Democrats and Republicans are electing new leaders for their parties in the U.S. House and Senate as a new era begins with the replacement of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. How much did Pelosi change Congress? How are new leaders likely to corral their factions and set a new tone? Matthew Green finds that many of the dynamics of party factions and leadership elections remain consistent. Still, there are novel situations, including the simultaneous transition of three top House Democratic leaders and demands for caucus rules changes in the Speaker election. We also evaluate this Congress and anticipate a divided government.
Guest: Matthew Green, Catholic University
Studies: Newt Gingrich, Choosing the Leader
Matt Grossmann: How Party Leaders Change Congress? This week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Democrats and Republicans are electing new leaders for their parties in the US House and Senate. As the new era begins with the replacement of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, how much did Pelosi change Congress? How are the new leaders likely to corral their factions and set a new tone, and how should we judge this Congress on productivity and look forward to divided government? This week I talked to Matthew Green of Catholic University. He’s an author of the new book, Newt Gingrich: The Rise and Fall of a Party Entrepreneur, as well as Legislative Hardball on The House Freedom Caucus, and Choosing the Leader on Leadership Elections in Congress. He finds that many of the dynamics of party factions and multi-dimensional leadership elections remain consistent, but there are novel situations including the simultaneous transition of three top House Democratic leaders and demands for caucus rules changes in the speaker election. Here’s our conversation.
So Nancy Pelosi has left the leadership now after a long tenure as speaker and Democratic leader, so how would you compare her style and accomplishments to those of Newt Gingrich you just wrote a book on?
Matthew Green: So Pelosi and Gingrich do have some similarities. They certainly, I would say, for the first nine or 10 months of Gingrich’s speakership, so 1995, he ratcheted up a lot of accomplishments and exercised a lot of power. So when people say, well, Pelosi is a very influential speaker, are there any others who’ve been as influential as her? I think it’s fair to say that the first nine or 10 months of Gingrich’s speakership, he was also a very effective and influential speaker. The difference is that it was like concentrated for Gingrich. So his first nine or 10 months, he’s doing an insane amount of things, passing the contract with America in the House, restructuring committees, hand-picking members of committees. He’s becoming a national figure that’s a rival to the president. But then things start to go downhill when he’s got a deal with difficult divisions within his party and negotiate major agreements with the president of the opposite party and with the Senate.
Pelosi, she has had successes throughout her experiences as speaker, as well as a minority leader. And one could argue that those successes are ones that were at least as important legislatively. I think it’s probably safe to say that in terms of legislative successes and legacy that Pelosi has had a more successful speakership than Gingrich did. And there’s a number of reasons for that. Style is part of it. One thing that’s interesting about that occurred to me preparing for this interview was that one of the things that Gingrich railed against was machine politicians, the Democratic Party is a corrupt machine, machine politics are bad, and Pelosi comes from the legacy of machine politics, and Rand basically a political machine in Baltimore. And that is, in large part, a lot of the skills she developed or learned from her father served her really well as speaker. If Gingrich had perhaps been a little bit more open to the way that a machine works, he might have been more successful as a speaker than he was.
Matt Grossmann: So people talk as if Newt Gingrich left a permanent mark on the institution and changed how it operated. Has Pelosi left a permanent mark or is Gingrich’s permanent mark overrated?
Matthew Green: So one of the things that people say about Gingrich is that he transformed the House to make it a more centralized partisan institution. I think a more accurate way of putting it is that he added a major building block to that foundation. The process of that transformational process of the house to become more partisan and more centralized in leadership had started before Gingrich and it continued after him. You can trace it back quite a ways, at least as far as Jim Wright who was speaker of the House after Tip O’Neill, he served from 1987 to 1989. And Jim Wright exercised power as speaker in a way that we now just take for granted, but at the time was seen as fairly revolutionary or certainly going beyond the norms of what speakers could do. Gingrich added a lot to that. He did so in a number of ways, and part of it was exercising a lot more influence over committee assignments, putting term limits on committee chairs, which actually had been there before him.
