Published in Congress Reconsidered, 7th Edition
Edited by Lawrence C. Dodd and Bruce I. Oppenheimer
Washington, D. C.: CQ Press, 2001: pages 389-414.
Please note that this is a 'next to final' draft, subject to slight last minute editing by the Press;  consult the published  version for exact quotations.
Re-Envisioning Congress: Theoretical Perspectives on Congressional Change

  by Lawrence C. Dodd
  University of Florida

 The arrival of the twenty-first century has coincided with a time of remarkable change in the U.S. Congress. For much of the twentieth century, from the Great Depression onward, the Democrats served as the majority party in Congress, steering the country toward an activist social agenda and generating a remarkable amount of institutional and policy innovation. The party's core agenda issues such as Social Security were so popular, and Democratic incumbents paid such close attention to constituents' service needs and to interest groups' programmatic concerns, that the party appeared to have a permanent lock on Congress, particularly the House of Representatives. Thus as Congress entered the 1990s most observers expected Democratic control to continue,1 despite public opinion polls demonstrating widespread unhappiness with Congress as an institution. 2 Instead, the decade witnessed a dramatic Republican assault on the Democrats and on Congress itself, which culminated in the "Republican Revolution" in the 1994 elections.

 Once in control of Congress, the Republicans pursued a political and policy struggle of historic proportions with the Democratic president and his congressional party. This struggle included two government shutdowns, the enactment of welfare reform over the objections of most congressional Democrats, and the impeachment of President Clinton. As the struggle went forward, the Republicans maintained control of the House and Senate by slim margins in the 1996 and 1998 elections. The 2000 elections, again generating narrow Republican majorities, extended Republican control into a fourth Congress, the longest such stretch since the 1920s.

 How could this have happened? What does it tell us about Congress as an institution? And what might it tell us about America at the dawn of this new century?

 This chapter seeks to address these concerns by presenting three theoretical perspectives that, taken together, help us to understand such periods of unexpected change and to clarify the placement and meaning of such changes in contemporary politics. These theories argue that such upheavals, illustrated forcefully by the Republican Revolution, can best be understood not as aberrations in our politics but as the natural long-term outgrowth of three factors: the goals and strategies that politicians bring to congressional politics, the shifting societal contexts that they confront, and the changing ideas about politics with which they experiment as they pursue their goals and address societal problems. To better understand these three theories and their significance for Congress, we will start by considering why the Republican Revolution was so puzzling and how the three theories can help us address that puzzle. Then we will examine the three theories, the sense they make out of contemporary politics, and what they together can tell us about the current state of Congress and the nation.

The Puzzle and Explanatory Strategy

What is so puzzling about the Republican Revolution is that it occurred at all, given the hold on Congress that the Democrats appeared to enjoy, and that it followed the path it did once the Republicans assumed control of Congress. Three aspects of this overall puzzle require particular attention.

First, the Republican victory came at a time when members of Congress possessed more resources than at any other time in history for conducting constituent service, contacting constituents personally, addressing specific programmatic needs, and traveling home to meet with constituents. The incumbent advantage in congressional elections seemed assured, and there appeared little role for national policy agendas or national election forces in congressional elections. Together these factors seemed to tilt Congress decisively toward Democratic control and to make almost inconceivable a serious Republican challenge, short of conditions such as a major economic crisis. Republican takeover of the House of Representatives seemed particularly unlikely because localized constituent service and targeted federal programs appeared to provide a very special incumbent advantage in the relatively small congressional districts that compose the House. Despite these expectations, in 1994 the Republican Party produced one of the most massive vote swings against an incumbent congressional party in American history.3 The Republicans captured both the House and Senate and even defeated powerful House committee chairs and the Democratic Speaker, Tom Foley. They accomplished all of this, moreover, in a time of good economic conditions. They did so by stressing a common policy agenda and nationalizing the congressional elections.

Second, as they maneuvered for control of Congress in the decade prior to the 1994 election, and during the 1994 campaign itself, the Republicans systematically attacked the legitimacy of Congress as a governing institution. After gaining control of the Congress that they had worked so hard to capture, Republicans then found themselves constrained by the public distrust of Congress they had helped enflame. Unable to put in place a strong leadership structure, instead they found themselves blamed for two government shutdowns, embroiled in factional fights, and subjected to three straight elections in which they lost seats in the House and stumbled precariously in the Senate, barely holding on to control of Congress. Their remarkable surge forward in 1994 thus was followed not by the consolidation of a new Republican era that it seemed to portend but by stalemate.

Third, despite the difficulties the Republicans faced as they sought to govern, their control of Congress did not collapse. They rebounded from the government shutdowns and maintained control of both houses during the 1996, 1998, and 2000 elections, despite a Democratic resurgence. Along the way, the party enacted major new legislation, from reform of welfare laws to trade normalization with China. Congress did not revert to a Democratic majority, which would have indicated that the 104th Congress had been an anomaly. Instead, although both parties struggled in the years following the 1994 elections, the nation's political and policy landscape clearly had changed in qualitative ways.

In response to these developments, the journalistic community presented an interpretation of the Republican Revolution that stressed its uniqueness and attributed it almost entirely to the hard work and brilliance of one man, Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia.4 The general image conveyed by the coverage of events of 1994 and thereafter emphasized the overarching role of Gingrich in orienting congressional Republicans toward a systematic assault on the Democrats in the 1980s and early 1990s, in creating a strategy of attacking Congress in order to discredit the governing Democrats, in aggressively using GOPAC to build a Republican base, in building a "farm team" of Republican challengers, and in creating the thematic focus on a Conservative Opportunity Society and on the Contract with America.

The result has been a kind of "great man" theory of revolution that seemed to imply that if only Gingrich had been defeated in 1990, when he had faced an extremely close election, the Democrats would have maintained control of Congress and the New Deal/Great Society hegemony would have gone unchallenged. This perspective further implied that the Republicans faltered midway through the 104th Congress because Gingrich became overwhelmed with hubris; they recovered in the summer of 1996 because he recovered; they struggled thereafter because of his ethical struggles and loss of nerve; and they suffered grievously with his miscalculation in relying on impeachment of Clinton to save the Republican Party. Their rebound in the 106th Congress then could be attributed to Gingrich's sagacity in maneuvering Dennis Hastert, Ill., to the Speakership as he resigned from the House, putting in place a soft-spoken Gingrich ally who could continue the revolution without generating the negative vibes associated with Gingrich himself.

Certainly there is some truth in the emphasis on Gingrich's critical role in the revolution. Individuals do matter in politics and history. A gifted politician may see historical dynamics more clearly than others and act in ways that accentuate them. Yet how can an individual overcome "scientific" truths, such as the argument by congressional scholars that citizens' preoccupation with casework politics, and public disinterest in sweeping policy agendas, had frozen the Republicans out of contention in the House and limited their future in the Senate? And even if Gingrich was remarkably adept at sensing the underlying dynamics of history, what was it that he had sensed? What were the historical dynamics that had suggested opportunities to exploit and strategies to pursue?5

In contrast to the great man or personalistic perspective, this chapter argues that developments such as the Republican Revolution reflect broader dynamics at play in institutions and societies, and that it is through our identification of such dynamics that we make systematic sense out of critical events.6 In the short run there are always advantages--city machines in the late nineteenth century, constituent service in the late twentieth century--that benefit one party or group and appear to contemporary observers to make it impregnable to political challenge. But in the long run there are historical processes at work that erode such advantages and subject legislators, their parties, and Congress to new political circumstances. As we understand these dynamic processes, thinking about Congress not by focusing on short-term and static partisan advantages but by assessing long-term dynamic processes, we gain a general sense of how and why surprising upheavals such as the Republican Revolution occur. We also learn to focus less on great men and more on the underlying dynamics that help generate and constrain great leadership and in the process change the structure of politics.

