entrepreneurship or competition.”

One theme spanning these divergent views is a shared and increasingly urgent focus on the imperative of solving the collective action problem in American politics and government. Democracy reformers have long focused on the perceived fairness and appropriateness of the electoral “inputs” to Congress, but this can obscure the importance of and even undermine the institution’s ability to govern—its capacity for “throughputs,” if you will.  Notwithstanding the differences between them, Plunkitt’s musings on the low but sturdy virtues of “honest graft” and the Subcommittee Bill of Rights from the 1970’s that empowered Waxman and Miller both embodied conceptions of how to govern that more or less worked for their respective times and contexts.

But these solutions tend to be fleeting, as times and contexts change. The challenge is that once again the U.S. needs a new conception for how to solve the problem of governance, and solutions that worked in the past won’t be readily available to us in the future, at least not in the same form, given how the polarized party system, our legislative institutions, and public attitudes toward government and representation have evolved.

What are the possible outlines of the emerging solution? In addition the ideas put forth by Pildes, Rauch, Ornstein, and Schmitt, it seems likely that some aspects of the solution are also anticipated in the thinking that Daniel Dagan, Steve Teles, and Katrina vanden Heuvel among others have been doing around trans-partisan coalitions and policy-making, or in the masterful work done by the recent American Political Science Association Task Force on Negotiating Agreement in Politics orchestrated by Jenny Mansbridge and Cathie Jo Martin. One thing is for certain: this is a huge challenge, and it will require the best thinking of people of this caliber in order to tackle it.