Taking the Initiative: Leadership Agendas in Congress and the "Contract with America"

By John B. Bader | Go to book overview

2
Learning Aggressive Leadership

I begin this study of priority-setting by looking at the congressional party leaders themselves. This perspective provides the personal context for this process and emphasizes the importance of personal choice. Who were these majority leaders? How did they see their role in setting policy priorities for Congress? What forces shaped this role? How has this role changed over time? Speaker Newt Gingrich has become a significant force in American politics generally and in setting agendas for Congress specifically. Is this an unusual development or are there precedents? How could Gingrich imagine that his priorities would be meaningful in a decentralized institution populated by independent‐ minded members?

Table 1 in Chapter 1 shows that party leaders consistently chose priorities during the period under study ( 1969-1990). But we can expect that the intensity with which party leaders have filled the role of priority setter has varied over time. Given the many changes experienced by Congress as an institution during this period and an ever-shifting political environment, that is not surprising. What may be more surprising is that this role has grown since 1969; opposition leaders have become both aggressive and more sophisticated in pushing their policy preferences. 1 Leaders in both houses now take a more active role in picking priority issues than they did in the late 1960s.

Much of the explanation for this development lies in institutional change, no doubt. With reforms that strengthened their control over the Rules Committee (allowing speakers to appoint members), for example, House leaders had a more legitimate claim to setting floor schedules that reflected their own priorities. But the choice of policy role can be more personal than that. Institutions may encourage certain behaviors, but they do not dictate them. We need to consider the personal context for decisions as well as the political and institutional context. In this case, majority party leaders have a significant amount of personal discretion when choosing roles.

Party leaders have this choice partly because they get mixed signals about what role would be most appropriate to their position. On the one hand, divided government creates an incentive system which favors an active role in setting priorities. On the other, members of Congress

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