Our approach will be to understand the historical processes shaping contemporary politics by looking at Congress through the lenses of three theoretical perspectives. First, we will employ a social choice or microeconomic perspective, which sees the revolution as a predictable stage in a natural and ongoing cycle of organizational and partisan change in Congress, a cycle generated by the strategic ways in which politicians and parties pursue governing power. Second, we will employ a social structure or historical-sociological perspective, which sees the revolution as a product of post-industrial societal tensions and public frustrations that overwhelmed a Congress and governing party still oriented toward industrial-era politics. Third, we will employ a cognitive or social learning perspective, which sees the revolution as an experimental phase in the effort of politicians and citizens to discover principles and strategies by which to resolve post-industrial policy problems and legitimize a new governing regime.

In looking at congressional politics through three distinct theoretical lenses, the chapter proposes that we can understand Congress in much the same way as we understand sporting events such as basketball. To some degree we explain which team wins and which loses by focusing on the nature or logic of basketball as a game and the skills, training, personal goals, and team commitment that players bring to it. Invariably, as we do so, we find that one team initially prepares well and works hard to win, but then with success and time it becomes lax and self-indulgent, while another grows strong, leading winners to lose and losers to win. A concentrated focus on the preparation, strategies, and psychology of teams serves us well as we try to explain a basketball game, but few of us rely solely on these "foreground" issues to fully understand teams' successes and failures. We also look at the background context within which games are played: who has the home-court advantage and has best cultivated such advantage; who has the most at stake in a game and may be most willing to take unusual risks or to break normal conventions, as in "talking trash," in order to gain psychological advantage over another team. Finally, as great teams meet on the court, we invariably consider the philosophies of the game held by the different coaches, schools, and regions of the country: which philosophy is better, a strong defense or an aggressive running offense; which philosophy is outmoded and no longer reflects the realities of a new basketball era; which is innovative and in touch with new strategies and understandings?

In explaining college basketball, or some other sport, we consider each of these factors--the foreground game, the background context, and the overarching philosophies--and then we also look across these dimensions, thinking about their interaction. To what extent, for example, can contextual factors like home-cout advantage, or a new and innovative basketball philosophy, make a winner out of a sure loser? As we talk about these issues, each of us has our favorite set of arguments or theories that we debate with others. We do so partly to explain who has won, or to predict who will win. But we do so also to understand the essence of the game, to gain perspective on how that essence is changing, and to see how and why the game may change again in the future.

We are following a similar strategy in using a multi-theoretical perspective to understand the congressional game and how it changes. Thus the social choice theory is an argument about the foreground of politics--how partisan teams play the game of congressional politics, and how maneuvering and jockeying for power leads first one party to succeed and then another. The social structure theory is an argument about the background of contemporary politics, about how societal and institutional contexts influence the way citizens feel about congressional politics and thus shape the strategies and opportunities available to parties as they seek power. Finally, the social learning theory is an argument about the ways in which the ideas that politicians bring to the game shape their ability to play effectively, enthuse their fans, and not only generate victory but make their victory worthwhile.

The remainder of this chapter presents these three theories, one by one, and then concludes with a short assessment of what the theories, taken together, tell us about congressional politics as we move into the twenty-first century. In presenting these arguments, I ask the reader not simply to respond to them in terms of partisan or ideological preference but to step back, look beyond which "team" you prefer, and consider the lessons to be learned about Congress and contemporary politics as we bring into clearer focus the dynamic processes that shape the congressional game. With this understanding, let us turn first to our social choice theory and see how far it goes in explaining the broad patterning of the events of the 1990s, and then turn to the social structure and social learning theories, in turn, building a more layered and intertwined understanding as we go.

The Social Choice Theory

We begin with the social choice theory, which is designed to clarify how the political game normally proceeds in the foreground of congressional life, irrespective of historical context.7 Our concern is with identifying the central goal that drives legislators' behavior, much as the desire to win inspires a basketball team, and with examining how legislators' goal-oriented behavior shapes and alters congressional politics across time. A range of motives exists among legislators, any one of which, separately or in combination with others, could form the basis of a theory of congressional change. These include the reelection motive stressed by Morris Fiorina and David Mayhew,8 the dual goals of reelection and policy stressed by John Aldrich and David Rohde in chapter 12 of this volume, and the multiple goals of reelection, policymaking, and influence examined by Richard Fenno and Barbara Sinclair.9 Yet the goal that most universally runs through the discussion of politics, from Machiavelli onward, and that would seem to encompass the other goals, is personal power. Thus it is the concern for governing power around which Anthony Downs builds his classic study of the ways that politicians' goals shape legislative elections and democratic government.10 It is the concern for personal power that Barry Weingast sees as the basis for reelection activities and norm behavior in Congress.11 The work of Roger Davidson and Walter Oleszek; C. Lawrence Evans and Oleszek; Glenn Parker; and Raymond Wolfinger and Joan Hollinger provides further evidence that members' concern for personal power or autonomy shapes and constrains party loyalty, resource distribution, and reform on Capitol Hill.12 Thus the central goal around which we will build our social choice theory of Congress is the quest for personal power.

Our strategy is to specify the logical ways in which legislators' pursuit of power shape the organizational politics of Congress. Microeconomic theorists argue that the pursuit of profit by individuals and firms ultimately leads to national economic cycles of boom and bust. Does the pursuit of power by legislators and their parties likewise lead to predictable patterns of congressional change? Do such patterns provide a plausible explanation of the contemporary upheavals in Congress? To address these questions, we will first lay out our social choice theory. This theory argues that the pursuit of power by members and their parties generates recurring cycles of partisan alternation in Congress. We will then look at how well the theory explains contemporary developments.

Congress and the Quest for Power

The foundation of our social choice theory is that the quest for personal power by individual legislators leads them to seek power positions and resources within Congress that provide influence over national policymaking.13 In the pursuit of personal power, members organize into partisan teams composed of like-minded members who would use power to serve similar policy objectives. The majority party will control the major power positions within the legislature, such as committee or subcommittee chairs and the Speakership; it will also oversee the organizational resources of the assembly, such as office assignments and staff, and it will largely determine congressional rules and procedures. For these reasons, and in ways discussed more fully by Aldrich and Rohde in chapter 12, the majority's dominance of institutional power and resources gives it the upper hand in policymaking and governance.

Being in the majority provides members with the chance to exercise personal power by becoming committee or party leaders, by skillful using resources distributed by the party, and by benefiting from rules and procedures that aid majority party policymaking. To attain personal power, members thus must work together to develop political strategies and legislative successes that enable the party and its members to gain public support and consolidate control of the assembly.

