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Washington Is Suffering from a Naive Nostalgia for Old-School Political Bosses

The retiring Congressional stars show how much Washington needs free agents

Thomas Nast/Wikimedia Commons

Observing the spectacle of Speaker John Boehner and other leaders of the Republican Party as they desperately try and fail to find even a negotiating position on issues such as the debt limit, immigration and tax reform, it's naturally tempting to wish for the days when party leaders followed former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn's advice that they should "go along to get along." In recent weeks, NYU law professor Richard Pildes contended in the political science blog The Monkey Cage that the core problem in our politics is the "fragmentation" of parties: First-termers like Senators Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren are able to drive the debate to the ideological edges, protected by their own activist bases and sources of money, and undisciplined by their parties. Jonathan Rauch made a similar "Case for Corruption" in The Atlantic: "Politics needs good leaders, but it needs good followers even more...The next round of political reform should make party bosses and political machines stronger, not weaker. The candidate-selection process should be tweaked to reduce the sway of grass-roots activists and return power to party grandees."

There's a lot to this appealingly contrarian argument, and I've made a version of it myself. There's little doubt that the renunciation of earmarked appropriations took away a kind of currency that congressional leaders could distribute to make the place run, or that campaign money coming through ideologically driven outside groups rather than parties has deepened polarization and empowered some destructive individuals.

But the careers of three representatives who recently announced plans to retire after this term, with a total of almost 140 years of service among them, should be a cautionary reminder that we can go too far in the direction of nostalgia for party grandees and their subservient followers. John Dingell Jr. (D-MI), Henry Waxman (D-CA), and George Miller (D-CA) were neither party leaders nor followers, and they neither dispensed nor collected earmarks—but they did more to shape the direction of American government than any Speaker of the House or Senate leader in the years in which they served. They were political entrepreneurs, as independent and freewheeling in their own constructive way as Cruz in his way, endlessly looking for opportunities to forge new coalitions, put new ideas or issues on the agenda, or find small policy tweaks that might produce big results. (Waxman's subtle, step-by-step expansion of Medicaid, from a program for only the most destitute to one that supports working poor families, is the best example.)

All three chaired important committees, but that was not the only source of their influence. Only Dingell fits the archetype of the "powerful committee chair," with the vast jurisdiction of the Energy and Commerce Committee that he ran while Democrats controlled the House until Waxman succeeded him from 2009 to 2011. In fact, Dingell was a participant, and Waxman and Miller were the earliest beneficiaries of the 1970s reforms that broke down the stifling miniature potentates built by House and Senate committee chairs, often conservative Southern Democrats. By changing committee jurisdictions and giving subcommittees staff and power, those reforms opened up a new era in Congress, in which the talents, interests, constituencies and personalities of dozens of individual members suddenly mattered. It was the era when, to understand Congress, you would pore over the Almanac of American Politics as if it were the Baseball Almanac, in which men like Dingell, Miller and Waxman were future Hall of Famers, and others were marked as workhorses, showhorses, promising rookies, troublemakers, or products of their politically complex districts.

These free-agent entrepreneurs made the 1970s, 80s and 90s an unusually productive era in American politics. Party leaders played a role, but because the parties were still ideologically split, leaders had far less clout—it wasn't until the 90s that a Senate minority leader could reliably pull together a party-line filibuster on most issues. The entrepreneurs used oversight hearings (Waxman), their mastery of arcane policy areas such as water policy (Miller), or their ability to form unusual alliances to move government forward. There were entrepreneurs in both parties, and among moderates and conservatives as well—think of Jack Kemp, busting open up the debate on taxes in 1978 with the Kemp-Roth tax cut proposal, or John McCain's later role as the broker of bipartisan deals. Among current Republicans, Paul Ryan on his best days seems to be following the Kemp model, looking for common ground on Medicare with Senator Ron Wyden, another policy entrepreneur nurtured in the Waxman/Miller-era House and the Energy and Commerce Committee.  

Waxman, Miller and Dingell were all liberals, albeit with deep differences among them and some famous conflicts. But as aggressive and passionate as they were, it cannot be said that they pulled their party or Congress to extremes, or that they paralyzed the process. More often they found and forged new areas of consensus. Being free agents, there were things they could do that party leaders could not. In 2007, for example, Miller, then chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, wound up in a public confrontation with the president of the National Education Association, Reg Weaver, over performance pay for teachers, which Miller supported. The Democratic Party, as an institution, doesn't pick fights with the teachers' unions, which provide indispensable resources and organization to the party. But Miller had nothing to lose by doing so, and helped shift the consensus on education policy. Without political entrepreneurs willing to take such risks, strong parties and leaders alone can't innovate or create new paths in this way.

By the second half of the 2000s, though, the era of congressional individualism had largely closed down. With little overlap between the parties, parties were able to exercise almost total control over their members, and as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson showed in their 2005 book, Off Center, the Republican Party was far more aggressive in exercising control. Committee chairs, now subject to term limits, were forced to toe the line and even slightly free-thinking Republicans were passed over for chairmanships. Cross-partisan negotiations among members, such as the original deal on the Medicare prescription drug benefit, were often rewritten at the last minute in closed rooms made up of Republicans and their outside lobbyist allies. Democrats responded to this new level of partisan discipline by pulling their own members back from the bargaining table—hence the backlash against Wyden for his attempt to work with Paul Ryan as if it were 1990 again. By 2006, individual members of Congress mattered as little as they had before the reforms of the early 1970s. There wasn’t much room for the Waxmans and Millers of the world, or even their Republican counterparts, to do what they were best at.

In this closed and stagnant environment, a few individuals, such as Cruz, have emerged as disruptive forces, making matters even worse. But they shouldn't distract us from the deeper underlying problem of political stagnation. Fragmentation of the kind represented by Miller and Waxman in particular—individual political actors with brains, values, and nerve—can create the kind of fluidity and innovation that politics needs. Without them, a politics made up of strong party leaders and docile followers would be like an economy made up of huge stagnant companies and their employees, with no room for entrepreneurship or competition. The Senate today, especially but not exclusively on the Democratic side, is loaded with talent: Jeff Merkley, Sheldon Whitehouse, Kirsten Gillibrand and, yes, Elizabeth Warren. Rather than overreacting to Ted Cruz and calling forth the spirits of Sam Rayburn, we should be thinking like the early 70s reformers about a politics that lets them thrive.