Against Cannon (1910)
When Republican Joseph C. Cannon was elected Speaker in 1903, the office held significant influence in the House. The Speaker chaired the Rules Committee, which held the power to allow or not to allow bills onto the floor for debate and a vote. He was thus able to stifle legislation that he opposed. Cannon’s position allowed him to pursue his personal agenda through many means. From within rules, he could attach nongermane amendments to bills, riders that might not have passed floor votes as separate measures. On the floor the Speaker held the ability to limit debate and restrict amendments. Cannon's use of these powers for personal considerations created an antagonism between the Speaker and rank-and-file members who were beginning to develop independent attitudes. His ignorance of the budding seniority system further put him at odds with the general membership. A Congressional history notes that "the persistent use of the Speaker's powers to obstruct the legislative will--not of the majority party itself, but of a new majority of members of both parties--sparked a revolt." (How Congress Works,15)
Two failed attempts at curbing the Speaker's power preceded the successful revolt against Cannon. In March, 1909, the House passed an ineffective Calendar Wednesday rule, attempting to circumvent some of the Rules Committee’s power by allowing committee chairmen time on Wednesdays to call up bills reported by their committee, but not reported out of Rules for a vote by the full house. With the beginning of the 61st Congress (1909-1911), the attack on the Speaker’s power began in earnest. Democrats, led by James Beauchamp Clark (MO), joined unhappy Republicans and attempted to pass a resolution which would have rescinded the Speaker's power to make committee appointments, removed him from the Rules Committee, and expand Rules membership. The bill failed when a few Democrats abandoned Clark and sided with the Republican majority who opposed passage. A compromise solution, "that sidestepped the principle [issues]…and only slightly curtailed the Speaker's authority," passed instead. (Origins and Development, 127) The most important provision of this compromise was the establishment of a Consent Calendar, which gave representatives the ability to call up minor bills two days a month without the Speaker's approval.
The reformers succeeded in bringing about significant change in March 1910. Cannon tried to fight the change, but failed when the House overturned his "out of order" ruling on the question of the reforms. Representative George W. Norris (R-NE) modified the Clark resolution, but Norris' bill was still sufficient to undermine a portion of the Speaker's power. The Norris Resolution:
When the Democrats gained control of the House in 1911, many of the same principles they called for while in the minority governed their running of the chamber. With the Speaker's power to assign committee membership eliminated, the Democrats assigned their party's members to committees through their Committee on Committees, made up of the Democratic members of the Ways and Means Committee. The Republican caucus was allowed to appoint its own committee members, and formed a Committee on Committees in 1917.
With the Speaker's position curtailed by the Norris Resolution, the newly formed power vacuum was filled by the Majority Leader, Oscar Underwood (D-AL), who also chaired the Ways and Means Committee. With power over committee assignments and his position as Majority Leader, Underwood dominated the Democratic Caucus and, in fact, the whole House by using the Caucus to his full advantage. In many ways the focus of significant political action had shifted from the House as a whole to the Caucus at this time.
Underwood’s position was strengthened even more because two years earlier, in 1909, the Democrats had initiated the binding caucus to insure backing of Democratic measures. If two-thirds of those members present and voting at a Caucus meeting supported or opposed a resolution, then the binding caucus required all Democratic representatives to vote as the caucus dictated. A Democratic representative could go against the decision if "he considered the position unconstitutional or had made ‘contrary pledges to his constituency prior to his election or received contrary instructions by resolutions or platform from his nominating authority!’" (How Congress Works, 16)
With the power to assign committee members, his control on the floor as Majority Leader, and his use of the Caucus, Underwood was able to influence significantly the type and content of legislation. His power in the House was far-reaching: influencing orders issued by Rules, controlling which bills were reported out of other committees, and using the Democratic Caucus to formulate legislation he felt was necessary.
When the Democrats lost control of the House in 1919, power
was still relatively centralized in the hands of a few well-positioned
men. Yet the trend toward decentralization had begun, and individual representatives
would continue to act more independently of leadership.
