Political Parties in Congress

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    • 00:09

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER: Hello.My name is Eric Schickler.I'm a professor in the Departmentof Political Science at the University of Californiaat Berkeley.Today I'm going to talk with you about the subjectof political parties in Congress.The big question we're going to askis what roles do political parties play in the AmericanCongress?There are four key points that I'm going to make.

    • 00:31

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: The first is that parties are a core featureof congressional organization.To understand Congress, you need to understand the role playedby political parties.Second, while the public may not like parties,they are central to Congress because they helpmembers achieve their goals.In other words, majority party members

    • 00:52

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: delegate power to party leaders in orderto get things that the party members want.That's the reason we have political parties.Third, we're going to talk about howparty leaders' power varies both over time and across chambers.Finally fourth, we're going to see that party governmenteras in which the majority party really calls the shots

    • 01:15

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: creates its own problems, even for the majority party,as well as for the country as a whole.This is a particularly important pointbecause today we're in an era where the majority party hasa lot of control over the process and a lot of peoplewould argue we have a kind of party governmenttoday in Congress.

    • 01:41

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: First, I'd like to talk in general termsabout some of the ways in which partiesare central to congressional organization.First thing to note is the Constitution actuallymakes no mention of parties.Indeed, the founders themselves werehostile to the idea of parties.They didn't want there to be political partiesin our system.But really, almost as soon as Congress formed,

    • 02:03

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: parties developed because they helpedmembers organize themselves and achieve their goals.Now there are several ways in whichparties are really central to how Congress is organized.The first of these is that the top leaders in both chambersare elected by party.So for example, the Speaker of the House,

    • 02:24

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: although technically elected by the whole houseitself is actually selected by the majority partymembers in a caucus.After the party members agree on a candidate,all party members are expected to votefor that candidate on the floor, and that candidate thenbecomes Speaker.Furthermore, these party leaders, especially the leaders

    • 02:45

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: of the majority party, have important agenda settingadvantages.For example, in the House of Representatives,the Speaker can generally block measuresfrom ever coming to a vote if the Speaker believesthat that measure is bad for his or her party.Another way in which parties are central to howCongress is organized is through the committee system.

    • 03:07

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: The majority party not only selectsall of the chairs of the committees,but also a majority of members on each committeeare members of the majority party,and that gives the majority partydecisive influence over these key agenda settingbodies in Congress.This graphic shows the elected leaders of both the Democrats

    • 03:27

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: and the Republicans in Congress.Note on the Democratic side, Nancy Pelosi is the leader.On the Republican side the speaker is John Boehner.Both of those individuals were selected by their party membersto represent their interests.

    • 03:47

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: Second major point that I want to make todayis that we should think of party leadersas agents of their members.Members give them power in order to help the members betterachieve their goals.Now, you might ask why would membersgive power to party leaders?What goals do they help them achieve?I think there are really two basic kinds of goals

    • 04:09

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: that party leaders help their members achieve.The first is shared policy goals.One of the things that leaders can do for membersis coordinate strategy so that when there's a battleto try to win a vote on the floor,they can help keep the members together and getthem to vote together and work togetherto try to win that vote.More broadly though, you can think of party leaders

    • 04:31

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: as helping solve a collective action problemthat their members face.For example, if you think about the Republicans,all Republicans have a shared interestin passing policies that tend to be on the conservative side.But each member would benefit from those policies,regardless of whether he or she personallyworked hard to achieve them.

    • 04:51

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: What a party leader can do is provide incentives to membersto contribute to that collective goal,for example, offering good committee assignmentsor help with fundraising in return for membersbeing good team players, helping the party achieve its sharedpolicy goals.A second reason to empower party leadersis to build a good party reputation.

    • 05:13

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: This also relates to another kind of collective actionproblems.All Republicans again will benefitif their party has a good party brandname, if voters associate the party with good things, thingsthat voters like.But again, all party members benefit even if they personallydon't contribute.So what you want to do is get a leader

    • 05:34

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: who will help induce members to contribute to that good partybrand name, who will help manage the party so that theytake actions that help build a good party reputation.That in turn will not only help each individual memberget reelected, but help the party maintain its majoritystatus.

