Though majority party leaders in Congress have varied in how eagerly they approached the task, they all chose certain issues as leadership priorities. They all set priorities. That much is clear. But this does not answer important questions: Why do party leaders choose particular issues over others? Why set priorities at all? Why take the risk of legislative failure on issues like tax reform or Clean Air or highway construction? Party leaders who face repeated losses on their priorities will not be party leaders for long.
Asking "why" questions focuses our attention on motivation. Several congressional researchers— Richard Fenno, John Kingdon, Barbara Sinclair, and others 1—say that members and leaders of Congress can be understood as "goal seekers." That suggests that we should pay attention to the motives or strategies behind decisions like the choice of priorities. If leaders set priorities to advance particular goals, then identifying and understanding those goals will be central to figuring out why they choose specific issues. If they set priorities for strategic reasons, what are those reasons? This chapter attempts to answers that question.
Interviews with numerous participants suggest that when setting policy priorities under divided government, party leaders pursue three kinds of goals: partisan, institutional, and policy. The first two reflect the fact that leaders have political responsibilities to their party and managerial responsibilities to an institution that is paradoxically facilitative and independent. The "policy" category captures the substantive dimension of lawmaking, which can be overlooked by those trying to find personal or political motives behind every decision. Some decisions on legislation are made primarily on a policy's merits, largely because much of what happens in Congress is not noticed by the public. There is some overlap in this typology, a common problem when specifying complex motivations. A competent party may win more elections. An assertive Congress may provide the atmosphere needed to show strong policy leadership. But this typology does serve the basic purpose of clarifying why leaders set particular priorities.
Under these categories are a variety of specific leader goals (listed in Table 1). Partisan goals include highlighting differences between parties