Although the Senate's more tradition bound nature shielded it from the pace of change that affected the House in the early twentieth century, the upper chamber also saw a move toward more efficiency in its lawmaking procedures at this time. Among the most important developments was the cloture rule adopted in 1917. It was an attempt to end the rampant use of filibusters. The filibuster was an important weapon of the minority in the Senate. Before the cloture rule, the power of one senator to stall legislation that a great majority favored was absolute. Of course any such action had its consequences for the user, but the power to simply not allow legislation to move forward was available. And, as the majority of the Senators learned in the early twentieth century, the filibuster could be used by a small number of members to stifle the will of the majority.
In response to a number of filibusters that halted popular legislation, the Senate created Rule 22--its first cloture rule--on March 8, 1917. According to the Rule, after 16 Senators signed a petition calling for the limiting of debate, a vote would be taken. If approved by two-thirds of those Senators present and voting, debate time and the opportunity to add amendments would be limited. The intention of the cloture rule was to ensure that legislation favored by a great majority would be able to pass, while continuing to allow the filibuster to remain as an option of the minority.
Without a well-developed and ingrained leadership structure, power within the Senate of the early twentieth century was concentrated in the party leadership and committee chairmanships. The few men with the ability and luck to hold these positions steered the chamber. The Republican and Democratic caucus chairs--with significant control over their party’s machinery--wielded party power with the intent of molding legislation to their specifications. However, unlike the situation in the House, the egalitarian nature of the upper chamber made the party leaders' hold of power more tenuous. If a significant group united, as did the Democratic Progressives of 1913, they could install one of their own as caucus chair and effectively alter procedures and structures within the Senate.
Committee chairmen also wielded significant power. In an effort to curb some of this power, the Democratic Caucus in 1913 succeeded in redistributing some of the power of committee chairs by passing rules that allowed a majority of committee members to call meetings, elect subcommittees, and appoint conferees.
In 1921 the Senate drastically cut the number of its committees
from 74 to 34--a move that had the effect of increasing the power
of the remaining committee chairs.
To deal with the move to an industrial economy at the turn of the century and the movement of business activities from the local to the national level, many independent regulatory commissions and other programs had been established at the federal level. This greatly expanded the size and role of the executive branch. Throughout the early twentieth century and until the Great Depression, the legislative branch was slow to match the executive branch in developing to meet the new needs of a changing nation.
In an attempt to oversee federal expenditures, Congress passed the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. This Act had a large effect on the greatly expanded executive branch. In Congress, it created the General Accounting Office (GAO). In addition, hoping to retain its intrinsic power in budgeting, the House voted to restore to the Appropriations Committee’s jurisdiction over money bills.
In 1927, the House reduced the number of its committees,
and made a number of other modifications.
As the tumult of the Depression and World War II ended, Congress became acutely aware of its poor position in its power struggle with the executive branch. In an attempt to modernize its structure and procedures, Congress created a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress in 1945. As a result of the Committee's investigations came several proposals for change within both chambers. Many of these were eventually passed in the form of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946.
This Act did much to reshape the structure of the legislative branch. The most significant provision of the Act reduced the number of committees from 48 to 19 in the House, and from 33 to 15 in the Senate. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 also created new rules governing committee procedures, which applied to every committee with the exception of the Appropriations Committee. It set the number of staff allowed committees, required a fixed meeting schedule and the keeping of records of committee action, opened most committee meetings to the public, and made it the responsibility of committee chairs to administer legislation properly.
The Act attempted to gain control over the complex budget by creating the Joint Budget Committee, made up of the House Ways and Means and Appropriations Committee members and the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee members. It also gave members greater access to information by creating the Congressional Research Service within the Library of Congress.
While the Act remedied many structural flaws that hindered lawmaking, it failed to address some key issues concerning Congress's restructuring. The most glaring omission was its failure to recommend changes to reign in the power of the Rules Committee. Though representatives voiced their concern with the power of Rules, the Joint Committee could not agree on an appropriate approach to curtail that power. (Origins and Development,151-155)
Roosevelt's death in 1945 led to a large increase in the
Republican membership in Congress in the midterm election of 1946. This
left many Southern Democrats in positions of seniority. All this combined
with the fact that there were a lot fewer committees, because of the reductions
called for by the 1946 Reorganization Act, and that those committees and
committee chairs that did remain had a lot more clout. This gave these
Southern Democrats a significant power base in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s--a
period that is sometimes labeled the era of committee government.
