New Ways and Means: Reform and Change in a Congressional Committee

By Randall Strahan | Go to book overview

Preface

The decade of the 1970s was one in which institutional change in Congress occurred on an impressive scale. In one of the most comprehensive accounts of this era in congressional politics, James L. Sundquist has written: "The 1970s were a period of upheaval, of change so rapid and so radical as to transform the pattern of relationships that had evolved and settled into place over the span of half a century or more."1Roger H. Davidson and Walter J. Oleszek likewise concluded in their study of reform politics in the House of Representatives: "The 1970-1975 period was clearly an era of congressional change, perhaps not equalled at any time since the [ 1910] downfall of Speaker Cannon."2

With over a decade having passed since the high-water mark of congressional reform activity was reached during the mid-1970s, there is now a considerable body of literature devoted to this period and its effects on congressional politics.3 If most observers can agree that the 1970s were a period of unusual turbulence and extensive structural reorganization, there is much less agreement on the significance of the changes that occurred during this time. Some, including Samuel C. Patterson, caution that changes during the 1970s should be viewed within the long-term pattern of institutional stability and adaptive change that has long been a distinctive characteristic of congressional politics.4 Others, such as Lawrence C. Dodd, have concluded that the 1970s reforms "were not just mild alterations of existing arrangements; they constituted a fundamental transformation of congressional structure."5 Concerning the consequences for national policymaking, one interpretation holds that the most important legacy of the reform era has been a degree of institutional fragmentation in Congress that enhances the influence of particularistic interests at the expense of broader, long-term interests and threatens to immobilize the national legislative process.6 Others see in the aftermath of the reforms a strengthened policymaking capability in Congress. To quote Patterson: "Congress has acquired impressive staffs and information processing facilities; improvements have been made in its system of committees;...mainly on account of its extensive and expert staffs, it is substantially more impervious to special-interest pressure." Congress, in this view, "is far more for-

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