One of George Washington's Worst Fears:
Congress In the Grip of Political Parties
It is an incredible event to watch the power struggle going on in the United States Senate. And what seems even more incredulous is that so much power is hinged on how one senator is registered back in his home state! Such power manipulations would have been shocking to the Founders. It is this very activity within political parties that caused President Washington to include prophetic warnings about political parties in his farewell address.
Exactly twenty years ago, Dr. W. Cleon Skousen published a treatise entitled, "Why We Must Reform Congress by 1983." His study of the problem and his recommended solutions are worth reviewing today. The following are excerpts from his study.
The Original Formula
In the beginning the United States Congress was rather simple. The people elected representatives to the House, and the state legislatures appointed two senators to represent the territory and rights of each particular state. Both the House and the Senate made up their own rules, elected a few necessary officers and set about the business of passing the few laws which came within the purview of the Federal government.
In 1801 the newly elected President, Thomas Jefferson, found the system working so well that he saw little need for adding any new laws to the federal register. Said he:
"The path we have to pursue is so quiet that we have nothing scarcely to propose to our Legislature (the Congress). A noiseless course not meddling with the affairs of others, unattractive of notice, is a mark that society is going on in happiness."
However, even at this early date, the first seeds had already been sown which would grow and ripen into living political vegetation producing some strange fruits. None of these new implants in the political system were more disruptive than the rise of two separate political parties.
Of course, the Founders knew there would be "factions" and special interest groups to plague the Congress, but the Founders had hoped that these factions would remain fluid and temporary rather than crystallize into firm organizational structures of established political parties. By 1800, however, the factions of Federalists and anti-Federalists had structured themselves into solid bulwarks of political party power.
In his Farewell Address, President Washington expressed the most profound anxiety about the development of these "factions." He wrote:
"... all combinations and associations under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberations and actions of the constituted authorities, are destructive.... They serve to organize faction, to give an artificial and extraordinary force, to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of the party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils, and modified by mutual interests."
Congressman John J. Rhodes wrote a book entitled The Futile System. In it he emphasized how rapidly the people's control of Congress has deteriorated in the last two decades. He indicates that Washington's prophetic words are being completely and literally fulfilled. Here are Congressman Rhodes' comments:
"The majority of congressional actions are aimed not at producing results for the American people as much as perpetuating the longevity and comfort of the men who run Congress. It is a rip-off for the American taxpayer, injurious to the national interest and an insult to the dignity of the legislative branch envisioned by the Founding Fathers. The massive deterioration that has taken place within the U.S. Congress during the past two decades is more than just a pity; it poses serious questions for the future of the country. For unless 'the people's branch' can be reformed -- and soon -- it is unlikely that America will find herself able to meet the pressing challenges that lie ahead."
The Monolithic Power Structure Inside Congress
Many Congressmen have pointed out in speeches and books that the most corruptive and corrosive factor which prevents the "will of the people" from getting through the legislative channels in the people's House of Representatives is the fact that five positions which are always held by the majority party are like massive legislative valves that shut off any bills the leaders of the majority do not approve. On the other hand, procedures have been developed so that they can virtually coerce the Congress into accepting a considerable amount of legislation which might otherwise be rejected.
Congressman John Rhodes says the six critical positions which operate like feudal fiefdoms in the House of Representatives are at present as follows (the Senate has comparable positions):
- 1. The Speaker of the House
- 2. The Majority Leader
- 3. The Majority Whip
- 4. The Caucus Chairman
- 5. The Chairman of the House Administration Committee
- 6. The Chairman of the House Rules Committee
Here is how these positions have been structured to serve political bosses and political leaders rather than the American people.
Speaker of the House
The Speaker is elected by the members of the majority party to be the quarterback for their team. He has all the authority of a chairman in charge of the debates, reports, and procedures in daily sessions. He is also able to make some of the most important appointments to positions of power. As the chief strategist and tactician of the party he tends to be extremely party-conscious. He works closely with the President when the chief executive is a member of his own party but often works just as hard to make points directly against the President when the latter is not of the Speaker's party.
Whether important bills move smoothly through the legislative channels is largely the responsibility of the Speaker. Not so long ago Congressman Robert Carr of Michigan commented on the impotency of the House leadership saying, "The leadership is out of touch with Congress, and Congress is out of touch with the country. The leadership is still trying to find 1935 answers to 1975 questions."
One of the most serious problems connected with the present arrangement in the election of the Speaker is the fact that he has no limitation on the length of his office. This allows him to build up a tremendous power base. This might be good for the party he serves but it certainly violates the best interests of the people's House of Representatives.
Suggested Reform: The office of speaker should be for two years and the incumbent should not be allowed to succeed himself.