The efforts of legislators to gain personal power through service in the majority party involve a special paradox. Members' ability to work together in pursuit of majority party status requires a centralized party leadership that can coordinate their activities. Such coordination helps the party to develop a coherent campaign strategy designed to win a legislative majority, address the central policy problems preoccupying its members and supporters, and demonstrate its effective governing capacities in order to retain power. To ensure effective coordination, a party may want to limit the number of "power positions" and powerful legislators, so that undue resistance to party policy and electoral strategies does not emerge among autonomous power-wielders within the party. Yet the rank-and-file party members will push for the creation of numerous power positions such as committee or subcommittee chairs, and for special resources such as staff, so that they can have real influence on policy. Such influence renders service in the majority a rewarding experience and also allows members to stress significant personal accomplishments in reelection campaigns. Moreover, the majority party itself will need to spread organizational positions and resources somewhat widely in order to draw upon the expertise and energy of members in crafting the details of its policy programs and communicating the programs to constituents. The party also will have incentive to distribute positions and resources widely, so that the resulting incumbent advantage helps the party reelect its members and maintain its hold on power. Doing so, however, carries great risks for the party.

The success of individual members in gaining power positions and resources brings policymaking and electoral benefits to the party but also some considerable detriments. For example, the success of members in gaining extensive staff allotments not only helps them perform constituent service, potentially aiding both their reelection and the party's retention of power, but also can enable them to prepare and push bills that party leaders might find objectionable. Similarly, gaining a committee or subcommittee chair may provide a member special advantage when running for reelection, aiding the party's hold on majority status, but it also gives him or her an opportunity to push constituent interests that could undermine the party's program. As members gain such power positions and resources, and the autonomy such success can bring, their personal policy preferences and distinctive pressures of their constituents may push them away from the party's policy stances, thereby undermining party coordination and limiting the ability of the party to campaign or govern as an effective team.

The pronounced tension between centralized party power and autonomous personal power generates long-term cycles of organizational and partisan change in Congress. These cycles result from the contrasting personal calculus and political strategies of majority and minority party members.14

The Cycles of Congressional Change

After cooperating to win majority status and consolidate party control of the legislature, members of the majority party naturally push to divide up significant power resources among themselves so that they can all benefit from the fruits of victory. They will thus support the creation of increasing numbers of formal and informal power positions within the legislature. They will lobby for greater personal resources such as office staff and travel allotments. And they will seek to establish rules within the party caucus and legislative chamber that respect the personal prerogatives of members. In pursuing these various efforts, they in turn fragment the structure of centralized party authority and undermine the majority party's capacity for internal coordination. These developments weaken their party's ability to respond to new policy problems or political circumstances and can thereby undermine public satisfaction with the party's governing success. Yet the decline in enthusiasm for the party itself will appear offset by the growing security of party incumbents who use their increased autonomy and resources to build incumbent advantage in home districts.15

In contrast, members of the minority party have far fewer power resources to divide among themselves and significant incentive to support centralized coordination in order to battle with the majority over control of the assembly. Of course, their party may have suffered such a large reduction when it lost control that a rapid return to majority status appears unrealistic. This can constrain minority party members from an immediate focus on cooperation and party loyalty. But as their sojourn in the political wilderness lengthens, minority party members are far more likely than members of the majority to constrain their desire for immediate autonomy and focus on how best to cooperate in gaining majority party status, since that is their only real avenue to meaningful personal power. They will thus increasingly accept some degree of centralized party coordination.

As the minority party challenges the majority, the latter will appear invulnerable owing to the success of its members in winning reelection, but appearances will be deceptive.16 The fragmented and uncoordinated nature of majority party governance, which helps generate incumbent advantage, also generates festering policy problems in the nation and a growing sense of governing crisis. The electorate, in response, increasingly focuses on assessing the governing capacity of the majority party rather than the personalized benefits received from its members. It is, after all, a party's ability to use institutional power to respond to policy problems and govern effectively that justifies its hold on majority status. Citizens thus will not indefinitely support majority party legislators simply because they ensure the delivery of benefits from programs that address "old problems." Rather, they will consider punishing majority party legislators for current policy failures.17 This reaction against the majority party will then be assisted by the strategies and actions of the minority.

The out party, sensing the vulnerability of the majority, will use its centralized capacities to coordinate a national election campaign and to focus its candidates on a clear, unified, and coherent party agenda designed to address governing crises and emphasize its capacity to govern. It also will seek to highlight and magnify particular policy problems and perceived crises, even to the point of ensuring policy immobilism that helps to foster such problems. Meanwhile, the majority party will look to the incumbent advantage enjoyed by its members in order to assure itself that the minority party challenge will be fruitless. Its overconfidence will be reinforced by the vested interests that party members have in maintaining the fragmented status quo within Congress, so that they ignore growing public hostility to their party.

Faced with these circumstances, frustrated voters will revolt against the majority party and install the minority in power, doing so in a manner that appears sudden and unexpected but that is in fact a natural consequence of the ways in which members and parties pursue legislative power across time. The old minority party then will have its opportunity to address societal problems and consolidate institutional control. Buoyed by its momentum and the initial loyalty of members, it will almost certainly experience early policy successes. But the underlying issue is whether the new majority party can reform the legislature in ways that reduce the internal fragmentation that the old majority party had built into organizational rules and arrangements. If the new majority party can implement centralizing reforms appropriate to its governing tasks, it may be able to sustain majority status and operate as a powerful congressional party for some time, perhaps several decades, before the power quests of its members erodes its centralized structure. If it fails, it may squander its opportunity and allow the opposing party to regain institutional control. Should the minority party itself remain weak and unable to rally, a cross-party coalition of factions may dominate Congress. The resurgent party, or factional coalition, then would face its own challenge in developing a governing structure that could address societal problems and sustain it in power. In time, any successful governing party or coalition would face magnified tensions between its need for centralized power and the desire of its members for autonomy, experience debilitating organizational fragmentation, and confront an unexpected and surprising minority party challenge.

The success of majority party legislators in fragmenting congressional power, combined with the willingness of minority party legislators to accept centralized party guidance, builds long-term cycles of partisan or factional alternation into the organizational life of Congress, according to our social choice theory. How well does this argument account for the upheavals of the 1990s, particularly the coming of the Republican Revolution?

The Revolution as a Cyclical Stage

Seen through the lenses of social choice theory, the Republican Revolution can be explained as a classic product of the recurring cycles of organizational change. The current organizational cycle of Congress began with electoral upheavals of the 1960s and centralizing reforms of the 1970s that solidified liberal Democratic control. The 1980s and early 1990s were a period of fragmentation and growing immobilism, when the popularity of Democratic incumbents as constituent servants masked growing disenchantment with the party's governing capacities. The sudden and surprising defeat of the Democrats in 1994 was a result of the public's long-term unhappiness with the party. This unhappiness came forth in full fury and produced the defeat of the party's most visible and vulnerable incumbents, at a time when the Democrats had proved unable to address the critical governing items that they had promised the nation in the 1992 elections, such as changing the welfare system and implementing national health care, even when joined by a Democratic president. The defeat was unexpected because politicians and political analysts alike had focused on the incumbent advantages the Democrats enjoyed and discounted the public's growing frustration with political gridlock. The defeat was aided by the efforts of the Republicans to pursue a coordinated campaign strategy that used party resources effectively and presented a compelling image of a party prepared to govern cohesively in pursuit of an agenda widely supported by its candidates.

From the perspective of social choice theory, the brilliant electoral strategies of Republican leaders such as Gingrich were a skillful response to the opportunities afforded them by career ambitions, organizational fragmentation, and policy immobilism within the majority Democratic Party rather than the machinations of a rare political genius. The early organizational innovations and policy successes of the Republican Party were natural consequences of the internal cohesion it had developed in its pursuit of majority status and of members' concerns to act on its governing mandate. Subsequent factional conflict among Republicans resulted, in part, from the natural reemergence of personal ambitions and power pursuits within a majority party, and from frustrations with the realities of governing in a complex policymaking environment.

But the factional conflict was also a consequence of the failure of the party, particularly in the House, to enact reforms that would institutionalize a centralized authority structure. Leaders granted such centralized authority could manage conflict and pursue strategies that would sustain and consolidate the revolution. Rather than decisively strengthening the Speakership, the Republicans enacted limits on service as Speaker that substantially weakened party leadership. Instead, they relied on the personal power of Gingrich, the good will of members, and debts owed him by members and committee chairs. In addition, rather than streamlining the committee system in ways that might make it a more effective policymaking instrument and less a vehicle of member ambitions, for example by strengthening the budget committees and expanding their capacity to constrain and prioritize spending across the federal budget, the Republicans largely kept the old system in place, making changes that were mainly cosmetic and that did little to aid decisive action on their new agenda. The Republicans thus would face a difficult task in consolidating their control, particularly given the electorate's close division between Republicans and Democrats.

The social choice theory of organizational cycles seems to go a long way in accounting for the sudden and surprising nature of the Republicans' defeat of a long-term majority party, yet it also has its limits. Why, at their moment of victory, did the Republicans not follow through and implement real reform, choosing instead to undercut the very centralized leadership that had "brought them to the dance"? Why did they maneuver, moreover, in behalf of constitutional changes such as term limits and budget constraints that would seem to limit their own power as a majority party?18 Why did the Republicans themselves so rapidly become the object of public scorn? And why did factional problems emerge so rapidly at the highest levels of leadership activity, so that the Republicans' governing capacities were thrown into serious question despite their great electoral victory?

The social choice theory, focused as it is on the general patterning of congressional change irrespective of historical context, cannot satisfactorily account for these distinctive characteristics and problems of the 1994 revolution. To do so, for reasons illustrated powerfully by Steven Smith and Gerald Gamm in chapter 11 and Joseph Cooper in chapter 15, we need to shift our conceptual focus to background factors and examine the social conditions within which it occurred.

The Social Structure Theory

As we shift from the foreground of congressional politics to the background, we will consider how Congress's power struggles and organizational cycles are shaped and altered by the societal conditions within which they occur. In doing so, we will be taking a sociological approach to Congress.

A strong sociological tradition exists in studies of the historical development of Congress. It is exemplified notably by Nelson Polsby's argument that societal modernization generates growing demands on legislatures and induces organizational specialization and institutionalization as they respond, a pattern he demonstrates for the U.S. House of Representatives.19 We also have insightful sociological analyses of congressional politics during specific eras.20 Thus James Sterling Young demonstrates how agrarianism, regionalism, and popular suspicion of government generated a passive, factionalized, and constrained early Congress. Woodrow Wilson argues that social changes after the Civil War strengthened the governing role of a centralized party-driven Congress and pushed the nation toward congressional government. Joseph Cooper and David Brady highlight the ways industrialization and growing careerist politics produced a crisis of adaptation in the early-twentieth-century Congress that undermined strong parties and crippled congressional government. And Theodore Lowi charts the ways that advanced industrialization in mid-century helped create a bureaucratized and clientelist politics that he called "interest group liberalism," solidifying committee government and subsystem politics within a weakened Congress.

Our concern is to assess whether changes in social structure during the contemporary period are having an equally profound impact on Congress and its party politics, and whether this shift in context can thereby help us better understand the Republican Revolution. This issue requires us first to identify the fundamental changes occurring in the contemporary era and to consider their potential significance.

The Post-Industrial Transition

Historical sociologists have argued that the most critical change among advanced industrial democracies from the 1950s onward has been the move to a post-industrial society driven by a high-tech economy, dependent on technological innovation, and dominated by service-based employment.21 The issue facing such nations is whether the policy programs and governing arrangements created to manage industrial-era problems can adapt to this new world.

During the advanced industrial era of the early twentieth century, as the work force was employed in blue-collar mass-production industry and subject to periods of severe economic dislocations, democracies such as the United States created extensive social service programs. These programs were designed to supplement the health and retirement benefits that blue-collar workers received through union contracts with employers. Governments also created "safety net" programs such as price supports for the industries. Governments created these programs because large numbers of specialized workers, along with stable manufacturing and agricultural sectors, were essential to the industrial production that generated strong national economies. Such nations also created large bureaucracies to implement the programs and generated political processes such as interest group liberalism and subsystem politics that sustained support for the programs. They also solidified class-based party systems that designed and oversaw the operation of the service programs.

According to social structure theory, the move to a post-industrial society introduces policy problems and political pressures that the governing arrangements inherited from the industrial era cannot address.22 Although the post-industrialist economy creates high-tech jobs that employ a highly educated and specialized workforce, it also erodes the security of citizens as the new post-industrial employment sectors reduce or eliminate the social benefits provided workers by the union contracts of the industrial era. These citizens turn to government, which is already committed to providing safety nets, and expect it to replace and expand the lost benefits.

In addition, the educated citizens of the post-industrial era expect the national government to address a broadening array of quality-of-life issues overlooked in the industrial era--from racial discrimination to gender equality to consumer protection to environmental regulation to quality education, and the list goes on. These "post-materialist" demands put enormous fiscal pressure on the government, pressures not fully offset by growing economic productivity, and also push government into cultural controversies over the values that an activist government should support.

Two political arrangements inherited from the advanced industrial era exacerbate these problems. First, government reliance on expensive and impersonal bureaucracies to implement post-industrial programs further magnifies their cost and accentuates perceptions of cultural insensitivity. Second, electoral rules and interest-group politics entrench pre-existing political parties in power, despite their preoccupation with programmatic positions adopted in the industrial era, inhibiting the rise of new parties that might address the new economic and cultural issues.

Social structure theory suggests that citizens faced with such circumstances will question the legitimacy of their governments. In particular, they will turn against the democratic institutions most responsible for making public policy, and against the traditional parties. Although the severity of public hostility will vary with the boom and bust cycles of national economies, somewhat declining in good times, the public's growing disenchantment with governing institutions eventually should produce a breakdown in democratic government.

This breakdown will occur not because post-industrial citizens are anti-democratic but because the institutional and political arrangements inherited from the industrial era do not provide them with adequate mechanisms with which to generate and legitimate new policy directions and governing regimes. The antiquated structures and procedures of a passing era are instead likely to cripple the capacity of citizens to convey their genuine policy preferences and political loyalties to their elected representatives, leading them to question such democratic procedures. No more vivid illustration of this argument is needed than the crisis over the selection of the new president in the weeks following the 2000 elections, which gives dramatic demonstration of just how debilitated twenty-first-century politics may be when regulated by antiquated procedures, from an eighteenth-century electoral college to nineteenth-century judicial procedures to twentieth-century punch cards, throwing the legitimacy of the new president into doubt.

Congress and the Crisis of Legitimation

The social structure argument suggests that disenchantment with the legitimacy of governing institutions should be an integral part of contemporary American politics and that such disenchantment should focus, in particular, on Congress and its two parties.23 The public would be concerned with Congress because of its powerful role in national policymaking, a role greater than that of national legislatures elsewhere. In addition, as Morris Fiorina argued eloquently in Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment, the electoral and organizational politics of Congress--including the rise of careerist politicians, the prevalence of constituent service activities, engrained norms of seniority, the limited governing capacity of congressional parties, and the veto power of committees--have made it the institution most constrained by industrial-era clientelist politics, and by safe incumbents who benefit from such politics.24 These developments make Congress the national institution most pressured to continue industrial-era policy strategies and reinforce the inclination of citizens to turn their fury against it.