But he continued that tradition to ensure that committee chairs couldn’t be as powerful as they had been under Democrats. And certain things that Gingrich did that weren’t necessarily changes to the rules but the way he exercised leadership, choosing certain individuals to be chairs even though they weren’t next in line in seniority, this view that the speakership should be that degree of a micromanager and who gets opportunities and how the House operates. That’s something that was fairly new that Gingrich introduced that we now accept to a degree, Pelosi doesn’t necessarily do that, but we understand that speakers have their favorites and that if you want to be chair you can’t be on the wrong side of the speaker, for example. So Gingrich added a lot of those things and then Pelosi added more of them.
Some of the things that she did, increasing the number of staff that are in leadership offices, emphasizing not just loyalty to the party but personal loyalty as a precondition for getting things that you might want from leadership and from her specifically having a lot more influence over the legislative process, what bills come to the floor, even sometimes the contents of bills. So this is a long answer I’m giving to your question, but I think it’s safe to say that this has been a trend that has started since the 1970s, 1980s that we can look to individual speakers as playing a part in that trend, but it’s really more than just one person, it’s more than just Pelosi or more than just Gingrich. It’s a bigger development that’s been happening in the House that sees more power concentrated in leadership and less power for the rank and file and less power for committees and committee chairs.
Matt Grossmann: So Pelosi wasn’t willing to go alone, she helped to bring along with her Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn to leave the leadership enabling the rise of three new members to the top positions in the Democratic House. It’s also a large generational change, the new leaders are much younger than those that are leaving. So are there any precedents for this kind of mass leadership change, and how does this one compare to past moments of generational change?
Matthew Green: It’s not unusual for a leader of a party in the House or Senate to step down and anticipate that there’ll be someone new who takes their place, maybe someone who’s younger of the next generation, but to have two or three doing it simultaneously, I can’t think of another time, certainly in modern House history where that happened. Certainly not voluntarily anyway. So it’s very, very unusual, and I think it was really remarkable that they were willing to do that. So Pelosi and Hoyer did it, Clyburn I think is actually still going trying to be in leadership in some capacity, but he is stepping down as a whip. I would love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation and figure out how that was done because Pelosi and Hoyer have had a rivalry that goes back many, many years, so it’s hard to believe that Hoyer would do it simply because Pelosi said you need to step down.
Chances are there was some conversations that were going on over a fairly long period and also maybe each individual leader, certainly Pelosi and Hoyer were thinking, we’ve been here for a long time and perhaps it is best that rather than I stick around, say in Hoyer case, and try to be the next Nancy Pelosi and step into her position as minority leader, that maybe I’m also ready to go. So I don’t know why this happened, but it really is a remarkable thing to see more than one leader of a party step down simultaneously and then have their positions be replaced by the next generation of members of their party.
Matt Grossmann: And tell us about this new group, Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar, and what we should expect from them. Is this continuity despite seeming to be changed demographically or is it a new approach?
Matthew Green: It’s hard to say at this point what those three will bring to the table and how they may be different from their predecessors. I do think we should expect to see, at least from Jeffries, less emphasis on personal loyalty compared to Pelosi. This was one of the things that really made Pelosi stand out as a leader was her emphasis on being loyal to her personally as well as to the party. And it’s not clear that Jeffries, that’s his style. It’s also a difficult thing to pull off very well. One of the things that helped Pelosi was that she had been around for quite some time before she joined leadership and had a long record of raising money for the party, doing favors for members, and building a coalition of support within the party. Jeffries is widely liked in the Democratic Caucus, thus there was no challenge to him running for leadership.
But I don’t know that he brings that kind of record to the table that will help him or would allow him to insist on personal loyalty from members. And it also is about your ability to persuade. I think Pelosi, her skillset allows her to use both carrots and sticks. They used to talk about how she would use her grandma voice with members, particularly male members of the Democratic Party who displeased her or were threatening to defect against the party. In other words, she knew how to psychologically get members to feel bad about being disloyal and feel shamed almost. Hoyer also had a skillset in that respect, but he wasn’t using shame as much, I think, as Pelosi did.
And I don’t know that Jeffries or Clark or Aguilar have that skillset, so they may have to emphasize more carrots than sticks in bringing about loyalty. I do think that we may see a bit more openness in leadership from these three new leaders, more inclusion of rank and file members in the decision-making process. One of the things that really was important to Pelosi that often was criticized was her desire to centralize decision-making in the Speaker’s office or in the minority leader’s office. And it’s not clear to me that Jeffries has that same desire to do that, and so we might see a little bit more openness in how decisions are made in the Democratic Caucus.