    • 05:57

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: One of the most important featuresof congressional politics today isthat parties are much stronger than they'vebeen in earlier eras.So it's really important to understandwhy it is that party power varies over time,and why are they especially powerful today?Now, one of that political scientists have developed

    • 06:17

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: to explain this variation is called conditional partygovernment theory.The basic idea is that if party members agree on policyand are far apart from the other party,they'll have an incentive to givemore power to party leaders.Again, if the Republican members basically all

    • 06:38

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: agree on their policy goals, and those goals are far apartfrom the Democrats, then each memberwill think to him or herself, I'llbenefit a lot more by delegating power to party leadersto achieve those shared goals.By contrast, if the party membersdisagree a lot on policy, they'regoing to be reluctant to delegate power to leaders

    • 06:59

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: because they'd have to worry the leaders woulduse it to achieve policies that the members don't themselveswant.So the key ideas is that when the party is internallyhomogeneous and is polarized from the other party,their members will be more likely to give powerto party leaders.The most important feature arguably

    • 07:20

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: of politics today in Congress is that conditionof conditional party government is met much more than ithas been in the past.So the graphic that you see here shows the ideology rankingof Democrats and Republicans over time.The Democrats are the blue bars.Republicans are the red bars.Scores on the left mean somebody's liberal.

    • 07:42

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: Scores on the right mean somebody's conservative.Notice how on the left chart in 1968,there's a lot of overlap between Democrats and Republicans,a lot of Democrats who are in the center or evenconservative, and a lot of Republicans who are themselveseither centrist or more on the left.By contrast, by 2010, the parties are entirely separated.

    • 08:05

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: All Republicans are more conservativethan all Democrats.And that means that those Republicanswill have a much greater incentiveto try to empower their leaders to achievethose conservative policies that they agree onand to prevent those liberal policies that they disagreewith intensely.A second reason that party power might vary over time

    • 08:27

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: has to do with that second reasonto delegate power to leaders, the idea of creatinga good party brand name.Now that interest is going to be more important whenthe majority party has to worry about losing majority status.Now, for a long time in American history,the Democrats had majorities in the House of Representatives

    • 08:47

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: and the Senate, basically from the 1950suntil 1994 in the House, in the 1950s to 1980 in the Senate,and didn't have to worry a lot about losing their majority.In that kind of period, the majority partycould afford to be a little laxer with its members.By contrast, now we're in an era of close and shifting

    • 09:07

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: majorities.And that gives members a greater incentiveto give power to their leaders to try to help their partystay in power.Helping your party's brand and attacking the other party'sbrand is more valuable when majority control is upfor grabs.Either party could be in control,so there's a big incentive to empoweryour leaders to put together a powerful party message.

    • 09:31

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: As I said before though, party poweralso varies between the House and the Senate.In particular parties intended to be weaker in the Senateand in the House.There are a couple reasons for that.The first is that the Constitutionprovides a presiding officer for the House, who'sa member of the House, the Speaker,

    • 09:51

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: and is elected by the House.By contrast in the Senate, the Vice Presidentis actually authorized to be the presiding officer.That was to give the Vice Presidentsomething to do when the framers were writing the Constitution.The problem is the Vice President'snot selected by the Senate, so the senatorshave been very reluctant to give a lot of power

    • 10:12

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: to a presiding officer.Another reason for the difference between the chambersis that the small size of the Senatehas allowed it to afford each member greaterkind of individual leeway to shape his or her own agenda.And these individuals are less willing to then delegate powerto party leaders.

    • 10:32

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: So the Senate has tended to run more like an informal clubwhere each individual is kind of like an ambassadorfrom an individual state, and as a result really guardshis or her own prerogatives.The best example of this is the filibuster.Each senator can be recognized essentiallywhenever he or she wants to speak

    • 10:54

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: and can then speak for as long as he or she wants.And it requires a super majority of 60 votes to end debate.And that filibuster intern puts big limitson what the majority party and its leaders can achieve,because it's rare for one party to control60 seats in the Senate.Now even though there are differences between the two

    • 11:14

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: chambers, we do see a common pattern of changein both the House and the Senate in recent years.In both chambers, parties have become more important.This graphic is one example of that.It shows the percentage of each party's membersthat vote with most of their party on the average rollcall over time.

