“Scholarly Interests: U.S.Congress/State Legislatures”

My scholarly interests were shaped heavily by coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a time of profound change in American society and the world at large, but also a period of considerable stasis and immobilism in our politics. Breakthroughs to the Great Society legislation of 1964-66 had seemed to come only as a product of assassination and presidential aggrandisement. Otherwise Congress and the political system at large seemed unable to respond to societal demands, stuck as academic scholars such as Samuel Huntington and James MacGregor Burns noted in institutional politics and policy visions of an earlier era. The American separation of powers/checks and balances system seemed to reinforce policy immobilism. Nowhere was this problem more apparent than with the Vietnam War.
I responded to this situation in part by wondering how other democratic nations structured and conducted their politics, and whether they faced analogous problems or had found more responsive and effective institutional arrangements than ours. This concern led to a dissertation on the politics of parliamentary democracies which I discuss in my link to comparative politics. In studying the coalition politics of such nations, I concluded that a parliamentary system, while having attractive features, provided no magic solution to the problems of democratic governance. Thus my other response  was to focus renewed attention on American politics, particularly the U. S. Congress. My adviser during my year of graduate studies at Tulane (1968-69), John C. Pierce, had served as a Congressional Fellow and encouraged me to apply after I had been at Texas for a couple of years teaching. This seemed a great opportunity to see politics up close, to study political coalitions first hand (as my dissertation had been a quantitative study devoid of field work), and to try to understand for myself why American politics was as stuck and immobilized as scholars, political analysts and contemporary political activists argued.

What a mind-bending experience to be on Capitol Hill in 1974-75 when in fact many of the kinds of reforms that the literature suggested were virtually impossible were in fact implemented in Washington. Previously I had been preoccupied with why ‘the system’ couldn’t change and respond. This perspective is seen somewhat in my monograph, Congress and Public Policy, written almost entirely before going to Washington and published in 1975, while I was a Fellow. But seeing first hand that impossible change was in fact quite possible, my preoccupation shifted and the central puzzle of my scholarly career began to emerge: how are we to understand, explain and foresee political and institutional change, particularly when the ingrained and routinized patterns of politics make change seem improbable if not impossible to contemporary observers.
The solution to this puzzle, it seemed to me, lay not so much in research and data, though certainly more good research is always helpful. Rather, influenced by the theoretical work of Anthony Downs and David Mayhew, I suspected it involved being more critical and discerning about existing political patterns and thinking more rigorously about the dynamic processes likely to upend such patterns. In essence, it required making better sense out of the data and historical experience at hand by ‘theorizing’ in a more systematic manner about the kinds of recurring historical processes that might upend current reality. The real test of such theorizing would come in its ability to foreshadow future events and make sense out of an unfolding reality.
The great German sociologist, Max Weber, writes that politics is a ‘slow boring of hard boards.’ So too is political inquiry, at least in my case. The effort to craft a dynamic theory of congressional politics proved a grueling challenge. When I began this work in the mid-1970s, I expected ‘the book’ to be finished in a couple of years. Instead, a ‘process’ of theorizing and observing and refocusing has now proceeded for more than a quarter century. My ‘method of inquiry,’ for the most part, has been the ‘theoretical essay.’ Depending on what you count, I have produced roughly fifteen such essays over these twenty-five years, the full citations to which are available in my Curriculum Vita.  Generally these essays develop a core argument about some aspect of change, seeking to do so in a concise and parsimonious manner; try to clarify the argument through the use of contemporary historical narrative; and then assess its future implications.


The “theoretical essays” on congressional change have generated four overlapping waves of argument.