Most importantly, Congress suffers because it is controlled by parties still rooted in industrial-era politics. Because the Democratic Party created the service state, and thus is the party most constrained by interest group liberalism and clientelist politics, public hostility focuses first and foremost on it. This hostility provides strategic opportunities for short-term Republican challenges. But social structure theory questions the long-term capacities of the Republican Party, or any industrial-era party, to solidify public support. Each party will be too beholden to its own industrial-era clientele groups, too blinded by industrial-era programmatic positions, and too compromised by the behavior of its own incumbents to address the problems of post-industrialism in innovative ways.

As we look at the contemporary Congress from a critical sociological perspective, we see an institution out of sync with the emerging post-industrial society and prone to a severe crisis of institutional legitimacy. Power struggles and partisan shifts may be proceeding in the foreground according to normal cyclical patterns predicted by social choice theory. Looking at Congress solely through social choice lenses, we might conclude that nothing truly serious was occurring on Capitol Hill, other than the normal alternation of partisan elites that we occasionally expect. But historical sociologists, looking through the lenses of social structure theory, see the Republican Revolution as a more momentous development.

The Revolution as a Product of Post-Industrial Tensions

The Republican Revolution of the past six years, as seen from a critical sociological perspective, has been a consequence of the growing societal tensions associated with post-industrialism and the legitimation crisis those tensions necessarily generate. In the preceding decades the Democratic Party had held firmly to its orthodox programmatic orientation, the protection and expansion of Social Security, while otherwise failing to provide innovative leadership. This failure was demonstrated in soaring deficits and in the continuance of festering problems with the environment, poverty, crime, and other quality-of-life concerns. With it came the public's growing disillusionment with Congress and its governing party, and the attendant doubts about their governing legitimacy. As a party pursuing power and seeking electoral support, the Republicans embraced the public frustration, gave it public voice, and rode it to power.

The Republican attack began in the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon chided the "credit card Congress" and wasteful Democrats and impounded funds that had been enacted by the Democrats in a constitutionally prescribed manner, threatening to upend the balance of constitutional power between Congress and the president, before the courts forced him to retreat. But the concerted assault came to the fore in the 1980s within Congress itself, led by young Republicans such as Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott. In ways outlined in chapter 2 of this volume, the Republicans highlighted the misdeeds of the Democrats, from Speaker Jim Wright's questionable use of book royalties to members' bounced checks in the House Bank, as a way to underscore the sense of a governing party and Congress that were corrupt and illegitimate at the core. To address the problems, they proposed term limits on members, constitutional constraints on Congress's budgetary power, and strengthening the presidency (the institution Republicans had dominated for most of the previous forty years) by granting presidents the line-item veto. And they also proposed the defeat of the governing Democrats. These tactics and proposals, attacking not just the policy positions of Democrats but the constitutional authority and governing legitimacy of Congress itself, struck a chord with the public, to a large extent reflecting and magnifying rather than creating public opinion. Coming at a time when the Democrats were vulnerable because of their internal fragmentation, the Republican attack swept the majority party from power in dramatic fashion, appearing to shake the foundations of congressional politics and to mandate dramatic change.

Ironically, and as social structure theory would suggest, once in power the Republicans became victims of the legitimation crisis they had helped to fuel. Early on, as they sought to organize Congress, the party's call for term limits on members, which lost momentum once it became the majority party, became transformed into pressure within the party for imposing term limits on the Republican Speaker and committee chairs in the House, as a way of demonstrating to the public the party's sincerity about reform. Thus did their attack on the institution boomerang, limiting their own capacity to put in place a governing structure that would help them pursue broad-scale governmental change.25 Meanwhile, as discussed by John Hibbing and James Smith in chapter 3, the public continued to be suspicious of Congress and politicians in general. In part this suspicion extended to the Republicans because their earlier investigation of the ethical problems of Democrats (as in the scandal over bounced checks) had also tarnished many of their own colleagues. But the public's wariness of the Republicans had been magnified by the doubts the party had cast on Congress as a governing institution. If Congress was truly as corrupt and outmoded as the Republicans had suggested, it was not clear that they could really improve matters. Citizens thus granted little leeway to the new congressional majority party, particularly as it turned away from term limits on members themselves.

When the Republican Party shut down the government in a budgetary struggle with the president in late 1995, and then proved unable to negotiate with the president because of the weak authority granted to its leadership, the public saw the fiasco as an illustration of the Republicans' own governing incompetence, and the momentum of the revolution stalled. Thereafter, ethical problems associated with Speaker Gingrich, combined with the move of House Republicans to impeach President Clinton despite his public support, deepened citizen disenchantment with Republican governance. It was only the absence of a viable alternative party capable of forcefully moving Congress beyond the Democratic era that kept the Republicans in control.

From a critical sociological perspective, then, the Republican Revolution serves both as a demonstration of the powerful tensions emerging with post-industrialism and as proof of the inability of Congress and the existing congressional parties to address the tensions. This perspective, articulated by Ralph Nader during his 2000 presidential bid, sees the parties and Congress as illegitimate governing instruments destined to lead the nation further astray. Social choice theory then adds the prediction that Republicans' consolidation of their majority will generate renewed pressures toward organizational fragmentation and increased governing problems. The interaction of internal congressional dynamics and external societal tensions seem likely to generate a magnified legitimation crisis, increasing the threat to representative democracy.

These concerns raise serious questions. Is there any model for understanding contemporary politics that might suggest a way to avoid institutional collapse? Is there some ameliorative process at work across the foreground and background of congressional politics that we are simply missing as we look through the lenses of social choice and social structure theories? Moreover, might the Republican Revolution be a part of this process? These questions suggest that we step back and consider whether there is a broader integrative pattern linking these foreground and background worlds, a shift in which might transform the outcome. Let us now look at Congress through the lenses of social learning theory.

The Social Learning Theory

Our goal in turning to social learning theory is to examine how the ideas of citizens and politicians help shape congressional politics and to consider whether new ideas can facilitate the adjustment to a new political era. A cognitive perspective asks that we study Congress by becoming aware of the belief systems and learning processes that characterize society across time and by seeing Congress and its parties as participants in societal learning.

Central to the dominant scholarly conceptions of social learning, particularly as developed by Gregory Bateson and Geoffrey Vickers, is the perception that individuals and groups develop understandings of the world that they share with one another in order to operate effectively.26 Each generation must develop a realistic understanding of how best to balance personal and collective well-being within its particular historical conditions. Insofar as it does so, its members can compete effectively in pursuit of personal interests at the same time as they address collective social problems and construct viable societies. As the world changes and ideas become outmoded, the ability to accomplish such personal goals and public purposes declines. The solution, from a social learning perspective, is for a new generation to engage in experimental learning of new ideas appropriate to new circumstances. As they discover such ideas and integrate them with orthodox perspectives essential to societal continuity, a more viable social paradigm emerges that can facilitate societal well-being and effective governance.

Our concern here is with what a learning perspective might tell us about the capacity of Congress to respond to post-industrialism and with the role of the Republican Revolution in that process. This requires us first to consider more closely the nature of social learning.

