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Social Science History 24.2 (2000) 349-366

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Of Rules and Speakers:
Toward a Theory of Institutional Change for the U.S. House of Representatives

Richard Bensel

Roundtable: The U.S. Congress in the Twentieth Century

The study of the institutional development of the U.S. House of Representatives, long a mainstay of traditional scholarship, has recently undergone a revival with the rise of rational choice approaches of interpretation. In earlier years, most research was highly formal and descriptive;1 the emphasis was on legislative offices and parliamentary rules. While scholars noted changes in the formal structure of the House of Representatives, their descriptions of these changes consisted mostly of anecdotal accounts in which theoretical [End Page 349] explanations played little part. More recently, many scholars have defined institutions primarily or even solely in terms of procedural rules and, from that perspective, have focused on organizational form as an important factor in the empowerment of legislative coalitions and the expression of member preferences. However, because rules are frequently viewed as a rigid structural setting for legislative behavior, institutional change has often been downplayed as outside the scope of most research.2

What has been missing in congressional research is a clear theoretical commitment to institutional change as a separate area of study.3 The absence of such a literature has become ever more important in recent decades for several reasons. For instance, the House of Representatives has moved, with increasing alacrity, toward the strong party/strong Speakership organizational model of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Descriptive accounts of recent reforms in the organization of the House abound with references to the earlier period. The Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, for example, described Newt Gingrich’s first nine months in office this way: “Maximizing both the formal and informal powers at his disposal, Gingrich is using his position to consolidate power like no Speaker since Joseph Cannon of Illinois in the early part of this century” (Koszczuk 1995: 3049; see also Peters 1995: 263–82; and Moen and Copeland 1999: 143). During Gingrich’s reign, consolidation of power built on reforms of the committee system that dated back to the early 1970s (Koszczuk 1995: 3053).4 Even before Republican victory in the 1994 House elections, many congressional scholars recognized that “the pendulum has swung back a bit in recent years. The party caucuses (especially the House Democrats) have become more active and assertive, and some of the Speaker’s prerogatives have been restored” (Kiewiet and McCubbins 1991: 6–7). With this swing of the pendulum, there has been “a true resurgence of the speakership . . . back toward the power enjoyed by Cannon” (Dodd and Oppenheimer 1993: 54–55).5

As a result, the intervening period of committee government, which reached its high point in the 20 years following the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act, now appears defunct.6 As the authority of both party organizations has expanded, aggressive party caucuses and a reinvigorated centralized leadership have supplanted seniority norms and committee dominance of the legislative process. In fact, this new party-centered arrangement has come to seem as natural as the old regime of committee dominance. Emphasizing [End Page 350] electoral platforms and partisan policy commitments, the new institutional order appears just as suited to American democracy as the former committee system once did, with its “gains from trade” associated with logrolling coalitions.

We need to replace narrative rationalizations of these legislative regimes with a theory of institutional change. The construction of such a theory must begin with the recognition of two broad patterns: the parallel trajectories of the two major parties with respect to organizational forms and the long-term oscillation between a strong committee system and a dominant Speakership as the primary feature of the institution. Despite the often bitter partisan conflict that has accompanied revision of the rule structure of the House, both parties have tended to move in the same direction over the last 140 years or so: (1) strengthening the committee system until 1890; (2) endorsing stronger party...


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