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Social Science History 24.2 (2000) 307-316
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Introduction to Roundtable:
The U.S. Congress in the Twentieth Century
Julian E. Zelizer
Roundtable: The U.S. Congress in the Twentieth Century
The claim that contemporary historical scholarship has ignored the twentieth-century U.S. Congress is a great understatement. During the past two decades, most social and cultural historians minimized the study of government institutions, policy makers, and policies. They characterized these aspects of American history as elitist, irrelevant, and even illegitimate (Leff 1995; Leuchtenburg 1986). The ultimate villain in this scholarly narrative was Congress, considered to be an insulated haven for white male elites who subvert [End Page 307] the democratic process in favor of vested interest groups. When Congress appeared in a few academic books, it was treated as an archaic institution that functions as either a roadblock or a rubber stamp to proposals that emanate from the executive branch or from mass social movements. Those interested in the modern history of Congress can turn only to the work of journalists such as John Jacobs (1995) and Richard Cohen (1999) who rely on political biography in attempts to understand the institution’s past.
Even twentieth-century political historians, before and after the social history revolution, focused on the executive branch. In the 1950s and 1960s, liberal historians posited the development of presidential power as the main story of this century. These scholars (and those who continue to use their framework in a more nuanced fashion) shared the belief—rooted in their own political values—that the executive branch was the engine of liberal reform (Schlesinger 1959; Leuchtenburg 1963; Brinkley 1995). Furthermore, since the 1960s, New Left historians—who wrote about how corporate capitalism shaped political reform during the Progressive Era—organized their narrative around the various presidential administrations of the period. Congressmen received shallow treatment, if they were even mentioned. Presenting congressional members as caricatures who merely supported or opposed presidential initiatives, these historians described uninteresting, provincial politicians who were concerned exclusively with securing support from the strongest interest in their constituency (Kolko 1985; Sklar 1988). They provided little systematic treatment of how Congress as an institution operated within the corporate reconstruction of American politics. Similarly, in the 1970s and 1980s, proponents of the “organizational synthesis” were about as comfortable with Congress as a cat is in a pool of water. Building on modernization theory, these organizational historians argued that the major force driving change in the twentieth century was the evolution of national institutions such as corporations, the professions, and the welfare state (Galambos 1970, 1983; Balogh 1991). When writing about the federal government, however, they concentrated on the expansion of the administrative state with its bureaucracies and expertise. Congress seemed to them a premodern relic, interesting only for its gradual loss of power and an occasional decision to expand its administrative base. The persistent influence of Congress contradicted the teleology of their story. Two notable exceptions were the books of James Patterson (1967) and Robert Griffith (1970). [End Page 308]
Recently there have been rumblings among historians and historical social scientists who are interested in learning more about this important branch of government. Morton Keller and Joel Silbey, two eminent political historians, helped stimulate this interest by each publishing important encyclopedias about the American Congress (Silbey 1994; Bacon et al. 1994). In addition, there is a growing sense that scholars know remarkably little about the development of Congress as an institution in the twentieth century or about its role in shaping the modern American welfare state. Neither do scholars understand much about the personalities who inhabited the halls of Capitol Hill or how the legislative process has changed over time. While congressional conservatism is frequently mentioned in recent work by scholars studying how race and gender influence policy, it has not been rigorously examined. In fact, there has barely been any comprehensive historical work on congressional conservatism since James Patterson’s classic book in 1967, even though the influence of congressional conservatism is now a foundation for most scholarship on the welfare state. In my...