1.  The first wave sought to understand how the goals and motives of legislators shape congressional change. My initial theoretical effort, “Congress and the Quest for Power,” (1977) argued that institutional change occurs cyclically as legislators’ power pursuits  fragment the Congress. Its inability to govern then generates periodic institutional crises whose solution requires centralizing reform. Subsequently, in “The Cycles of Legislative Change,” (1983/86),  I refined this argument by differentiating between majority and minority party/faction members, seeing the former as responsible for growing institutional fragmentation and crisis, the later as responsible for pushing towards intra-party coordination, sudden electoral upheaval  and unexpected organizational change. Finally, in “The Theory of Congressional Cycles” (1986) I argued that legislators seek not just power but “legislative mastery.” The quest for mastery involves the pursuit of both organizational influence and personal re-election. This dual pursuit generates a complex cycling of change, with transformative periods of change and organizational stability followed by reinforcing period of reform and routinization. This essay particularly stressed the importance that different generations of Congress-members play in cyclical change.

These essays benefited greatly from involvement in two conferences during these     
years which I helped plan in part to address relevant issues of institutional change. The 
first, held at the LBJ Library on the University of Texas campus in the fall of 1977,  
produced The Presidency and Congress: A Changing Balance of Power, published in 
1979 and co-edited with William S. Livingston and Richard L. Schott. The second, held 
at Indiana University-Bloomington in the spring of 1983, produced Congress and Policy 
Change, published in 1986 and co-edited with Gerald Wright and Leroy Rieselbach. 
Amidst the numerous insights I garnered across these two conferences, the one which 
was most consequential was the need for greater attentiveness in my theoretical work to 
issues of societal context. Also stressed by my graduate students, this admonition by 
various commentators on my conference essays led me to consider how best to address 
context. In part I responded by attempting to work elements of agenda change into the 
cyclical theory, an approach I address in “Woodrow Wilson’s Congressional 
Government and the Modern Congress,” 1987. My primary response to this critique, 
however, was to add a new second dimension to my theorizing, with my emerging 
concern being how context might influence the contemporary Congress.

2.  The second wave of theorizing sought to understand how shifting historical context might shape and alter the cycles of change predicted by the goal-oriented work. Concern with how societal change shapes and reshapes Congress came to the fore most visibly in Congress and the Administrative State, published in 1979, with Richard Schott. There we demonstrated how different types of societal demands that emerged across history influenced how Congress organized itself and performed its roles, and also shaped congressional-executive relations. Seeing context shape and reshape Congress so powerfully in the past, my concern was with whether contemporary change would likewise impact Congress in critical ways.

Grappling with this issue, and having read the work of the social theorist, Jurgen Habermas, I came increasingly to the view that the coming of post-industrialism was generating a broad and socially intrusive array of new policy responsibilities for Congress, responsibilities it was poorly structured to perform. This development, I came to believe, would confront the Congress with a crisis of legitimation, with citizens increasingly turning against the institution, its incumbents, and even the idea of incumbency and legislative careerism. Such externally-driven crisis could complicate the  internal cycles of change, particularly if incumbency itself were upended.

The essay presenting this argument, “Congress, the Constitution, and the Crisis of Legitimation,” was published in 198l. It was followed in 1985 by “Bicameralism in Congress: The Changing Partnership,” with Edward Carmines, which argued that the crisis would have its most severe consequences for the House of Representatives, undermining its historical roles and power and providing an opening for a strengthening of the Senate. “The Rise of the Technocratic Congress” (1989) added the argument that the turn to automated, specialized and staff-based processes of decision-making would not suffice to resolve the crisis of legitimacy, since the fundamental issues were value choices and policy representation which only the elected members themselves could provide in a meaningful fashion.

3.  Together with the cyclical argument, the “legitimation crisis” thesis seemed to foreshadow a dark future for the Congress, particularly for the House of Representatives. Interacting together, the internal and external forces impinging on Congress would seem destined to generate an increasingly fragmented and immobilized institution seen as so illegitimate by the nation’s citizens that they would support drastic alterations destructive of its constitutional powers and sustainability. But was this really true? Or was there something I was missing, in my theorizing, that might qualify these expectations?