Matt Grossmann: This also happened without a big fight, I guess there was a contested race, as you mentioned, where Clyburn retained a smaller leadership position, but there didn’t seem to be a big ideological fight in particular and doesn’t seem to be a new leader from either the Progressive Caucus or especially the squad that worked their way up. So is that a sign that the House Democratic Caucus is more unified, or how much should we read into that?
Matthew Green: It’s hard to read too much into the lack of competition for leadership positions when the Troika stepped down. It was a bit hearkening back to the old days of the Democratic Caucus in the mid to late 20th century where you had this kind of leadership ladder and whoever stepped down, the next person would take their place, so there wasn’t a lot of infighting over say who will be the next speaker or the next majority leader or majority whip. That didn’t last too long, but when I think about historical comparisons, that’s what I think about. But the Democratic Party in the mid to late 20th century was full of factional divisions. You had a major southern wing that for much of that period was supporting basically white supremacy in the south, and then you had a liberal northern wing, which included folks who were civil rights activists.
The famous story is when former Vice President Nance Garner Democrat went to Sam Rayburn and said, “I know your speaker now of the House, I used to be speaker and here’s how you deal with difficulties in your party is you just get everybody in a big room. We used to have the caucus, the binding caucus, you get together and you talk things through and you work it out.” And Sam Rayburn said to Garner, “Are you insane? If I do that with my party, they’ll kill each other.” So there were no real leadership fights, but within the party there were all these divisions. So if we think about what’s happening right now, true, we don’t see a lot of competition for leadership races and we’re not hearing about big infighting in the party like we are with the Republican conference in the House.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t divisions, that doesn’t mean there aren’t these factions. And actually I think one of the biggest challenges that Jefferies is going to face is that progressives in the party view him as a bit of an insider and a bit too conservative for their tastes and a bit too willing to compromise to get things done. So I think one of his number one challenges that he’s going to need to address early on is how do you bring Ocasio-Cortez, other members of the squad into the decision-making process so that they feel like they have a stake in the game, but they don’t undermine your ability to have a unified democratic front and to oppose Republicans and their agenda. I will say that because the Democrats will be in the minority in the House. Jeffries and his colleagues have a bit of an advantage because their primary job is to oppose the Republicans and get a majority in the House in the next election. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be fighting within the party and he’s going to have to figure that out pretty quickly.
Matt Grossmann: So as you mentioned on the Republican side, there remains conflict, but it seems to take this similar form as before where there’s a clear leader for speaker, but there’s clear dissension and people willing to perhaps act on it, maybe even irrationally, but not necessarily having a clear alternative path to take over. So what do you make of the current fight over the speakership and the Republican conferences remaining dissenters?
Matthew Green: So what Kevin McCarthy is dealing with and the Republicans in the House are dealing with is in some ways not all that different from what we’ve seen in the House over the last decade and more really, past nominees for speaker, past speakers have faced at times pretty serious rebellions in their effort to get elected speaker. It happened to Newt Gingrich in 1997, happened again after the 1998 election, happened to John Boehner, it happened to Nancy Pelosi. And in fact, each of the last 10 floor elections for speaker, there has always been at least one member of the majority party who will not vote for their party’s nominee for speaker. And this did not use to be the case for most of the 20th century, but this has become a norm. So in some ways what we’re seeing is become fairly typical of House elections for speaker.
I think that what is different here and what makes McCarthy’s position so precarious is number one, he has a very tiny majority to deal with. He can only lose four votes on the House vote for speaker next month or in January. Assuming that those four vote for a named candidate other than him, you can only lose four of those or otherwise he is an elected speaker. So he is a tiny majority. And then number two is that the folks who are opposing him, so far, they don’t show any interest in compromising their position for the most part, they remain opposed to him. Matt Gaetz said, “Look, I still oppose McCarthy.” McCarthy’s met with him. He says, “I don’t care. I don’t want to vote for you.” Matt Rosendale has written an op-ed saying, “I don’t like McCarthy. We need a new leader.”