The Process of Social Learning: Crisis, Experimentation, and Paradigm Shift

All of us have experienced the process of social learning in our lives. As an example, think back to sports as a metaphor for understanding politics. Occasionally we see teams that fail to adjust to new circumstances, such as the adoption of the three-point shot in college basketball, and thus lose regularly. The team's coaching staff understands the school's social culture and recruiting strengths, but the coaches learned the game before the new rules were envisioned, so they are committed to an older, more conservative philosophy of basketball. Frustrated after a several losing seasons, anxious fans demand change, and college administrators search for a new coaching staff. The college may have to experiment with several coaching arrangements, introducing new members who embrace a more aggressive basketball philosophy while keeping some existing coaches, before it discovers a staff whose approach effectively balances a respect for the program's historic strengths with new ideas about how best to play the game. Once the school finds such a staff, the players learn new strategies of play, and excited fans learn to appreciate the three-point shot. Such a process of social learning undertaken across several years--by administrators, staff, players, and fans--can rejuvenate support for basketball on a campus.

Social learning theory argues that the significant role that ideas and learning play in our private lives, as illustrated here by basketball, also can be seen in politics.27 An institution such as Congress may have governing problems, not just because of debilitating power struggles or entrenched interests, but because of outmoded thinking. The ideas or social paradigms that dominate congressional politics may once have worked, but times change. Those who learned about politics in the previous era may be so accustomed to thinking within the old paradigm that they fail to comprehend that society is changing and oppose efforts to experiment with new ideas. A social crisis would then lead groups of citizens to demand action and to support ambitious politicians who are willing to experiment and change.

As with finding a successful coaching staff, it may take time, a series of experimental shifts in leaders and programs, and the creative combination of new ideas and orthodox perspectives to find a viable paradigm. It also may take a new generation of politicians and social activists, drawn to service in Congress because of its great constitutional power, who challenge existing arrangements and push new policy perspectives.28 As the new generation experiments with innovative ideas and constructs a new approach that appears to work, Congress and the nation experience a paradigm shift that can reshape politics and society as powerfully as a new philosophy of basketball can reshape campus sports.

Extensive change in governing paradigms is necessarily slow, in part because of the difficulty of restructuring politics in the midst of complex structures, anachronistic rules, and entrenched alliances--but also because social learning itself is a slow process. It requires moments of crisis and recognition of problems, both of which can focus attention on the critical issues, and also incremental processes of experimentation and assimilation.29 The reliance of Congress on popular elections to select its members helps to make it sensitive to social problems and to the occasional upheavals in the public's partisan loyalties, which signal deep societal tensions and crises. The deliberative nature of the committee system and the institution's overall decision-making processes facilitates the informed and methodical reconstruction of paradigmatic understanding in response to crises.

Actual paradigmatic shift comes in phases of innovation followed by assimilative retrenchment, as new ideas break forth amidst crisis and then are integrated into pre-existing understandings. These phases bring with them segmented and partial paradigm shifts: Congress and the nation experiment with some ideas central to a new era, see their value and limits when institutionalized in governing strategies, and move on to new problems and paradigmatic adjustment. This pattern of phased and segmented transformation of paradigms can be seen in the response of Congress and its parties to post-industrialism, with the Republican Revolution being one such phase of experimental learning.

Congress and the Politics of Renewal: Responding to Post-Industrialism

Starting in the 1950s, when the post-industrial transition first began to emerge, we see incremental phases of a paradigm shift across decades of experimentation and assimilation. During the 1950s Congress was still dominated by southern Democrats elected in a segregated political world and was characterized, as it had been since the late 1930s, by a deep resistance to social activism, with the exception of Social Security and occasional increases in the minimum wage. There were few signs of the strong partisan leadership necessary for broad-scale policy innovation. Congressional policymaking depended, instead, on a conservative coalition of southern Democrats and northern Republicans committed to the status quo. Congress truly seemed immune to new ideas, social learning, or a transformative response to post-industrialism.30 But in fact it did change and respond.

In the 1960s, activated by the influx of a new generation of northern Democratic liberals and presidential leadership from two former members, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Congress broke its policy immobilism and implemented a broad range of programs designed to address post-materialist policy concerns--including affirmative action for racial and ethnic minorities and women, health care for retired and displaced citizens, environmental and consumer reforms to protect our quality of life, and federal aid to education. This period of expanded activism, highlighted in Sarah Binder's statistical analysis of postwar growth in policy agendas in chapter 13, laid the foundations for a post-materialist paradigm that moved the nation beyond issues of social security and responded broadly to social movements and citizen protests of early post-industrialism.

In the 1970s the Democrats enacted a wide range of reforms, designed to reconstruct their congressional party so as to limit the power of entrenched southern Democrats and ensure the party's sustained commitment to the new agenda. They also joined with reformist Republicans to experiment with new congressional rules and structures that would protect the policymaking authority of Congress in the new era. In doing so they created an innovative new congressional budget process to help Congress maintain fiscal integrity as it pursued its new agenda.

The Reagan Revolution during the 1980s pushed Congress to reassess and reaffirm the extent of its post-materialist commitments and to experiment with new revenue strategies aimed at ending the economic stagnation that had arisen in a time of expanded spending. It also brought a new generation of southern Republicans into Congress and reinforced ideological shifts within the party toward a more socially conservative stance. This growth of Republicanism in the South had begun in response to the Democrats' embrace of civil rights legislation in 1965, which came in the face of the opposition of powerful southern congressional Democrats and led many white southerners to abandon the party.

As Congress entered the 1990s it had in many ways become a new institution, which had responded to post-industrialism in ways that would have seemed inconceivable in the mid-1950s. Although it had not embraced a post-industrial paradigm that addressed the full range of problems posed by the new era, Congress had moved the nation in incremental and segmented phases toward new ideas about what government could do and how it and its parties should implement those ideas. In this process, reformers had shown that the parties were not as entrenched in industrial-era alignments and policy perspectives as social structure theorists had surmised. As additional proof, in the early 1990s, led by a new Democratic president who sought to combine the pursuit of post-materialist programs with fiscal policies that could sustain economic growth, congressional Democrats abandoned a long-term fascination with deficit spending and embraced a commitment to balanced budgets.

Left unaddressed by congressional Democrats was their undue reliance on the federal bureaucracy to implement activist programs. During the 1980s and early 1990s, many state and local governments--Democrat and Republican alike--had experimented with new ideas about how to "reinvent government" and avoid excessive bureaucracy. Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore brought this new perspective to the national government in 1993, with the new Democratic administration focused particularly on new "entrepreneurial strategies" for "reinventing government."31

These entrepreneurial strategies involved continued government commitment to activist programs such as welfare and public health, but they also utilized the private sector to run some aspects of such programs and implemented incentive systems taken from private industry to redesign the government bureaucracies that would oversee them. They also included devolving to states and localities responsibility for the implementation of key social programs and requiring that citizens take significant responsibility for their own personal well-being.

Congressional Democrats, who had done much to address key post-industrial issues, approached these new ideas cautiously and stymied efforts by the Clinton administration to experiment with them in areas such as health care and welfare. These "old" Democratic reformers, elected in the 1960s and 1970s and now heading key committees and subcommittees, continued to support more traditional, bureaucratized approaches to social policy. They did so, moreover, at a time when citizens were increasingly frustrated by the inability of the government to rein in its bureaucracy. The Democrats' failure to support Clinton's experiments with entrepreneurial reforms provided the congressional Republican Party with a historic opportunity to push new entrepreneurial strategies of its own and become a major player in this next phase of postindustrial experimentation and paradigm shift.32

The Revolution as a Phase in Experimental Learning

Characterized by greater generational turnover than the governing Democrats, and thus more distant from New Deal and Great Society ideas about government, the congressional Republican Party had by the early- to mid-1980s come to contain a growing number of new members willing to challenge existing assumptions about government.33 With backgrounds in private industry and state legislatures, these young Republicans had their own ideas about reinventing government, accepting the need for social programs but often supporting more radical entrepreneurial strategies than had Clinton and Gore.