In response, I began to focus on a third dimension of politics – the role that ideas and learning can play in institutional change. This  focus first appeared towards the end of “The Cycles of Congressional Change,” (1986) but  became most evident in “Congress, the Presidency and the American Experience,” (1991) and “Political Learning and Political Change,” (1992/1994). These essays argued that the debilitating impact of contemporary context on Congress and American politics occurs in significant part because political participants are caught in mindsets or epistemologies or paradigms of thinking that are outmoded, so that they truly cannot see the deep policy, cultural and value concerns of the emerging post-industrial era.

The answer to this problem, from a learning perspective, seemed to lie in the willingness of elites to recognize their epistemological or paradigmatic crisis and experiment with new ideas about society, politics and policy.  “Congress and the Politics of Renewal” (1993)  argued that a fruitful direction for policy experimentation lay in the ‘entrepreneurial government’ ideas emerging from state governments, with congressional Democrats likely to suffer growing problems, and the Republicans likely to benefit, unless the majority party Democrats pursued such experimentation and risked the embrace of new ideas.

4.  By 1994, the major arguments of the three waves or phases of theorizing outlined above had been published. I was working to bring them into more systematic congruence and demonstrate that the sort of dramatic upheavals and alteration that they portended were in fact reasonable, if not already substantially underway. At this point the Republican Revolution occurred on Capitol Hill – exactly twenty years after my experience as a Congressional Fellow had led me to focus on building a theory of congressional change.

The fourth phase of my work has been to grapple with the extent to which the Revolution reflects the processes I had theorized, and to learn from the Revolution additional and moderating insights.  An initial effort in this direction, “The New American Politics,” was published in 1995, followed by my essay with Bruce Oppenheimer, “Congress and the Emerging Order,” published in 1997 and revised in 2001. My real breakthrough came, however, as I worked during the summer of 1996 to prepare a convention paper on the Revolution, goaded by the pressure of deadline.

Working to make sense out of the three waves of my work, and to relate the arguments to the Revolution, I suddenly came to realize that I had proceeded over these twenty-five years through a kind of natural process of ‘revisualizing Congress.’ I had started initially with a focus on the foreground of Congress – the power game; then I had shifted to the background in which the game was played – the historical context; and then I had focused on the overarching connective principles uniting foreground and background – the ideas and learning processes shared by all participants. Now a key to understanding the Revolution was to use the conceptual lenses crafted over this quarter century to see and assess the Revolution itself, perhaps along the way also revisualizing Congress again in order to update, clarify and learn from ongoing developments. The result of this effort is "Re-Envisioning Congress,” published in 2001, which can be accessed through this website.


In developing and publishing these essays, I have benefited from an unusual opportunity – my role (together with my indispensable side-kick, Bruce Oppenheimer) as co-editor of Congress Reconsidered. The creation of Congress Reconsidered was yet another by-product of the year as a Congressional Fellow, during which I met Bruce and began the discussion which led to the book. Published every four years, in sync with all presidential elections since 1976, Congress Reconsidered is now in its 7th edition, published by CQ Press. Bruce and I have been fortunate that leading congressional scholars have been continually willing to present their original work on the Congress in our volume, so that each edition is composed almost entirely of new essays. The book has stayed in production for a quarter century now due to the strong support it has received from teachers and students of Congress, support for which Bruce and I are enormously grateful.

While not all of my theoretical essays have been published in Congress Reconsidered, several of the most ‘controversial’ and foundational arguments have appeared there first.  The existence of Congress Reconsidered allowed me to pursue the crafting of the essays and their imminent publication, year in and year out, racing against the future while knowing that an outlet for publication was available. I know of virtually no other scholar within the discipline of political science who, preoccupied with theory construction and political change, has enjoyed such a sustained opportunity across a quarter century of publishing. 

