How We Can Depolarize Congress

The Speaker of the House is not only one of the most influential positions in our country, but also one of the most polarizing. It is also a position that is not directly elected by the American People.

The Speaker of House is put in place by the majority party and derives his or her power from the institution of the House, the House Rules if you will. You can guess who makes the rules.

The result is we have a person running the largest body of Congress whom has built their career through party pandering and appeasement. The position is largely insulated from public opinion and gets to decide the tone of the House as well as the priorities of the country. I contend that this position should be directly elected by the people in the same fashion that we elect the President. This would hold the Speaker accountable and force them to bring both sides together instead of driving bigger wedges. I also believe policy would drift more towards the center. The real motivation for the paper was that, though I’m a Democrat, I thought Nancy Pelosi was a train wreck and as an American there was little I could do about it. Therefore I started thinking about solutions

A Step Towards Depolarization

Today’s Congress is more polarized than at any other time in our history and, as data presented in lecture reflects, the current trend moving towards even greater polarity. While both chambers suffer from this problem, it has particularly manifested itself in the House. The variance is largely a result of differences in the leadership structure of the two chambers. The Senate varies starkly from the House in that it is designed to decentralize power. The lack of a centralized position to preside over the Senate floor creates an environment where the party leaders have to work together to schedule proceedings (Platte 2010). Conversely, the Speaker of the House position promotes centralized power from the majority party and is self-reinforcing because that position is selected from within the majority party as the person to best advance their agenda. The American Congress states that “it is a combination of powers granted under House and party rules that make the Speaker more powerful than the Senate’s majority leader” (Smith, Roberts & Vander Wielen 2009). It is my hypothesis that a significant source of partisanship in the House is a direct result of the powers that are centralized and exercised by the Speaker of the House. Furthermore, I will argue that decoupling institutional power from majority party power for the Speaker would begin to reverse the trend of polarization in Congress.

The American Congress states that “when party strength is high, power is concentrated and leaders are task-or goal-oriented, whereas when party strength is low, power is dispersed and leaders will be oriented to bargaining and maintaining relationships” (Cooper and Brady 1981) As a way of mitigating majority party strength and thus reducing polarization in the House, I contend that we should separate the House Institutional rules that empower the Speaker of the House from Party Rules that reinforce conditional party government. Decoupling these two elements would create a self-imposed cap on the extent to which majority parties can delegate more power to themselves. To accomplish this, I am proposing that the Speaker of the House position be directly elected by the public every two years. The current Electoral College process would work fine (and align nicely with the Presidential cycle every four years). In effect, this would be a move towards a candidate centered election process for Congress’ most powerful position, and would also give the American people final approval in the job performance of the Speaker.

Strong parties are also central to the expansion of the Speaker of the House’s powerbase; Aldrich and Rohde point out “as intraparty homogeneity and interparty conflict increase, so too will the propensity of party members to grant stronger powers to their leaders and to collective party organizations, and to support their exercise of those powers in specific instances” (Aldrich and Rohde 2000). In this way, polarization is perpetually self-reinforced. A great example is with the Republican Revolution in 1994 when the “relatively homogenous preferences of the Republican contingent in the House led them to adopt new institutional arrangements to enhance the powers of their leaders, which in turn were used to advance the party’s policy goals” (Aldrich and Rohde 2000). As long as rules can be written by the majority party to give power to the Speaker, greater partisanship will inevitably be the result.

Polarization is further punctuated by the manner in which the majority party is led, as well as how the Speaker of the House chooses to exercise his or her powers. Furthermore, the tone of the majority party and their willingness to work with the minority is also set by the Speaker. Newt Gingrich’s speakership, for example, was “a lightning rod for partisanship that ended in political tragedy” (Smith, Roberts & Vander Wielen 2009). Most recently we’ve seen that Nancy Pelosi “has proven quite willing to have the most important legislation developed within her party with little minority party participation” (Smith, Roberts & Vander Wielen 2009). The current role for the Speaker is to build a winning party coalition and to get enough votes to get what the party wants done (Platte 2010). The Speaker also utilizes his or her powers to manage the floor in such a way that advances the majority party’s agenda.