This is not a good sign for McCarthy if he’s trying to get these folks to vote with him on the floor. So there is a very real possibility that McCarthy may not get a majority of votes on the House floor this time around. And if that’s the case, then we get into a situation we haven’t seen in a century, which those of us who follow these things have been looking forward to for a long time, which is a multi-ballot vote for speaker with a lot of negotiation, a lot of discussion, a lot of uncertainty and a lot of politics.
Matt Grossmann: But there was a surprise that you recently wrote about in the whips race where the more moderate candidate succeeded over Jim Banks. So does that signify that there might be another part of the Republican Caucus who wants to move in another direction, or what should we read into that?
Matthew Green: So I think this race for whip where a lot of people thought that Jim Banks would win because he was more conservative ideologically, he was touting Trump and saying, “Trump likes me the most.” The assumption was, well, he’s the more conservative member of the Republican Party. He’s more conservative now, he’ll get elected. I actually think that that whip race told us that there’s a lot in common with past leadership races since at least the mid 20th century. In other words, there’s been a lot more continuity than difference in leadership races. So yes, the Republican conference might be more conservative. Yes, Trump might have a lot of influence over the party, but when it comes to choosing leadership candidates in Congress, lawmakers care about who is going to help them achieve their objectives. And that’s what members have been like in these races, at least going back to the 1960s.
And what they care about isn’t just ideology, it’s also about helping getting reelected. And Tom Emmer is someone who had been the head of the NRCC, the National Republican Campaign Committee. He’d raised a lot of money for members. It’s a difficult job. He showed a lot of effort and dedication in that job. So lawmakers who might have been very conservative and say, “Well, Jim Banks, yeah, I agree with him ideologically, but Emmer is looking out for me. He’s helping me out and if he’s elected whip, he’s going to keep looking out for me and helping me.” And so, the results suggest that actually the Republican Party is much like parties in Congress when it comes to choosing leaders. There isn’t that much difference between how leaders are chosen. There isn’t that much difference between what members care about now than what they’ve been caring about for the last 50, 60 years.
Matt Grossmann: But you’ve also written about the House Freedom Caucus, which does seem to be a bit of a different species. Are they likely to continue to serve this same role that they did under say President Obama or Trump? Is there something changing about what those members stand for? They just released a list of demands you probably saw, which looked a lot like a preview of 2010 holding the debt ceiling and the government shut down, hostage, I’m trying to move the party right word, but what should we make of their evolution and their likely to roll this time?
Matthew Green: It would be a safe bet to say that the caucus will repeat the same tactics and strategy that they first used when they were formed in 2015, which is to push their party further to the right, to be willing to oppose their party on procedural votes and to do so in order to encourage more confrontation with President Biden and to basically fight. That’s their big thing. You fight for what you want. They thought that this is the better way to go. When John Boehner was speaker and Obama was president, they thought Boehner compromised too much, and that was one of the reasons they formed in the first place. So I’m not surprised to see them making these kinds of demands about how can we best exploit our leverage as a majority party in one chamber of Congress. And if that’s true, then McCarthy is going to have the same problems that Boehner did, which is some of these bills they want to use as leverage have to pass.
If they don’t, the government shuts down, the US defaults on its debt, and the consequences can be anywhere from politically damaging to catastrophic for not just the party, but for the country. And they just don’t work very well. Those caucus just don’t work very well. And so, in that respect, the caucus is not going to be that different than how it was when it was first formed in the first few years of its existence. There are a couple of differences though, from that early period. Number one is that the caucus is pushing for rules changes. They want procedural changes that give them more power or at least give McCarthy less power. And depending on what McCarthy does, that could have a long-term effect on the Caucus’s influence, the power of committee chairs and the power of the speaker. Some of the things they want to do open up the decision-making process, and one could argue that that’s just inherently good for Congress.
Other things they want to do, they would like to have a adoption of the so-called hazard rule where only bills with the support of the majority party get a vote on the floor could be very damaging because things like the debt limit are unpopular with Republicans, but they have to pass. And McCarthy can’t pass those things if the majority of his party can veto it. So it’s really important to see what rules are adopted by the party or by McCarthy in exchange for Freedom Caucus support. So that’s one difference. And I think the other is that the caucus has become much more, for the lack of a better word, Trumpy, There have been some really good interviews with former members like Mick Mulvaney in recent weeks who have said. “This caucus has changed. When we joined, we wanted to reduce spending and we were concerned about having a say. We wanted to be able to move the party to the right or at least have votes on the floor on things.”
