Friday, September 16, 2016

Frances E. Lee's "Insecure Majorities"

Frances E. Lee is professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. Her books include Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship in the U.S. Senate and, as coauthor, Sizing Up The Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation.

Lee applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign, and reported the following:
Insecure Majorities examines how the intensification of party competition for control of national government has changed political incentives in Congress. Today, almost every election offers the prospect of a change in party control over one national institution or another.

Today’s ferociously competitive environment differs markedly from much of the twentieth century. For decades after 1932, Democrats seemed to have a lock on control of Congress. Democratic majorities seemed above threat, and Republicans perceived little chance for change.

This book’s central argument is that stronger competition for power after 1980 fosters a more confrontational style of partisanship in Congress. With majority control hanging in the balance, parties work harder to promote their own image and undercut the opposition. Party messaging often gets in the way of bipartisan compromise.

Page 99 is part of a chapter that examines how the 1980 elections changed the political calculus in Congress. Senate Democrats, relegated to minority status for the first time since 1954, began to plot a path back to power. Senate Democrats started meeting in caucus regularly, seeking out issues on which to embarrass their opponents, and repeatedly forcing votes that would divide along party lines.

At the same time, House Republicans, seeing Reagan in the White House and Senate Republicans holding committee gavels, began to take new hope that a House majority might be within reach. Members who saw a path to a Republican majority—Newt Gingrich prominent among them—pressed their party colleagues to stop negotiating with Democrats so as to draw clearer party lines and thereby give voters a reason to elect Republicans to a majority.

Page 99 focuses on the cross-pressures that Republican appropriators experienced, as their colleagues pressed for clearer party distinctions. Policymaking on the Appropriations committee had long been bipartisan and cooperative. But this very bipartisanship made it hard for Republicans to say why Democrats needed to be removed from power. If Republicans and Democrats work and vote together on spending bills, then what difference does it make which party has a majority? Page 99 details a floor fight in which junior Republicans tried to force floor votes on across-the-board spending cuts so as to draw party distinctions. Meanwhile, senior appropriators pleaded with their colleagues not to undermine the cooperative relationship that existed between the parties on appropriations. This episode nicely highlights how the quest for party control cuts against bipartisanship in Congress.
Learn more about Insecure Majorities at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue