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

By John B. Bader | Go to book overview
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Conclusions and Prospects for
Policy Leadership in Congress

This study began with the contention that divided government is not a well-understood political arrangement, particularly when it comes to agenda-setting. Divided government upsets the expectation that Congress will accept the president's agenda as the "starting point" for the policy dialogue. Members of the congressional majority—Democrats or Republicans—may not wish to accept priorities coming from the White House under these conditions. They may resent such dominance as insulting to the integrity and independence of the legislative branch. They may wish to advance their own priorities to strengthen their party's numbers. Or they may simply disagree with the substantive implications of the list.

These motivations for independent agenda-setting dovetail with altered expectations of party leadership. Without a president of similar partisan stripe, members of Congress turn to majority party leaders to develop consensus, to give voice to their concerns, and to help them to address issues that they think are important and worthwhile. Party leaders are in a strong position to fulfill those expectations. Leaders have a variety of institutional tools with which to gather member concerns, gauge political support, and give effective voice to a set of priorities. More than that, if members want leaders to set priorities, that task becomes significantly easier.

I concentrated on how Democratic party leaders set priorities over two decades of divided government because they had both the opportunity and the motivation to choose issues that shape the national policy debate. Those conditions have been duplicated for Republican leaders recently, which made an update both possible and potentially revealing. The focus on leadership has an added benefit. While giving us an insight into divided government, it allows us to give the concept of "agenda-setting" a physical locus. Scholars like John Kingdon have bravely struggled with the concept generally, but the results are often difficult to apply to specific settings. By examining the agenda decisions of majority party leaders, we take a small but substantive step toward understanding why certain issues become more important than others.


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


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