Starting in 1965, the House began a journey of change that would not end until the middle of the next decade. In that year liberal senior and junior members pushed for the formation of another Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. Though these liberally minded representatives were large in number, they were unable to forward their policy goals during the 1950s and 1960s. They were continually stifled by a power structure in which the conservative Southern Democrats held most important committee chairmanships and central leadership positions.
These Southern Democrats often joined the Republicans to form a conservative coalition, which blocked liberal legislation. This was often true in the area of civil rights. In fact, civil rights and other liberal legislation that would have passed a floor vote was often trapped in committee by conservative Southern Democratic chairs. All this forced the liberals to lead calls for structural reform.
Five years after its formation, some of the Committee on
Organization's recommendations were included in the Legislative Reorganization
Act of 1970. The Act affected both chambers and was the first in a
series of major structural changes enacted throughout the decade. Though
it did not alter the seniority system or address the overall committee
structure, it "encouraged open committee proceedings, required that committees
have written rules, required that all committee roll-call votes be made
public, allowed radio and television coverage of committee hearings, and
safeguarded the rights of the minority party members on a committee." (How
Congress Works, 82) The effect of the 1970 Act was to move
power away from committee chairmen and allow lower ranking members greater
Without a figure like the House Speaker to represent it, leadership in the Senate is fragmented with power spread among a number of individuals. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 created a more level playing field in the Senate between the most senior members and the rank-and-file. It gave all senators access to more staff and greater research power, diluted the power of committee chairs by allowing a majority of committee members to call committee meetings, required written committee rules, and gave minority committee members the power to call witnesses. (Origins and Development, 286)
In January 1975, the Democratic Caucus changed its rules
to allow a non-mandatory vote on chairs every two years if its members
felt that committee chairs had overstepped their bounds. Furthermore, one-fifth
of the Caucus could call for a secret ballot vote for chairs.
Because of the nature of the House, the majority party's caucus plays an extremely influential role in the legislative processes of the whole chamber. Thus decisions that affect the majority party's internal power balance can affect the outcomes of the lawmaking process in the entire House. In 1970, the Democratic Caucus commissioned a Committee on Organization, Study, and Review, chaired by Julia Butler Hansen (D-WA).
The Hansen Committee, chosen by the entire Caucus,
played a significant role in the House reform movement of the seventies.
The Committee's initial recommendations, adopted in January 1971,
shifted committee appointment power from the old Committee on Committees
(the Democratic membership of the Ways and Means Committee) to the Caucus.
The Caucus’ new Committee on Committees would nominate Democratic committee
chairs and members. If ten or more caucus members demanded debate and a
vote by the full Caucus, it was granted. If the Committee’s nominations
were rejected, the Committee on Committees was required to submit a new
list of nominations. On the recommendation of the Hansen Committee, the
Caucus also ruled to limit members to no more then one legislative subcommittee
chairmanship. These efforts strengthened the position of the junior
members in relation to the authority of the centralized leadership of the
House and of committee chairs, both a force in the legislative branch
for many years. They could no longer disregard the desires of junior members
who often had a more liberal agenda.
January 1973 saw the decentralization movement of the early 1970s manifest itself in the form of the Subcommittee Bill of Rights, which fundamentally shifted the balance of power in the House. It was drafted by the Hansen Committee for the Democratic Caucus. The Subcommittee Bill of Rights authorized subcommittees to meet under their own authority, hold hearings, and act on matters referred to them.
The Bill called for party members on each committee to form a caucus. The committee caucus would then select subcommittee chairs according to a procedure in which members would be allowed to run for posts based on their seniority on the committee. The caucus would also set subcommittee jurisdictions, set party ratios on the subcommittees to reflect the party ratios on the full committee, and set subcommittee budgets. The Bill guaranteed all members of the committee major subcommittee slots when vacancies made that possible.