It should go without saying, perhaps, that while crafting these essays, I also have pursued other aspects of legislative politics. Early on I focused some considerable attention on the study of the House Democratic party, particularly the whip system, with the relevant work listed in my vita. This work was among the first scholarly efforts to argue that congressional parties were in a process of revitalizing and reasserting their power in the mid 1970s to mid 1980s, foreshadowing the conditional party government perspective that has come to the fore in the past decade. This foreshadowing is seen particularly in “Coalition-Building by Party Leaders,” 1983. Aside from this body of work, Bruce and I together have also given special attention to interpreting the politics of the U. S. House of Representatives. Our essays on the House, published across the seven editions of CR, serve as a running history and critical analysis of its contemporary development.





As my theoretical work on the Congress led me to appreciate the contribution of multiple perspectives on politics, I also became interested in multi-paradigmatic approaches to American politics and political change. To facilitate broad awareness of such multiple perspectives, and to stimulate  conversation among adherents to different approaches, Cal Jillson and I organized a conference on this topic at the University of Colorado in 1992. This three-day conference produced two edited volumes.

The first, The Dynamics of American Politics (with Cal Jillson, Westview Press, 1994), presented sixteen essays focused on understanding the historical development of American politics. Three essays (by Jillson, Burhnam, and Swift and Brady) examined the broad overarching patterns of historical change in America and general strategies for studying them; eight (by Steinmo, Hanson, Greenberg, Skocpol, Aldrich, Edelman, Huckfeldt and Beck, and C. Stone) presented macro and micro interpretations of historical change; (by Mansbridge, Orren and Skowronek, and Dodd) and three provided perspectives on the linkage across macro and micro approaches. The book also included a provocative Foreword by Theodore Lowi on the relationship between political history and political science and a stimulating concluding essay by Hugh Heclo that discussed the way in which the various perspectives in the book, taken together, looked towards an evolutionary perspective on political change.

The second, New Perspectives on American Politics (with Cal Jillson, CQ Press, 1994), sought to identify the key dimensions of contemporary political change and to understand such change using different explanatory perspectives. Three essays (by Manley, Hero and McDonagh) examined the politics of social conflict; three (by Carmines, W. Stone, and Ferguson) examined the role of issues, candidates and elections in political change; three (by Rockman, Kelly, and Quirk and Mesmith) looked at the role of institutional politics; and four (by Kingdon, Gray, McIver, Erikson and Wright, and Skocpol) assessed the impact of ideas, agendas and public policy. The book also included an enlightening Foreword by Nelson Polsby that highlighted a future intellectual agenda for students of American political change, and three concluding essays by Fowler, Shefter and Mayhew that stressed the ways in which broad patterns of contemporary change have been shaped by domestic political entrepreneurs, international influences such as the end of the Cold War, and policy problems and policy waves common to most industrialized democracies.

Helping to organize this conference and to prepare the edited volumes ranks as one of the most stimulating experiences in my scholarly career. While one conference and two books can only make a small dent in the study of American politics, I do believe they helped to demonstrate the dynamic nature of American politics, the rich variety of perspectives on American political change, the value that comes with awareness of the range of perspectives that are available, and the insights that come (particularly as seen in the forewords, introductions and concluding essays) with conversation across interpretive paradigms.


Finally, let me mention here one additional on-going study, a comparative analysis of the Indiana and California state legislatures. Begun in 1983 and yet to be published, this research was initially designed to compare a ‘citizen’ legislature (Indiana) and a ‘professional’ legislature (California). To this end, working with various assistants, I gathered over 150 interviewees with the members of the two legislatures during the 1980s, focused on their home styles, the strategies of re-election, policy making and influence that they most valued, and a myriad of other topics. Just as we finished the interviews in each state, Indiana passed various electoral changes and then California passed term limits. These developments offered me an unusual opportunity for a ‘before/after’ research design, so that I could see not just how two legislatures differed between themselves, but how they each changed in response to internal and electoral reform. Slowed by the need to examine how California changes in response to the coming of a generation of legislators elected in a fully ‘term-limited’ world, this project is now moving towards fruition. Today I have roughly 150 interviews, collected during the 1990s and early 2000s, with one more wave planned following the 2002 elections