Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the U.S. Congress

By Eric Schickler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Disjointed Pluralism and
Institutional Change

WHATEVER ELSE a national legislature may be, it is a complex of rules, procedures, and specialized internal institutions, such as committees and leadership instruments. Particular configurations of these rules, procedures, committees, and leadership instruments may serve the interests of individual members, parties, pressure groups, sectors of society, or the legislature as a whole. As a result, as any legislature evolves through time, little is more fundamental to its politics than recurrent, often intense, efforts to change its institutions. Congressional politics has depended crucially on such innovations as the “Reed rules” of 1890, the Senate cloture rule adopted in 1917, the creation of congressional budget committees in 1974, the House breakaway from seniority rights to committee chairmanships in 1975, and the package of reforms adopted by Republicans when they took over the House in January 1995.

What explains the politics of institutional change in Congress? How is it that congressional institutions have proven remarkably adaptable to changing environmental conditions and yet a never-ending source of dissatisfaction for members and outside observers? This book addresses these questions. The answers, I argue, can be found in the multiple interests that undergird choices about legislative institutions. Members have numerous goals in mind as they shape congressional rules and procedures, the committee system, and leadership instruments. Entrepreneurs who seek reform can devise proposals that simultaneously tap into an array of distinct member interests. But conflicts among competing interests generate institutions that are rarely optimally tailored to meet any specific goal. As they adopt changes based on untidy compromises among multiple interests, members build institutions that are full of tensions and contradictions.

The claim that members have multiple goals is by no means new. Fenno's Congressmen in Committees (1973) is but one of several important studies that have explored how members' electoral, policy, and power goals shape legislative behavior and institutions. 1 Nonetheless, an increasingly popular way to think about legislative institutions uses a single collective interest to explain the main features of legislative organization across an extended span of congressional history. Examples of this approach include Cox and McCubbins's (1993) partisan model of legislative organization,

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