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Social Science History 24.2 (2000) 379-393

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Bridging State and Society:
The Origins of 1970s Congressional Reform *

Julian E. Zelizer

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

Congressional scholars have a unique opportunity to reconnect the histories of American state and society, a task central to the new generation of political historians. As Mark Leff (1995:852) recently argued, social and political historians have come to realize that they “ignored the other at their peril” and that “interaction was the only way to interrogate power—how it was structured and changed, where it was contested, how it was exerted, what its impact was, and what assumptions shaped the discourse that framed it” (see also [End Page 379] Gillon 1997). To accomplish the challenge of integrating social and political history, congressional historians will have to examine how the institution’s development related to external forces. Much of what has been written about Congress thus far remains insular.

A handful of books published in the past two decades suggest how integration can be accomplished. In Sectionalism and American Political Development 1880–1980, Richard Bensel (1984) situates the internal development of Congress within the larger context of sectional tensions between the “industrial northern core” and the “underdeveloped southern and western periphery.” He pays close attention to key policy decisions and the ongoing struggle between decentralized committee and centralized partisan power to show the influence of sectionalism. Similarly, Bruce Schulman (1991) situates southern congressmen and their politics within the broader relationship that developed between the South and the federal government following the New Deal. Jonathan Bean’s (1996) Beyond the Broker State, a recent book on government-business relations, traces the key role played by a group of congressional entrepreneurs in the evolution of small business policy between the New Deal and the 1960s. Far from being passive observers of the executive branch, Bean argues, Emanuel Celler (D-NY), Robert Taft (R-OH), Wright Patman (D-TX), and James Murray (D-MT) were crucial to the creation of programs aimed to protect small business in the era of the national corporation. But Bean simultaneously contextualizes these congressmen within a larger history of other political institutions and the relations between business and government. In a different policy domain, Edward Berkowitz (1995, 1996) thoroughly integrates the role of congressional representatives, such as Wilbur Mills and Russell Long, into his analysis of a broader network inside Washington that drove the expansion of the social welfare system, especially Social Security, between 1950 and 1972. Dealing with similar policies, my book (Zelizer 1998) examined Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur D. Mills’s (D-AR) close relationship with a policy community. Finally, an excellent example of this new approach to congressional history will soon be completed by Paul Milazzo (forthcoming). His research demonstrates convincingly how congressional entrepreneurs actively shaped the environmental policy agenda during the postwar period. Although these works are useful models, much historical work remains to be done.

Nowhere has the insulation of congressional history, as written by political [End Page 380] scientists, been clearer than in the voluminous literature on congressional reform (Adler 1996; Sinclair 1989, 1997; Rhode 1991; Strahan 1990; Riselbach 1986). At numerous points in the twentieth century, there have been movements to topple the entrenched congressional leadership and to alter the legislative process. One of the most sweeping efforts took place during the 1970s when reformers diminished the power of committee chairmen, increased the influence of partisan leaders, created a stronger regulatory structure for campaign finance, codified ethics, and opened much of the congressional process to public scrutiny. In major policy areas such as the budget and military, moreover, Congress as a whole increased its strength in relation to the executive branch. While scholars have noted that many reforms were not as bold as originally intended or that they produced unanticipated results, most agree that there was a significant change in Congress and the legislative process as a result of these political battles.

In explaining the origins of 1970s reform, most of these outstanding accounts present congressional reform as...


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