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

By Eric Schickler | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 2
Institutional Development, 1890–1910:
An Experiment in Party Government

SCHOLARS have repeatedly described 1890–1910 as the high-water mark for party government in the United States (Brady and Althoff 1974; Mayhew 1974, 175; Rohde 1991, 4–5). Unusually strong party cohesion, particularly among Republicans, coincided with intense interparty conflict for most of these two decades. Political commentators of that time could credibly speculate that congressional politics would become more and more like the strong party regimes of England and other parliamentary systems (Follett 1896).

The two parties were evenly matched as the 51st Congress convened in December 1889, with neither enjoying a clear hold on the allegiances of most voters. Nevertheless, the narrow Republican majority in the House embarked on an ambitious agenda of tariff increases, pension hikes, voting rights initiatives, and legislation to increase the value of silver. 1 To pave the way for these measures, Republican Speaker Thomas Reed of Maine undertook a “revolutionary” reinterpretation of House rules, famously stripping the minority of its ability to obstruct House business. 2 Voters seemed to register their disapproval of the GOP's legislative accomplishments by electing a huge Democratic majority in the November 1890 midterm elections. The new Democratic majority promptly repealed (if only temporarily) the bulk of Reed's rule changes. But in the midst of a deep recession prompted by the Panic of 1893, the Democrats proved unable to bridge the growing gap separating eastern, conservative “gold Democrats” from agrarian Democrats sympathetic to Populism and free silver. The Republican electoral sweep of 1894–96 gave the GOP a relatively secure hold on the House, Senate, and presidency that endured for the rest of the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s. For a brief period following the 1896 realignment, Republicans enjoyed an unusual degree of unity on the major policy issues facing the country. It was not long, however, before sectionally based divisions over the tariff and corporate regulation created serious troubles for Republican leaders. The “Revolution of 1910,” which deprived Speaker Joseph Cannon (R-Ill.) of his control of the House Rules Committee, signaled the end of Republican experiments with strong party government. 3 Reed's rules had inaugurated a twenty-year period in which institutional development was dominated by

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