Although the Republican Party continued to be attached to traditional policies, including support for business and low taxes, these new concerns came to the fore of the party's policy agenda. Most critically, the party balanced its attack on Congress and the congressional Democrats with innovative proposals for policy reform, so that its candidates did not simply oppose existing programs but had constructive strategies to propose for improving them. As congressional Republicans mounted their 1994 campaign, issues such as welfare reform became core elements of the Contract with America and constituted much of what made it innovative, defining the differences between the congressional parties in some distinctly new ways.

Seen through the lenses of social learning theory, what is important about the 1994 election is that it revolved around a choice between the Democrats' bureaucratized approach to social programs and the new entrepreneurial approach of congressional Republicans. The Republican victory can be seen as signaling the electorate's frustration with the congressional Democrats' outmoded perspectives and its willingness to risk experimenting with the Republicans' new direction. The election thus was not just a stage in the normal, cyclical alternation in parties, nor just a product of post-industrial tensions, though both helped make it possible; it was also a phase in the process of experimental learning whereby the nation was incrementally recrafting its governing regime. It was the opportunity to experiment with new ideas and programmatic strategies--with new philosophies of the game--that impassioned the Republican activists, particularly Newt Gingrich, and constituted their contribution to national governance.

Once in power, the Republicans faced the difficulty of learning to govern after forty years as the minority party while simultaneously pursuing their vision of governmental change.34 Undermined by a weak leadership structure, by inexperience with the responsibilities of majority party status, and by internal divisions, the Republicans made critical missteps that squandered their opportunity to institute fundamental alterations in national government. Yet when the party sought common ground with the president and various Democrats, as on welfare reform, telecommunications restructuring, and the revamping of agricultural policy, congressional Republicans achieved victories that served to actualize their entrepreneurial agenda. Such accomplishments helped the party to demonstrate the promise of its new paradigmatic shift and to provide citizens with a reason to maintain it in power, despite a concerted Democratic counterattack in the 1996, 1998, and 2000 elections.

The Republican Revolution proceeded in an erratic manner, from the perspective of social learning theory, because reassessment of existing paradigms and experimentation with new ideas is an inherently difficult, lengthy, conflictual, and problematic process. The limits of the Republican Revolution, however, should not divert us from recognizing the contribution it has made.

With the defeat of a long-term governing party and the move to new governing strategies, the Republicans helped break the sense of paralysis that existed in American politics in the early 1990s and helped to focus the nation on vital issues of deep concern to the citizenry. In doing so, they greatly spurred the process of paradigm reassessment and reconstruction, to such an extent that in the 2000 elections congressional Democrats touted welfare reform. Congressional Republicans had moved the public dialogue so far, in fact, that reform of Social Security, long unmentionable in American politics, was an issue in the presidential election.

Most critically, as the congressional Republicans faced the opportunity and responsibilities of governing on a sustained basis, which they had not held, in truth, since the 1920s, they came to see more clearly the strengths and contributions of Congress to national governance, and even came to defend its prerogatives. They asserted the constitutional role of Congress in annual negotiations with the president, and they asserted their right to impeach a president, drawing on powers that a generation earlier they had denounced when used against a Republican president, Richard Nixon. Calls for congressional term limits vanished from party platforms, the push for constraints on congressional authority decreased, and members appeared to increasingly appreciate the balance to the presidency that Congress provided. Although Republicans were still struggling to find a vision of Congress that could mesh with their entrepreneurial policy agenda, the struggle increasingly focused on ways to build on and reinforce its strengths, such as deliberative policymaking in committees, instead of emphasizing its flaws as a justification for reducing its institutional power and constitutional prerogatives. In this sense, the Republican Revolution served to demonstrate just how critical to representative democracy it is for political parties to alternate in power within legislative assemblies, so that they all will appreciate the complexities, strengths, and contributions of representative government and will testify in behalf of such assemblies to their diverse supporters.

With the movement toward new policy perspectives, and the growing appreciation of Republicans for congressional government, the 2000 elections focused less on the adequacy of Congress as a policymaking institution and more on the principles and strategies that should govern the nation's policy response. This shift surely constitutes a further step toward a viable post-industrial paradigm and the relegitimation of Congress as a governing institution.


Congress is a dynamic institution continually being reshaped by cycles of partisan learning and regime change. For a time it may be dominated by one party or factional coalition, by entrenched societal interests and institutional arrangements, and by an overarching philosophy or governing paradigm. But across time governing groups become overconfident of their mastery of electoral and organizational politics, societal change upends the support bases of the entrenched regime, and innovative ideas and experimental learning allow a new generation of partisans to open pathways to policy responsiveness and institutional renewal. The Republican Revolution is a classic instance of these processes at work, as was the rise of liberal Democratic reformers a generation earlier. As Congress and its parties respond to these processes in the contemporary era, they adapt the nation to post-industrialism and incrementally address the issues of governing legitimacy that confront them.

In this watershed year of 2000, enjoying the longest peacetime economic expansion in American history, perhaps we can allow ourselves to consider whether this forty-year process of experimentation and governing innovation within Congress might have contributed to this moment of peace and prosperity. We expect history to have its surprises just around the bend, testing the nation's resolve, creativity, and learning capacities anew. Problems with debilitating ambitions, antiquated procedures, and entrenched interests continue--moderated by waves of reform and change but still capable of inserting themselves destructively into congressional politics and national life. The policy dilemmas raised by post-industrialism are serious and continuing challenges, magnified by a process of globalization whose consequences for our nation we cannot hope to fully foresee or control. The crisis of legitimation that post-industrialism poses for democratic institutions is a persistent threat, and it is reinforced by our policy dilemmas and partisan animosities. In the face of these concerns, we cannot be sure that our policy experiments and institutional adjustments are adequate to the post-industrial challenge.

What we know at this point is that we have adjusted our governing perspectives during these decades and that, despite the bitter partisan battles that have come with the experimentation and shift, and to some extent because of them, our society is as prosperous and productive as ever. We also know one other thing: that Congress, the parties, and the electorate are capable of reassessing governing strategies, experimenting with new ones, learning innovative approaches, and addressing societal problems. To appreciate this capacity, we must attend to the conceptual lenses through which we examine Congress and craft multiple theoretical perspectives that can aid us in looking beyond momentary personalities and short-term stalemate to see the dynamic, historical processes at play. In doing so, we must bring to Congress the common-sense judgment we bring to daily life, taking care to focus on the motives and strategic behavior of participants in the foreground, on the shifting background contexts, and then ultimately on the critical ways in which the ideas that participants hold about politics and society shape their strategies and actions.

As we do so, crafting social choice theories to analyze the foreground, social structure theories to interpret the background, and social learning theories to comprehend the role of ideas, we see an overall pattern that no one of our theories could fully illuminate, and that helps us understand how Congress can constructively respond to societal problems. Through these multiple lenses, we see the contest for governing power that ensures partisans will highlight societal problems as they challenge for control of Congress. We see the dynamic societal changes that generate new citizen demands and policy challenges. And we see the coming of a new generation of legislators, social activists, and engaged citizens who push Congress to experiment with fresh ideas, address the pressing policy challenges, and solve societal problems.

