One of Newt Gingrich’s first moves after gaining control of the House in 1994 was to cut off funding for Congressional caucuses or “Legislative Service Organizations” (LSO’s). News reports at the time focused on the impact this would have on Democratic groups like the Congressional Black Caucus and the Womens’ Caucus, but hindsight reveals a different angle. Of far more concern to Gingrich was the Republican Study Group, the powerful sub-partisan institution which had helped hand him the speaker’s gavel. After the revolution, an ally might become a rival.
Two decades later the unintended consequences of that and many other moves by the Gingrich Congress shaped the rise of Rep. Paul Ryan to House Speaker. Last week, America was introduced to its first European-style Prime Minister. For the first time, a major US political party was forced to enter into coalition with a junior partner. Gingrich’s great fear was realized when an offspring of the RSC ousted and replaced a sitting House Speaker.
A passage in The Politics of Crazy describes the devolutionary forces that are weakening our central political institutions. As those forces grow more and more potent, we can expect to see smaller, sub-partisan organizations assert themselves inside each party in a development that mimics European parliamentary politics.
What makes the rise of Paul Ryan unique is the way a sub-partisan group, in this case the Freedom Caucus, acted independently of the political party under which its members are elected. Southern conservatives once exercised a similar kind of power in Democratic Congressional politics, but they generally only acted as a bloc on racial matters. They were identifiable only on geographic terms, did not embrace an independent institution of their own, and only united on a narrow template of issues.
The Freedom Caucus is distinct from other Congressional subgroups in its willingness to openly defy party discipline not only on a single issue, but on a question of party authority. And not merely in a personal conflict between or among members, but in open rivalry between a political party and a named, organized sub-entity with its own funding and membership. Negotiations like this are common in European Parliaments, where leadership questions are settled by agreements among parties. It is hard to find any precedent for this scenario in the US Congress.
There is reason to hope that the rise of Paul Ryan will open the door to a more parliamentary system. AEI scholars Norm Ornstein and and Thomas Mann urged similar adaptions in their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Though the structure of our political system, with single-member districts and winner-take-all elections blocks the emergence of multiple parties, nothing prevents candidates from aligning themselves under sub-headings. The Tea Party was the first major step in this direction, with members openly challenging and even defeating non-Tea Party candidate of the same political party in primaries. This development might encourage these subgroups to operate more openly all over the spectrum.
Whether this development will make Congress more or less representative of public opinion remains to be seen. It is possible that these new groups, by weakening the two parties, may actually increase the influence of private money and weaken democratic engagement. What makes this evolution difficult is the structure of our Constitution.
Authors of our Constitution were limited in their high-minded ambitions by one frustrating reality. Their project could not hope to survive and take root unless it could preserve, at least for a time, an awkward and untenable alliance. Northern states dedicated to a proto-capitalist merchant economy must somehow exist under a common legal framework with a violently regressive collection of plantation settlements committed to an older form of war capitalism.
Those demands led to the creation of a permanently weak central government, gridlocked by design. As described at some length by Francis Fukuyama in Political Order and Political Decay, it takes far more than popular will to affect policy changes in the US. Our structure created what he calls a state of “courts and parties,” in which veto power is wielded by innumerable official and unofficial actors. This leads to an under-developed executive power, permanently subordinate to interest groups and incapable of carrying out the public will.
Thanks to this compromise the US has always suffered from an ineffective, needlessly expensive political environment, maimed by its creators. A Constitution engineered to make adaptation extremely difficult meant Americans built a modern democracy on the back of a relatively poor, unusually corrupt government compared to its peers that emerged in Europe. Race and slavery shaped our destiny right from the beginning. These origins explain why no one in America displays a more fanatical, quasi-religious reverence toward our Constitution than Southern conservatives.
About 150 years behind our European colleagues, evolutionary demands are finally pushing us toward a more parliamentary arrangement, one that could incorporate a broader range of public sentiment farther up the political hierarchy. Our Constitution makes this very difficult, but the demands of adaptation eventually either break their obstacles, or kill off a species.
Unfortunately, these parliamentary coalitions are, at their birth, taking on some of the darkest traits of our existing system. Those traits can be seen in the strange consequences of Gingrich’s 1994 purge of the LSO’s.
What Gingrich and others hated about the LSO’s was the way they used public money to empower dissident voices inside Congress. Rep. Dick Armey’s statement dismissing the LSO’s foreshadowed an ugly trend to come: “If you want money for your hobby, get it from someplace else.” That’s just what they did
The Republican Study Group bounced back immediately, now with new funding sources outside of Congress. Other LSO’s with less financial appeal did not fare so well. As matters played out, Gingrich’s move failed to stifle dissident voices; it merely introduced them to market forces. In a dynamic described on a larger scale in The Politics of Crazy, capitalization of government meant groups popular with wealthy donors continued to grow and thrive, even more than before. Those that offered little financial appeal were not so successful.
Money is more influential in Congressional caucuses now than it was before Gingrich’s move. Dependent on outside money for their operation, they are also more closely aligned with interests outside Congress and the electoral process. Look closely at the priorities of the Freedom Caucus, our first proto-parliamentary organization and of the Tea Party from which they emerged, and this challenge becomes clear.
You can’t un-ring a bell. For the first time ever a collection of Congressional back-benchers has deposed a Speaker of the House by building a discrete, sub-partisan coalition. The sense of authority that once hung over the Speaker’s office has blown away. We have met our first Prime Minister. There is no way to stop this dynamic from expanding.
As our political parties continue to decline the power and sophistication of these sub-partisan groups will grow. Gingrich’s move twenty years ago to cut off caucus funding means that their growth will be fueled entirely by big-money private donations. Will a more Parliamentary style of government in Congress make the body more representative of popular will, or will it merely introduce new avenues of special interest obstruction? A close look at our first sub-partisan venture suggests a difficult path ahead toward parliamentary democracy in America.