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

By John B. Bader | Go to book overview

6
The "Big Picture": Democratic
Priorities in Five Congresses

The case studies of Chapter 5 give a rich sense of the long history of priority-setting in divided government. The elements of the framework take on life and detail. Congressional leaders, we begin to see, consider a number of variables before making decisions. When those variables converge on a particular issue, leaders feel comfortable making it a priority. But can we generalize from these cases? Are the "converging" variables so closely connected that we cannot weigh their individual importance? Has any of this changed over time? We need to see the "big picture" 1 before we can confidently rely on the goal-issue matching framework to explain the priority-setting process.

To provide a more complete analysis of leadership priorities, I have developed a table to examine all Democratic priorities in five congresses characterized by divided government. While less rich in detail than the case studies, this approach is more comprehensive and more systematic. Every priority for every congress was included in the table. This exercise proved to be very useful. Through it, the "big picture" comes into better focus. The table shows variation by policy area and over time. It sharpens concepts muddied by single cases. Its analysis yields broader, more generalizable, trends. It helps us weigh certain variables against others. And the table bolsters the case studies of Chapter 5 with more evidence that party leaders in Congress make priority decisions based on the belief that certain issues will advance particular goals. Majority party leaders choose priorities strategically, with the explicit intention of reflecting and exploiting a changing political and policy environment.

I compiled and coded the data presented in Table 1 in three steps. First, I developed as complete a list as possible of leadership priorities for all five congresses. I did so by examining various archives, by sifting through detailed legislative histories, and by analyzing numerous elite interviews. I imposed a high standard on these data, making every effort to be thorough without listing initiatives that received only passing attention from the leadership. For example, I did not include wage and price controls as a priority in the 94th Congress even though it

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