Now the party has folks like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert who are talking about, they’re touting Christian nationalism. Some of them are outright racist and anti-Semites, and many seem to be more interested in getting on Fox News and getting a lot of attention on Twitter than actually changing what the House does. And that could change or affect the kinds of tactics and strategy that caucus uses. And it also, in some ways makes them more dangerous because those members may not care whether the government shuts down, they just want to get a lot of attention. And that makes it hard to negotiate. You can’t negotiate very easily with people who just want attention as opposed to actually want to legislate.
Matt Grossmann: So we’ll take you over the other chamber with which you’re less familiar and have you do a little comparison on the Senate side. Mitch McConnell recently faced something of a half-hearted challenge from Rick Scott who got some votes. But there does seem to be a real difference both McConnell and McCarthy criticized Trump after January 6th, but McConnell has kept his distance, whereas McCarthy has been regularly having to kowtow to Trump to keep his party in line. So why has McConnell been able to do that where McCarthy has not? And what other differences do you see between the Republican caucuses in each chamber?
Matthew Green: So one of the important developments in the House Freedom Caucus was its decision to basically embrace Trump when Trump was president, and they didn’t do that right away, but by the end of the first year of the Trump presidency, the Freedom Caucus and Mark Meadows, its chair basically saw their role as being a cheerleader for Trump. And that legacy, that has continued in the years since. So that McCarthy felt that, look, I can’t completely distance myself from Trump in part because I do have a number of members who openly support him, endorse him, and they’re organized, and they have a history of blocking what Republican leaders want to do and even voting with Democrats. Whereas Mitch McConnell never had that, he had individual senators who would talk up Trump or say that Trump was the greatest president ever like Lindsey Graham, but it wasn’t an organized group like the Freedom Caucus.
I do think there’s also just a difference in their view of politics. And maybe this reflects the founding father’s view of the two chambers, the House is supposed to be closer to the people, members only serve for two years, they’re all up for reelection at the same time. The Senate smaller members serve six years, they’re not all up for reelection. And so, I think McConnell perhaps as a result of that or reflecting that institutional difference could treat Trump with a little bit more of a, put a more an arm’s length and say, okay, yes, he’s saying this, saying that, but he’ll be gone. Most of us will still be here and at some point he won’t be president, but we’ll probably still be here. We were here before, we’ll be here after, so we don’t need to follow Trump’s every whim.
Whereas McCarthy, perhaps reflecting being a House member has been excessively worried about Trump’s influence over Republican voters, over primary voters and very much afraid of Trump’s displeasure. I also though think it’s stylistic, frankly. I think Mitch McConnell’s attitude is he’s not nearly as afraid of Trump, frankly, as McCarthy is. So for all those things, you’ve got the institutional differences, you’ve got an organized group in one chamber versus another, you’ve got your personal attitudes about politics and Trump. You’ve had McCarthy be much more sensitive to what Trump is saying and thinking than Mitch McConnell has been.
Matt Grossmann: So let’s go to the Democrats. Senator Schumer, I think, until summer of last year when he was able to pass the CHIPS bill and get an agreement with Senator Manchin was usually compared negatively to Nancy Pelosi, but there seemed to be a renaissance or at least more support for Schumer on the Democratic side, and he does have a bit of a different style. One of the things that I’ve noted is that Senator Sanders is officially part of the leadership as is Senator Manchin, and he fancies himself someone who talks to everyone all of the time. So how does that compare to the House side among the Democrats?
Matthew Green: I mean, agree that Pelosi tends to get a lot more credit for the legislative successes of the party in her chamber, and also more credit for keeping the party unified in her chamber. But it cannot have been easy for Schumer to maintain discipline in a party where you only need to lose one vote against the unified minority and you can’t get your legislation enacted. And it is a party that includes, yes, Bernie Sanders, it also includes Joe Manchin, and then it includes folks like Kyrsten Sinema, to call her a conservative Democrat isn’t quite it, she’s got her own agenda. She’s just declared that she’s going to leave the Democratic Party. She is a party of herself and she’s always been that way. So how Schumer has been able to do that I think is a great question. And this is somewhat, again, I’m not on the inside, so I don’t know exactly how he’s done it, and there’s been fewer studies of Schumer’s leadership than there have been of Pelosi.