Subcommittee chairmen were given the power to set meeting
dates and committee chairmen were required to refer legislation so designated
to subcommittees within two weeks of receiving that legislation. (How
Congress Works, 82) Subcommittees were given legitimacy,
as were the junior members who gained greater influence through their participation
in them. In general, the Subcommittee Bill of Rights gave subcommittees
independence from their full committee chairs. An era of subcommittee
government had begun.
Efforts were initiated for more change by the leadership of the House in late 1972, and carried out during the first session of the 93rd Congress in 1973. Hoping to gain some control and influence over an inefficient and unresponsive legislative structure, the House established the Select Committee on Committees to examine the chamber's committee system and recommend changes.
This committee was chaired by Richard Bolling (D-MO) and known as the Bolling Committee. It was a bipartisan committee, having equal party representation, and resources were shared among its members. One bias that separated committee members from the general membership of the House was the electoral strength of those on the committee. This allowed its members, unfettered by worries about re-election, the time to study the problem and the ability to make their recommendations freely. Roger Davidson notes that "although this progressive outlook helped the members of the Bolling Committee take a fresh look at the committee system, it set them apart from many of their colleagues." (Davidson, 113)
Through interviews with chairmen, lobbyists, scholars, staff members, and others, the Committee's understanding of the House was greatly increased. Reporting unanimously on March 21, 1974, the committee's plan was a compromise of two plans supported during meetings. One plan had called for a small confederation of committees with practically equal and broad jurisdictions where each representative would occupy one committee seat; the other plan called for multiple committee assignments and narrow jurisdictions. According to Davidson, the principles of the attempted reorganization were "subject matter coherence, balance of interests, equality of workload, and political salability…." The plan, "called for scores of jurisdictional shifts," and organized the committees into exclusive and non-exclusive groups. (Davidson, 115)
The Committee’s final plan was somewhat different from its earlier versions. Its original plan had "touched the hypersensitive nerve endings of a decentralized House…." It would have seriously affected "legislators and staff member's individual careers and their relationship with outside clientele [emphasis added]." (Davidson, 116) Members who had initially lost power were somewhat placated by Bolling during mark-up, and the Committee’s attempts to broaden committee jurisdictions to lessen pork-barrel legislation were weak. When jurisdictions were taken away, or committees abolished, vocal opposition from all interests ensued. Lobbying groups were themselves lobbied to support their committees (i.e., those committees that had jurisdiction over their industries or interests) and to defend the ties that had been solidified over the years.
The marked up Bolling Plan was defeated when opposition in the Democratic Caucus succeeded in referring its recommendations to the Committee on Organization, Study, and Review: the Hansen Committee. The Bolling Committee had made controversial recommendations on changing the committee structure, but the nature of the changes was too much for most members and lobbyists, both of whom feared losing their influence. It was replaced by a more modest Hansen substitute. The substitute plan called for minor jurisdictional shifts, and increased staff size. It allowed the minority party to use one-third of the committee staff, and gave the subcommittee chairs and ranking minority members one staff member each. With authorized staff and budgets, the subcommittees now had sufficient independence from committee chairs and would grow in power and prestige. The new Hansen Plan also required that committees with twenty or more members have at least four subcommittees, and required that at least one subcommittee on all committees have oversight power over its parent committee. The greatest effect of the Hansen committee was spreading power from a small number of committee chairs to a greater number of subcommittee chairs. We had truly moved from committee government in Congress to subcommittee government.
The weakening of the committee chairs continued in 1974
when the Caucus voted to hold an automatic secret ballot vote for committee
chairs at its regularly scheduled meeting before the beginning of each
While the House focused on spreading power among a greater majority of its members, the Senate looked to improve its largely ineffective cloture rule. Loopholes within the original Rule 22 and its almost impossible two-thirds vote requirement forced the Senate to amend the cloture rule in 1975--an important structural change in that chamber. Failed attempts at civil rights legislation due to conservative Southern filibusters during the sixties had taught the Senate the importance of a stronger cloture rule.