    • 11:35

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: And what you see is that it used to be that party members wouldstick with third party on about 60% to 70% of votes.Today by contrast, party members stick with their partyon more than 90% percent of the roll call votes.In other words, most of the time youget a big majority of the Democratssticking together and very often doing

    • 11:57

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: that against the big majority of Republicans.They look much more like disciplined teamsfighting one another.All right, the final point I want to makeis that while party government sound like a really good story,at least if you're a member of the majority party,

    • 12:18

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: it actually creates a lot of problems,even for the majority party and its leaders.And there are a couple reasons for this.One is that majority party governmentcreates bad incentives for the minority party.Think of it this way.If you're a member of the minority partyand you're kind of shut out of power, shut out of the abilityto control the agenda, that will give you a really big incentive

    • 12:41

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: to try to undermine the majority party.And you might even be willing to dothings that make the Congress as a whole look bad to tryto achieve that goal.So you get the rise of what I've been called the bombthrowers in Congress, members whothrive on aggressive attacks on the other party.And these bombs throwers have often

    • 13:02

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: taken on majority party leader successfully,getting them thrown out of power essentially,by finding evidence of scandals that underminetheir standing with the public.You can also think about majority party governmentis creating a particular kind attentionfor the leader of the party.In particular, I talked about two goals

    • 13:23

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: that the leader is supposed to help members achieve,their shared policy goals and their interest in defendingtheir party's reputation.The problem is, those goals can conflict with one anotherat times.Think about Republicans in recent yearswho have sought to force big policy changes on spending,entitlements, Obama's health care reform

    • 13:44

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: plan that they've tried to roll back.So they've had that policy goal.And they sought to achieve it by threatening, for example,to shut down the government unless the President backsdown.Now the Speaker of the House John Boehnerrepeatedly found himself in a positionwhere he decided that trying to achieve those policy goals

    • 14:05

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: would undermine his party's reputation with the public,that they would get the blame for the shutdowns.And so the Speaker essentially made compromiseswith the Administration and then hadto take the heat for those compromises, take the blame.In other words, being the one who'scharged with blocking bills the party opposescan make the Speaker really look bad

    • 14:27

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: when he has to decide between achieving the party's policygoals and defending the party's reputation with votersas a whole.More broadly though, the real problemcreated by party government in Congressis that our political system as a wholewas not really designed for strong party rule.As we talked about at the start, the framers

    • 14:48

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: were really hostile to the idea of political parties.And so they designed a system that divides power up.So we divided Congress into two chambersthat are elected separately.We allow for a President with veto power.We've also had other institutionslike the filibuster develop over timethat make it hard for one party to really call the shots.

    • 15:12

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: So what happens when you have a majority party in one chamber,say the House that seeks to really impose its willand exert strong party government,and it then confronts a set of institutionsthat are divided and fragmented and hostile to one party rule?Well, what happens is we get a lotof gridlock and frustration.

    • 15:34

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: And that arguably is what we've seen Congressover the last several years.To wrap up, I want to leave you with a few thoughts.The first is that parties have alwaysbeen crucial to how Congress works,their core features of legislative organization.

    • 15:54

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: it's hard to imagine Congress operatingat all without the glue provided by political parties.In addition, parties have become morepowerful in recent decades, especiallysince the 1980s as the two partieshave polarized from one another, giving majority partymembers a greater incentive to delegate power

    • 16:15

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: to party leaders.Finally though, this party government that getscreated, while in the short term beneficial for majority partymembers, can create dysfunction for our political systemas a whole.And I think the big question facing our countrygoing forward is whether our set of institutions, which

    • 16:36

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: were really designed with weak parties in mind,or even no parties in mind, can be reconciled with the verystrong, vibrant political partiesthat we see in today's Congress?For further reading, you may wantto take a look at Francis Lee's recent book, Beyond Ideology,which gives an excellent account of the increased

    • 16:56

      PROFESSOR ERIC SCHICKLER [continued]: role of political parties in Congress in recent decades.

Political Parties in Congress

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Professor Eric Schickler discusses political parties in Congress and how the system of political parties has changed over time. While framing the Constitution, the founding fathers did not take political parties into account because they were against the idea. Schickler discusses the benefits of being the majority party in Congress and the potentially negative aspects of strong political parties in Congress.

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Political Parties in Congress

Professor Eric Schickler discusses political parties in Congress and how the system of political parties has changed over time. While framing the Constitution, the founding fathers did not take political parties into account because they were against the idea. Schickler discusses the benefits of being the majority party in Congress and the potentially negative aspects of strong political parties in Congress.

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