The Majority Leader
There would be no such office as Majority Leader in the House or Senate if it were not for the political party system. As it exists, the Majority Leader is an important cog in the monolithic flywheel of power in Congress. First of all, he schedules bills on the calendar to suit his own purposes. He can put a controversial bill on the calendar with very little notice and thereby take the opposition by surprise. On the other hand, if the Majority Whip finds that the opposition to a bill is too well-organized to get it passed, the Majority Leader can pull the bill off the calendar at the last moment in order to give his party troops time to marshal the necessary votes to overcome the opposition.
The Majority Leader has the duty to announce toward the end of each week the legislative calendar for the following week. Members of both parties base their travel schedules, committee hearings, and other commitments on this information. A tactical device available to the Majority Leader is to make last-minute changes in the schedule after the members have already made appointments back home on the basis of the original announcement. This is only one of many tricks which an unethical Majority Leader can impose on the minority party to hinder it from pushing through some legislation of its own.
Suggested Remedy: The House should make it a rule that once the legislative calendar is announced, it cannot be changed without the consent of the Minority Leader.
The Majority Whip
It is the responsibility of the party Whip to communicate the will of the party leaders to the rank-and-file. It is also his responsibility to pass on to the members of the party what the upcoming legislative calendar will be after the Majority Leader has made the selection.
On important bills, it is the responsibility of the Whip to canvass the party supporters to see if they will hold the line and vote with their leaders. He must also canvass the party members and advise the party leaders in advance what the vote tally will be on a particular bill. If the number of votes is inadequate, it is his job to work with the party leadership to solidify existing support and try to convince the uncommitted party members to close ranks.
The Majority Whip is chosen by the Speaker and the Majority Leader. For all practical purposes he is primarily a party functionary rather than an objective and independent legislator in the United States Congress.
There is no remedy for this situation since it is a natural outgrowth of political party structure. The successful function of each party in the legislative process requires party Whips in order to be effective. Nevertheless, if the recommended reforms went into operation, the role of the party Whips would be less formidable.
The Caucus Chairman
A caucus is a meeting of the party leadership and sometimes the party members. The purpose of the caucus is to discuss particular bills and the strategy to be used in passing or defeating them. The caucus is also important as an educational forum to gain a consensus of understanding concerning the nature and implications of a particular bill.
The political perversion of the caucus arises when it is used for secret, closed-door sessions to intimidate the members of the party into voting according to the dictates of the party leadership rather than according to conscience.
The party leadership has at its disposal important appointments, party funds, the giving or withholding of support for a Congressman's legislative needs in his own particular district, etc. All of these can become weapons in the hands of party managers to force party members into line during a caucus meeting.
Beginning at the turn of the century, the perversion of the party caucus for political intimidation became particularly prevalent. However, in 1975 the Republican leadership announced a new policy for their caucus meetings. Party conferences were opened to the public and press. They also announced that when the Republican Party gained a majority in the House, it would no longer appoint the chairmen of various committees exclusively on the basis of seniority, but simply count it as one of several factors to consider. They recommended that the practice of coercing party members to commit themselves to vote a certain way (called "unit rule") should be outlawed. It was pointed out that:
By means of the "unit rule," as few as one-third of the members of the Democratic Caucus can dictate procedural and substantive matters in the various committees and may well determine the legislative outcome on the House Floor. This is a most serious if not unconstitutional affront to our democratic system. Allegiance to the Caucus, under the "unit rule" procedure takes precedence over one's conscience and the needs of one's constituencies.
Suggested Reform: All caucus conferences should be open to the public and the press and the "unit rule" of caucus control over the voting rights of party members should be outlawed.
Chairman of the Rules Committee
There has to be a Rules Committee in the House to regulate the flow of legislation from the various committees to the House floor. However, party managers have manipulated the authority of this committee into a powerful choke-hold on the legislative process which can be devastating to the legitimate requirements of the law-making responsibilities of the House.
Every bill requires a "rule" from this committee before it can reach the Floor, therefore, the Rules Committee can effectively kill a piece of legislation simply by denying it a "rule." Furthermore, the rule issued by the Committee on a particular bill can restrict the main body of the House from a full discussion or even prevent the bill from being changed. The Rules Committee can thereby cut off from Floor discussion a wide range of legislative options which might be available. To the average citizen it may seem totally nonsensical, but the fact remains that under existing procedures the Rules Committee can send a bill to the floor under a "closed rule" and no amendment to this bill can be offered from the Floor.
It is interesting that for many years the Speaker of the House was always the chairman of the Rules Committee. However, conservative Republican "Joe" Cannon so abused this double portion of power under the aegis of these two positions that they were separated in 1910. But it was virtually an idle gesture. The Speaker won the right to personally appoint the Chairman of the Rules Committee so the two continued to work for all practical purposes as one entity.
Suggested Remedy: All legislation should be the product of all the people's representatives; therefore it should be sent to the Floor under an "open" rule. The "unit rule" should be outlawed.
We close this letter with George Washington's words that political parties will bring out the worst in a free people:
"Let me now.warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party.. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists.in all governments.but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy."
Earl Taylor, Jr.