By lowering the number of Senators needed for cloture to
end a filibuster from two-thirds of those present and voting to three-fifths
of the Senate--or a "constitutional majority"--the chamber better secured
the passage of controversial legislation. It required minority opposition
to legislation to be that much stronger to block the law making process.
The structural differences between the House and the Senate are readily apparent in the different paths taken to change in the 1970s by each chamber. In the Senate, junior members--not the leadership--proposed Senate Resolution 109 in March 1975. Calling for a select committee to study the committee structure, these junior members hoped for "[o]ptimum utilization of Senator's time, optimum effectiveness of committees in the creation and oversight of Federal programs, clear and consistent procedures for the referral of legislation falling within the jurisdiction of two or more committees and workable methods for the regular review and revision of committee jurisdiction." (Davidson, 121).
Although the measure had fifty-five co-sponsors, the leadership held up a vote on it until March 31, 1976. Then a similar bill was adopted, shortening the timetable and reducing the budget of the proposed committee. This committee that was established was co-chaired by Adlai Stevenson III (D-IL) and Bill Brock (R-TN). Known as the Stevenson Committee, it was made up of twelve largely junior members--with equal representation from both parties. Like its House counterpart, its members "came from the ranks of those anxious to take a fresh look at committee structure and willing to see substantial alteration." (Davidson, 121)
The Stevenson Committee benefited from the information gathered by the Bolling Committee. The detail work of the Stevenson Committee was done largely by staff, in contrast to the detail work put in by the representatives themselves on the House committee. This is reflective of a general difference in the pattern of committee work in the two chambers, and results from difference in the structure and type of membership of each body.
The senators themselves concentrated on the more general political questions. The staffs' research included in-depth interviews and data collection with the help of the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service. When the research was completed, a compendium entitled The Senate Committee System was released. This report supported the contention that Senators were burdened with a large amount of work, and highlighted the jurisdictional conflicts inherent in the rather stagnant and unresponsive committee system.
After releasing this report, the Committee held hearings. Only thirteen Senators appeared at these hearings to answer questions--a sign of weak support. In August 1976, the Committee released a second report detailing three different plans for the restructuring of the committee system.
The Stevenson Plan. From among these, the reformers on the Committee chose a twelve-committee plan as its starting point and introduced Senate Resolution 586 at the end of the 94th Congress (1975-1976). During mark up, the Committee found it necessary to favor leading Senators, who benefited most from the plan. The plan proposed to limit the number of committees from 31 to15. It would eliminate some standing committees and all select, special, and joint committees--except the Intelligence panel. It rearranged and consolidated the jurisdictions of the old committees, and gave policy oversight powers to the new committees. For improved organization, committee meetings were to be scheduled with the aid of computers, and leaders were authorized to continually monitor the committee system. Bold efforts of the plan were aimed at limiting members' committee assignments to a total of eight: three committee and five sub-committee assignments per member.
With the election of eighteen new Senators in 1976, the
reorganization effort gained steam. The plan was reintroduced as Senate
Resolution 4 and was the primary business at the beginning of the 95th
Congress (1977-1978). The measure was debated and amended by the Senate's
Rules and Administration Committee. In its markup sessions, those who felt
they were going to be hurt most fought for their causes. Yet again, compromises
were made. Five committees were saved from elimination, some of the plan's
jurisdictional changes were rejected, and members were allowed a total
of eleven committee and sub-committee assignments. The minority was
given more staff, and a sense of the Senate provision was added according
to which every Senator on a committee was required to be given one sub-committee
assignment before any Senator could have two. After debate, Senate Resolution
4 passed on
February 4, 1977. The plan reduced committees
and sub-committees, and refined jurisdictional boundaries. Workloads
were equalized and junior members gained some power.
--Adopted from a term project by James C. Fetera
Davidson, Roger H. "Two Avenues of Change: House and Senate Committee Reorganization." In: Lawrence C. Dodd and Bruce I. Oppenheimer. Ed. Congress Reconsidered. Second Edition. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1981.