The U.S. House of Representatives is in the midst of its second operational transformation in five years. Compared to the post-1994 "Gingrich-led revolution" (Drew 1996), Republican leadership strategies are considerably different in the 106th Congress under the direction of Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and his team.
This essay outlines five strategies the new House leadership team has implemented to correct past problems, shape members' behavioral norms (Weingast 1979), and manage their razor-thin majority. While it's still to early to gauge the ultimate success of these strategies, my conversations with members of the House Republican leadership, other members of Congress, House staffers, and political operatives involved with the day-to-day functioning of the U.S. House, reveal a pattern of strategic changes and accompanying modifications in member norms aimed at managing the legislative majority in the 106th Congress.
Lessons Learned the Hard Way
During the last four years, many GOP members of Congress and other party activists came to view the House Republican majority, as a caucus, as a political issue. Thanks to Gingrich's leadership style, and some adroit maneuvering by his political opponents, the speaker became the media poster boy for a House Republican Conference labeled mean, nasty, right wing, and extreme (Drew 1996; Gingrich 1998; Greenblatt 1998). Sympathetic academic observers saw Gingrich and his team facing an almost impossible task of navigating between "insatiable revolutionary populism" and a "complacent, go-along-to-get-along" politics (Connelly and Pitney 1997, 702).
Even after Gingrich stepped down, the tumult continued (Katz 1998a). House Republicans then entered what some called the "speaker of the month" period (Taylor 1998). Even in early 1999, after Hastert was elected speaker, the press continued to predict the implosion of the House majority (Doherty and Martinez 1999).
Reports of political infighting among factions and cliques within the House Republican leadership almost paralyzed the party (Katz 1998b). As the 106th Congress commenced, one observer noted that House Republicans operated more like a "cult of personalities than a well-oiled political machine." A senior member of the House leadership also lamented, "We need to have people focus less on who we are and more on what we do."
In late January 1999, Democrats, hoping to capitalize on the chaos and write the political obituary for the Republican's majority, began pursuing a strategy of noncooperation and highly selective issue theft. The 106th seemed destined to be a do-nothing Congress--meaning the Republicans would have squandered their majority.
As of this writing however, House Republicans have defied predictions and avoided serious chaos. A remarkably unified GOP has moved its early legislative agenda on schedule, and kept congressional fireworks to a minimum. Speaker Hastert listed four defining initiatives for the 106th Congress during his inaugural address to his House colleagues: reforming education, cutting taxes, strengthening America's military, and saving Social Security. By May of 1999, the House passed legislation in each of these areas.
Despite this recent success, it's still too early to judge whether the Republicans can maintain party unity and successfully manage their razor-thin majority for the remainder...