To evaluate the potential implications of direct election we can look to the effects of the Seventeenth Amendment, which moved the election of Senators from the state legislators to direct election from the people. As a result, Senators had to shift from the practice of state party appeasement and instead establish their own brand with constituents (Platte 2010). I contend the same would hold true with the Speaker position if moved to a direct election process. Whereas the Speaker is currently selected by his/her party based on their level of party appeasement, direct election would force this position toward more dynamic representation . The concept of dynamic representation is that public policy responds proportionately to public opinion and “policymakers calculate future (mainly electoral) implications of current public views and act accordingly (rational anticipation)” (Stimson, Machuen and Erikson 1995, 543). This is accomplished by members of Congress altering their voting behavior in anticipation of future elections (Platte 2010). Additionally, when Senators were selected by state legislatures they were appeasing a rather homogenous group of people. However, states usually aren’t homogenous, therefore after the seventeenth amendment changed the behavior of Senators as they then had to build a reputation that appealed to a broad range of voters. Similarly, the Speaker of the House would have to appeal to the broader public opinion instead of just that of their party’s best interest.

Politics is local, yet Congress deals with national issues. Furthermore, the Speaker is elected to Congress as a District Representative and not as a national representative, yet is responsible for setting the Congressional agenda. Moving toward direct election would create a more independent overseer of agenda setting in the House with a greater focus on nationally salient issues. Katz and Sala tell us that “a system that allows voters to evaluate and vote for candidates on an office-by-office, case-by-case basis encourages incumbents to invest more in their personal reputations than when voters cannot discriminate between individual candidates on a partisan slate.” (Katz and Sala 1996) Therefore, a directly elected position would be more reflective of national public opinion, rather than the aggregate composition of local representatives. Additionally, the current selection process largely inoculates the Speaker’s position from public opinion. There is no term limit and typically turnover in this position only happens when the majority shifts to the other party or in the event of a political catastrophe for the Speaker; such as when Newt Gingrich resigned from his post after a poor performance for the Republicans in the midterm elections of 1998. As long as the Speaker maintains a strong party coalition and their party stays in the majority, they are insulated from popular voters.

Incentives and motivations drive behavior. Hence, if we hold true that Members of Congress are motivated to get reelected then we can surmise that the behavior of the Speaker of the House would be different if that individual were directly elected as compared to being selected by one’s own party. Lastly, creating a greater separation of powers within the House would dampen the strength of majority party rule and force the two parties to work more closely together on issues.

Works Cited

Aldrich, J. I. (2000). The Republican Revolution and the House Appropriations Comittee. Journal of Politics, 1-33.

Brady, J. C. (1981). Institutional Context and Leadership Style: The House from Canon to Rayburn. American Political Science Review, 411-425.

Polsby, N. W. (1968). The Institutionalization of the U.S. House of Representatives. The American Political Science Review, 144-168.

Sala, J. K. (1996). Careerism, Committee Assignments, and the Electoral Connection. American Political Science Review, 21-33.

Smith, R. V. (2009). The American Congress. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stimson, J. M. (1995). Dynamic Representation. American Political Science Review, 543-565.

(Platt 2010) References lectures delivered by Professor Matthew Platt, Harvard University in Spring of 2010


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5 thoughts on “How We Can Depolarize Congress

  1. Great post Chris. You make a very compelling argument for making the Speaker of the house an elected position. Doing so seems like an important step toward depolarization. 

    It would be an important first step. As polarized as the House is, the Senate isn’t exactly winning any awards for bi-particinship. As a whole they’re hovering at about an 11% approval rating because they basically behave like bickering children gone amuck.    

    Your closing statement “Incentives and motivations drive behavior.” is spot on.  And I agree that making the Speaker position elected would better align the incentives and motivations of that role to the countries benefit. 

    I’d submit that with the Senate as an example of distributed power it seems there’s additional work to be done.  I think our politicians want to keep their jobs (I wrote a bit about that here) and they’ve discovered that the current system is set up in such a way that demonization and blame are the best tools they have to get re-elected.  Within the current system the act of working together puts them at risk.  

    Sadly,  I don’t have a proposal for how to address this problem, but i was very impressed with the way you built your argument for an elected Speaker. If you have the time or interest, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to encourage politicians to further work together and compromise once we have an elected speaker.      

  2. I should clarify my last statement. The post I linked above has part of a proposed solution for motivating towards civility. It basically deals with campaign finance and is a precursor to a much longer writeup on the Citizens United ruling and how we can solve for the negative impact it has had on election finances.

    But lately I’ve come to think that no one step is going to resolve the caustic situation in politics. Thus I’ve been looking for a group of steps we can take. Your approach to the elected Speaker seems like a good one. Id be interested in your take on campaign finance and any other steps you think would help.

  3. Interestingly in Britain we don’t actually elect the Prime Minster (PM) or any of its ministers, The partly with the most Members of Parliament (as its first past the post in the individual wards that doesn’t necessarily mean the party with the most votes nationally) gets to form the government. The leader of that party is the PM and he gets to form/appoint his own cabinet (ministers= US secretaries) including the Leader of the house.

    The above is true but I am prepared to accept that starting off with “Interestingly” may have been a stretch.

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