But he seems to have a real deep understanding of every member of his party. He’s very patient with them. Yes, he’s willing to talk to any of them at any time about anything, and he also seems to be willing to put a lot of things on the table for negotiation purposes. So he’s not perfect, but Pelosi has made mistakes, Schumer has made mistakes, but he seems to able to communicate with every member of his party in a way that they feel that he’s listening to them, he’s taking their concerns into account and he’s working really hard on their behalf to get the things they want in exchange for their vote.
Matt Grossmann: So we had a strange evolution in the way that people have looked at this Congress’ productivity, it started with comparisons to FDR among Biden and Dems were going to do everything. Then last year at this time, we were at the nature of Build Back Better’s failure and nothing was going to happen. And then by the summer, we’re not quite back to the FDR, but realizing that quite a bit was passed by this Congress, some of it by partisan and some of it partisan. So how should we assess the policy record of this Congress and does it say anything about trends in the institution?
Matthew Green: I think this Congress is a good object lesson on why you should never evaluate the productivity of a Congress until it’s actually over. Because your narrative is exactly right, it seemed like, oh, FDR, which I thought was silly anyway. I mean, FDR had huge majorities during a great depression and the Republican Party was hated by so many people. He could do all kinds of things. Biden never had that. He never had that political context in which to operate. But then at the same time to say, oh, this bill has failed and it’s still the Congress isn’t even halfway done, was in retrospect very premature. I think that now that we’re nearly done, we’re still not completely done, so more could happen, but at this stage, I would say if the current Congress stopped right now, I think it would be safe to say in terms of productivity, a very impressive Congress.
And even more so, when you take into consideration the tiny majorities that Democrats have had to deal with in the House and Senate. In terms of other congresses, I would not compare it to New Deal congresses. The New Deal congresses were more productive, but again, Democrats had much larger majorities to work with. I think you could probably compare it favorably or maybe it’s on par with Obama’s first Congress, at least in terms of the sheer volume of legislation that was enacted, maybe the first year of the 103rd Congress, so this would be Bill Clinton’s first Congress, but not necessarily the second year which was less productive. But again, in those two cases, Democrats had larger majorities. So in some ways, a better comparison might be George W. Bush’s first Congress the 107th, because he had very small majorities in the House and Senate.
And in fact, Republicans lost control of the Senate in the middle of 2001 when Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party. And yet despite that, Republicans were able to get a fair amount of their agenda enacted. So I think that this Congress is one of those that would, I think, go down in history as a very productive one with a bonus for being productive in a polarized environment with very small majorities that President Biden had to work with.
Matt Grossmann: So we’re entering divided government again, which is not a new thing for us to experience every time that we’re in it. We have this debate about, is the trouble getting things done inherent due to polarization or the close margins? Is it about the way that the individual leaders are able to forge coalitions or not? Or have we overestimated the difficulty altogether and we always get things done? So how should we think about the divided government period we’re entering?
Matthew Green: So the safe bet is that this is going to be a repeat of the second two years of Obama’s first term, the second two years of Clinton’s first term, the second two years of Trump’s first term where you go from unified government to divided, and the agenda shifts dramatically, the amount of bills goes down, you see a lot more infighting, you see a lot more high profile fights over the budget, over funding the federal government over, yes, the debt limit. There’s no reason to think that that’ll be any different in the next two years except that the Democrats do control the Senate by I guess a vote or two, I’m not sure, Kyrsten Sinema is independent, not sure who she’s going to caucus with, but Democrats have at least 50 members, which is all they need. So the Republicans have the tiniest majority in the House, and while the majority party has significant agenda control in that chamber, you do have vehicles by which a cross-party majority could force things to the floor like a discharge petition, for example.
And if you have all the Democrats and five Republicans is all you’d need to sign a discharge petition, then a bill has to come to the floor even if the leadership doesn’t want it or a committee chair doesn’t want it. So Democrats actually have some ways of moving the agenda further to the left, then you might otherwise expect in divided government. Excuse me. Yeah, you do have Joe Biden, who is a creature of the Senate, he was in the Senate for many, many, many years and he also likes to negotiate. He likes to bargain. Is he going to get the Freedom Caucus to go along with him? Probably not. But could he convince five or six Republicans to go with him on something? Possibly, depending on the issue. Could he convince Kevin McCarthy? Maybe. I mean, McCarthy is, it’s a little unclear what kind of a leader he is going to be, assuming he’s speaker.
