What Broke Congress?

David Frum has a good post today on how the reforms of the 1970s that were supposed to make Congress work better actually destroyed its ability to function. While I don’t disagree with David’s specific points, I think he is ignoring the proverbial elephant in the living room: the demise of the conservative Southern Democrat.

It is becoming clearer and clearer with the passage of time that the period from 1938 to 1974 was unique in American political history. We all know that the Civil War made the South solidly Democratic, or perhaps more precisely anti-Republican. Republicans were, of course, the party of abolition and of the hated Abraham Lincoln and the Democratic Party was the beneficiary of this hatred.

But something curious happened in 1938. Franklin Roosevelt, flush from his enormous victory in 1936, was annoyed by the lack of enthusiasm many Southern Democrats had for the New Deal and he attempted to purge some of them by promoting more liberal primary opponents.

Roosevelt’s efforts failed completely. But they had an important consequence in hardening opposition to the New Deal among Southern Democrats, especially in the Senate. This melted historical antipathy between them and the Republicans. It also helped that many more Republicans were from the West rather than the North, and therefore had less attachment to issues related to the war. Moreover, race was much less of an issue in the West and Republicans from that region were more libertarian than those in the North and more willing to work with Southerners on things like the budget where they shared an antipathy for taxes and deficits.

After 1938, this coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans essentially ran Congress. It got big boosts in 1946 and 1952 when Republican briefly took control because all of the Democrats that lost were from outside the South. This meant that Southern Democrats gained seniority at the expense of more liberal Northern Democrats and got the chairmanship of many key committees, which they held for decades. We all remember from the battle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s how important Southern control of the House Rules Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee were to that struggle.

Southern Democratic control of many congressional committees was central to Congress’s ability to get things done during this era. Since Southern Democrats all had very safe seats they could often do what they thought was right even if it went against the interests of their constituents. And David is right that there were institutions in Congress that protected them as well, such as marking up bills in executive sessions.

But Watergate indirectly destroyed the Southern Democrats because it led to a historically huge victory by liberal Democrats in 1974. These newcomers quickly allied themselves with congressional reformers who had long chaffed at the power of the Neanderthal Southerners. After the election they moved swiftly to neuter the fundamental source of the Southerners’ power: seniority. In the House, Bob Poage of Texas was removed as chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Edward Herbert of Louisiana was ousted as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Wright Patman of Texas was kicked out of the chairmanship of the Banking Committee, and Wilbur Mills of Arkansas was forced to cede the Ways and Means Committee chairmanship.

Many other reforms mentioned by David were also part of a concerted effort by liberals to break the power of the Southerners. But in the process, they destroyed any reason why a politically conservative Southerner would have for staying in the Democratic Party. Once Southern Democrats could no longer depend on seniority to automatically give them power there was simply no reason to remain Democrats except out of habit.

At the same time, the long legacy of the Civil War finally began to diminish hatred of the Republicans and the influx of blacks into Democratic primaries following the Voting Rights Act also began to push the conservatives out. Thus began the migration of conservatives out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party that culminated in the great Republican congressional victory of 1994.

Of course, there is much more that could be said on this subject. But I just wanted to make the point that Southern Democrats were central to making Congress work during the 36 years between 1938 and 1974. Their demise is a key reason why Congress no longer works because they were the essential bridge between the two parties that made bipartisanship possible. (The demise of the liberal Republican was also a factor, but that’s another story.) Since the conservative Southern Democrat was the product of unique historical factors unlikely to ever be repeated, it’s hard to see how the era in which Congress seemed to work can be recreated.

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About Bruce Bartlett 76 Articles

Affiliation: Forbes

Bruce Bartlett is a columnist for Forbes.com, the online side of Forbes, the nation’s premier financial magazine.

He served for many years in prominent governmental positions including executive director of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, Deputy Assistant Secretary for economic policy at the U.S. Treasury Department during the George H.W. Bush Administration, and as a senior policy analyst in the White House for Ronald Reagan.

Bruce is the author of seven books, including the New York Times best-selling Impostor: How George W. Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, and thousands of articles in national publications including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic, Fortune and many others. He appears frequently on CNN, CNBC, C-SPAN and Fox News, and has been a guest on both the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report.

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