Examining the contemporary Congress through these multiple lenses, we see an institution responding to the problems and opportunities of post-industrialism--gradually, incrementally, and partially, but also in sustained and consequential ways. The concerns to which Congress has responded, though perhaps too limited in number and imperfect in their resolution, are significant ones, and they include such seemingly intransigent problems as racial segregation, gender inequality, poverty among the elderly, urban pollution, budget deficits, economic restructuring, and welfare dependency. Although Congress has not tackled these issues alone, and at times it has exacerbated them, it ultimately has contributed to the experimental learning that helped to address them. This capacity of a political institution to contribute to social learning in a sustained and consequential fashion, and in a manner ultimately controlled and shaped by a nation's citizens, is no small accomplishment.

Time will tell whether Congress has helped us learn enough of the right things, and adequately assimilate them with the enduring truths inherited from past generations, to redress the problems of post-industrialism. Insofar as we and Congress have failed in our learning efforts, we should recall that the essence of experimentation is the ability to learn from error and try again. Perhaps that realization will encourage us to confront the remaining problems and to see Congress as a legitimate participant in democratic governance as we approach the challenges of the new century.


1. William F. Connelly and John J. Pitney Jr., Congress' Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994).

2. Joseph Cooper, ed., Congress and the Decline of Public Trust (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1999), and John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes toward American Political Institutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

3. Walter Dean Burnham, "Realignment Lives," in Bert Rockman, ed., The Clinton Presidency (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995).

4. For an overview of the Republican Revolution and Gingrich's perceived role in it, see Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein, Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996).

5. For a revealing look at Gingrich's own take on these matters, see Newt Gingrich and Marianne Gingrich, "Post-Industrial Politics: The Leader as Learner," The Futurist (December 1981): 30-32.

6. Walter Dean Burnham, "Pattern Recognition and 'Doing' Political History: Art, Science, or Bootless Enterprise?" and Hugh Heclo, "Ideas, Interests, and Institutions," both in The Dynamics of American Politics, ed. by Lawrence C. Dodd and Calvin Jillson (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1994).

7. On social choice theory, see William H. Riker, Liberalism vs Populism (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1982), and Kenneth A. Shepsle and Mark S. Bonchek, Analyzing Politics: Rationality, Behavior, and Institutions (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).

8. Morris P. Fiorina, Representatives, Roll Calls, and Constituencies (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1974); Fiorina, Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); and David R. Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

9. Richard F. Fenno Jr., Congressmen in Committees (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), and Barbara Sinclair, Legislators, Leaders, and Lawmaking: The U.S. House of Representatives in the Postreform Era (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

10. Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957).

11. Barry R. Weingast, "A Rational Choice Perspective on Congressional Norms," American Journal of Political Science 23 (1979): 249.

12. Roger H. Davidson and Walter Oleszek, Congress against Itself (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977); C. Lawrence Evans and Walter J. Oleszek, Congress Under Fire (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997); Glenn R. Parker, Institutional Change, Discretion, and the Making of Modern Congress: An Economic Interpretation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992); and Raymond E. Wolfinger and Joan Heifetz Hollinger, "Safe Seats, Seniority, and Power in Congress," American Political Science Review 80 (1965): 337-49.

13. Dodd, "Congress and the Quest for Power," in Congress Reconsidered 1st ed., ed. by Lawrence C. Dodd and Bruce I. Oppenheimer (New York: Praeger, 1977).

14. Dodd, "The Cycles of Legislative Change," in Political Science: The Science of Politics, ed. by Herbert Weisberg (New York: Agathon, 1986).

15. Fiorina, Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment.

16. Gary Jacobson, "The Marginals Never Vanished," American Journal of Political Science 31 (1987): 126--41; and Thomas E. Mann, Unsafe at Any Margin (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1978).

17. This argument reflects the "retrospective voting perspective" developed by Key and Fiorina in their study of presidential elections. See V.O. Key, The Responsible Electorate (New York: Vintage, 1966), and Morris Fiorina, Retrospective Voting in American National Elections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

18. For a more extensive discussion of this paradox, see Oppenheimer, "Abdicating Congressional Power," in Congress Reconsidered 6th ed., ed. by Dodd and Oppenheimer (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press).

19. Nelson Polsby, "The Institutionalization of the U.S. House of Representatives,"American Political Science Review 62 (1968): 144--68.

20. See James Sterling Young, The Washington Community, 1800--1828 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966); Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, reissued, 1973); Joseph Cooper and David W. Brady, "Toward a Diachronic Analysis of Change," American Political Science Review 75 (1981): 988--1006; and Theodore J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism (New York: Norton, 1979). Other important historical analyses that reflect the influence of social context include Elaine Swift, The Making of the American Senate (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996) and Eric Schickler, Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the U.S. Congress (Princeton: Princeton University Press, forthcoming).

21. For discussion of the "legitimation crisis paradigm" within sociology, see Edward W. Lehman, The Viable Polity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992); for a forceful statement, see Jurgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon, 1973).

22. See, for supportive analysis, Haynes Johnson and David Broder, The System (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996); see also President Clinton's assessment of this period in Joe Klein, "Eight Years: Bill Clinton and the Politics of Persistence," in The New Yorker, October 16--23, 2000, 206--9.

23. Dodd, "Congress, the Constitution, and the Crisis of Legitimation," in Congress Reconsidered, 1st ed. (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1981).

24. Fiorina, Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment, 2nd edition.

25. For a discussion of the ways in which term limits on the Speaker, and related factors, helped create a weakened leadership structure, see Ronald M. Peters Jr., "Institutional Context and Leadership Style," in New Majority or Old Minority? ed. by Nicol C. Rae and Colton Campbell (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999); see also Dodd and Oppenheimer, "Revolution in the House: Testing the Limits of Party Government," in Congress Reconsidered, 6th ed..

26. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972); and Geoffrey Vickers, Value Systems and Social Process (London: Tavistock, 1968). For a useful application of social learning theory to political science, see Peter Hall, "Policy Paradigms, Social Learning and the State," Comparative Politics 25 (1993): 75--96. My application of social learning theory to politics here, following Hall's lead, restates it in the language of philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. See Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970).

27. For my earlier application of social learning theory to American politics see Dodd, "Congress, the Presidency, and the American Experience," in Divided Democracy ed. by James A. Thurber (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1991), and Dodd, "Political Learning and Political Change," in The Dynamics of American Politics.

28. Dodd, "A Theory of Congressional Cycles," in Congress and Policy Change, ed. by Gerald Wright, Leroy Rieselbach, and Lawrence C. Dodd (New York: Agathon, 1986).

29. John W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984); and David R. Mayhew, America's Congress (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

30. See James MacGregor Burns, The Deadlock of Democracy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963); and Samuel P. Huntington, "Congressional Responses to the Twentieth Century," in The Congress and America's Future, ed. by David B. Truman (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965).

31. On the emergence of this entrepreneurial perspective and its importance for Congress, see Dodd, "Congress and the Politics of Renewal," in Congress Reconsidered, 5th ed., ed. by Dodd and Oppenheimer (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1993).

32. For a general statement of the powerful influence that antiquated institutions may have on new historical eras, see Karen Oren and Stephen Skowronek, "Beyond the Iconography of Order: Notes for a 'New Institutionalism,'" in The Dynamics of American Politics.

33. Michael Berkman, The State Roots of National Policy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991); and Douglas R. Koopman, Hostile Takeover: The House Republican Party, 1980--1995 (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996).

34. Richard F. Fenno Jr., Learning to Govern (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1997); and David Price, The Congressional Experience (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2000), particularly chap. 8.