But Biden does have significant negotiation skills that could help get legislation enacted. Maybe not liberal legislation, might be more moderate, but on certain issues in which there’s a cross-party coalition that is supportive of the legislation, you could see some major legislative activity. So you do have research that shows that Congress is still productive even in cases of divided government. You do have cross-parties that coalitions had pass legislation. So it’s not as if nothing happens in divided government, even without a close margin in the House, even without people like the president like President Biden who can negotiate, you still see Congress being legislatively productive in divided government.
Matt Grossmann: So we’ve been talking mostly about the leaders, but part of your history of studying Newt Gingrich is about, well, before he was in charge, people point to things like his use of C-SPAN in fundraising and candidate selection, that kind of thing. So who are the up and comers in Congress that we should be watching for ways that they’re changing the institution or could change the institution in the future?
Matthew Green: I’m trying getting at some thought about who might be the up and comers. It’s always a little hard to say because sometimes you don’t realize what influence they’re going to have until they’ve already exercised it. Newt Gingrich for the first several terms of his congressional career was seen as this kind of annoying outsider who didn’t really legislate or understand the legislative process and was busy writing a lot of memos about transforming society. And it wasn’t until, for example, he had a high profile confrontation with then Speaker Tip O’Neill on the House floor in 1984 that he acquired National notoriety and was able to exploit that in part to help transform the Republican Party in the House to one that was more focused on party loyalty and team, so party as thinking of your party as a team than it had been before.
I think on the Democratic side, I certainly look to some of these junior folks in leadership that might move up the ranks further or have more influence like the new Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar, for example. I would look to some of the folks even further down on the leadership list who are relatively new or moving up, and the same on the Republican side. I think that the Republican side is it’s a little hard to game out because you do have folks in the Freedom Caucus who are sticking around or exercising more and more influence folks like Jim Jordan, I mean, he’s going to be the next chair of the judiciary committee. If you had told me that when he first was elected to Congress, I would’ve said that’s not going to happen.
So, you have folks like that who are going to exercise more influence and maybe move the party further to the right. But other than that, I’m sort of hesitate to name names because it’s just hard at this stage to say who among the younger members are going to be the ones moving the party or shaping the party in the future.
Matt Grossmann: So you are a political scientist, but you sometimes act like a historian as well and draw from journalism as well. So talk a little bit about what you see journalists or people familiar with the history talking about that we could learn from and what political science can add to people who don’t usually see politics through that lens.
Matthew Green: So I think we can learn from historians the importance of having, frankly, an historical view of politics. I remember when Trump was first elected, and so many of my colleagues in political science were completely shocked, how could this happen? I was also very surprised. But those who studied the history of American political culture, who studied reconstruction, who studied the 1840s and 1850s and the Know Nothing party and things of that said, “Oh, well, this is not a surprise to us. This has long been a thread in American political thinking.” So I think historians can provide us with a bigger picture understanding of what changes in American politics and what does not, and what is really part of our historical legacy.
I also just think that studying the history of Congress is interesting and gives us perspective about how Congress can work, how it could work, how it works better, how it doesn’t work as well, etc. From, I think, journalists, I read a lot of these journalists who cover what’s going on the inside. This used to be something that political scientists did more. They would write about the ins and outs of the politics of the majority party in the House, or the Senate leadership, folks like Richard Fennell would do interviews. They’re really talking to people and figuring out what are they thinking, what are they doing. That has largely fallen out of favor in political science and that has been taken up more and more by journalists. So there’s a lot of great journalists covering what’s happening in Congress, they are talking about who did McCarthy meet with today, what members of the Freedom Caucus are saying X versus why, who are the disgruntled members of the Republican conference in the Senate.
