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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Decline of Party Capacity in the House

In the last two decades, the House of Representatives has lost a great deal of institutional capacity. Sources of expertise and spaces for deliberation and policy formulation are all in decline. Most of these resources are nonpartisan or bipartisan—but Congress’ capacity does not exist entirely outside of its parties. The House parties have provided internal mechanisms that have served party goals by complementing rather than replacing a robust committee system and other sources of institutional strength, and they could do so again. There is no reason why strong political parties cannot coexist with a process of serious policy development and consensus building, a combination that would allow rank-and-file party members a greater investment in the party’s work.
The current House majority is highly centralized, governing from the top with little real involvement by the membership. This condition is what we would expect from a cohesive majority in a highly polarized House, but it is increasingly in tension with a caucus that is deeply divided over policy and strategic decisions. House majorities (and minorities, too) navigated this combination of strong partisanship and serious internal division more effectively when their organizations provided structure for member involvement.
The expanded party capacity of the 1970s and 1980s did not withstand the conditions of the 1990s and 2000s in the House, at least not in its inclusive, participatory form. Very high polarization fueled greater centralization, while close electoral competition inspired the parties to intensify their organizational focus on messaging. Whip organizations grew more homogenous and their processes more locked-down, and the parties used their policy committees primarily to shape public electoral messages. Increasing party centralization, the absence of party coordinating structures, and the decline of committees now leave the top majority party leadership developing vehicles for “legislating in the dark.” The House GOP has tried to build support for leadership direction through full conference meetings, but these do not appear to be a successful alternative to more organized, inclusive participation earlier in the process.