They’ve just recently, there’s a group of them that have organized and they’re calling themselves something like The Breakfast Club. I don’t know what this is, but this is journalists telling this like, “Oh really? So Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz and some other senators are getting together?” That’s interesting.” They’re doing the interviews, they’re doing the insider stuff that is what makes the politics of Congress so interesting and really the foundation of congressional politics in my view. However, what political scientists can bring to the table, particularly to journalists, which I think is important is to not get lost in the personalities too much to say, oh, well so-and-so talked to so-and-so is very interesting, but what are the political incentives for someone to act this way? How do the procedures and rules of the chamber influence what Congress does regardless of who the speaker is or who the minority whip is or what caucus is formed?
How do lawmakers balance their competing interests, their electoral needs, their ambitions, those kinds of things. These are the kinds of things. And then also, what’s the bigger political context? A polarization is something that’s bigger than just what one journalist can talk about, and the causes of things like polarization are more complicated than what you might see in a typical news article. So there are a few folks like Ezra Klein who do a really good job of bringing together history, journalism, political science, but I think that it would be beneficial to journalists to look to even more so, like more journalists to be looking at what political scientists are doing, what historians are doing to help inform their work and give a deeper and more informed analysis of congressional politics.
Matt Grossmann: So we should let you give a pitch for the new Gingrich book. Why should we read another book about that period with so much is going on right now and how’s your take different from others?
Matthew Green: So if you want to know how Congress got so the way it was, one of the most important figures to understand is New Gingrich. He did not make Congress a polarized place. He cannot be blamed for everything that you don’t like about Congress like some people do, but we argue in the book that if you want to understand almost the cultural norms that have made members of Congress act as if their party matters so much and party loyalty is so critical, then you’ve got to look to Newt Gingrich. So what we do in the book is our book is really the first intellectual, academic, non-partisan view of Gingrich’s career in Congress. We are not interested in making him the boogeyman, we’re not interested in saying that Gingrich was the greatest thing since sliced bread, we just want to understand what motivated Newt Gingrich, how did he become influential in Congress, what kind of influence did he exercise, and what does that tell us about the role of individuals in shaping congressional politics.
So we do original interviews. We do an extensive amount of archival research. We uncover lots of interesting new memos and things that, in our archival research, in our interviews about Gingrich, we do an extensive amount of research into journalistic accounts of Gingrich to really try to understand what motivated him and what kind of entrepreneur he was in Congress, and then of course why he was successful and why he was not. He moved up into leadership. He was very influential in shaping the way Congress and the Republican Party operate, but he had a less successful speakership and eventually resigned after the 1998 election. So we talk about how those things are connected and why the same things that might have made him successful moving into power in the 1980s and early 1990s in some ways planted the seeds of his own destruction as Speaker of the House.
Matt Grossmann: And what’s next? What are you working on now and what will you be looking for in the next Congress?
Matthew Green: Well, one of the things I would like to do is do a kind of update on my book on the Freedom Caucus, which went through the first year of Trump’s presidency, and that is right about the time that the Freedom Caucus became much more of a cheerleader for Trump. So every two years, people say that the Freedom Caucus is going to go now, they don’t have a future, and yet they managed to survive. So what I’d like to do is talk about their relationship with Trump and how that may have helped them continue as an important force in congressional and national politics. Now, as far as the next two years, the first thing I want to see is that speakership election. I want to see what happens. And as I said, I’m rooting for a multi-ballot vote for speaker, because that’ll be really interesting and maybe McCarthy won’t even become speaker, it’ll be somebody else, which would be interesting.
And then I want to see how the Republicans are able to deal with being a majority party in only one chamber and the opposite party being in the White House, how are they going to manage their factions? How are they going to come up with a coherent strategy and a coherent agenda and avoid the pitfalls that previous parties have faced in their position with shutdowns and damaged brand and internal infighting and co-attempts? It’s going to be a real challenge for McCarthy and for other leaders, for Republicans, especially, in the House, these kinds of challenges. And so, I’m really interested to see how they’re able to navigate those in the next two years.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The science of politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out, How the House Freedom Caucus Gains Power in Congress, Are Divided Governments the Cause of Delays in Shutdowns? Compromise Still Works in Congress and with Voters, How Media Coverage of Congress Limits Policymaking, and Do Congressional Committees Still Make Policy? Thanks to Matthew Green for joining me. Please check out Newt Gingrich: The Rise and Fall of a Party Entrepreneur, and then listen in next time.