Don't Blame Subcommittees

by Jonathan Bernstein

David Frum has a long piece today blaming procedural reforms of the 1970s for gridlock.  Bruce Bartlett and Matt Yglesias both point out that Frum's focus on the rules overlooks the importance of the demise of Southern Democrats, and they are correct as far as that goes.

However, there's something else wrong with Frum's analysis, which is that his timeframe of big important bills and Congressional reform is wrong, which in turn undermines his case pretty thoroughly.  Frum posits a stable set of rules in the 1950s through the mid-1970s, and then another set of rules after "Congress underwent a revolution" in the mid 1970s.  And, he believes, that was the turning point: "It’s hard to dispute: Congress just got a lot more done in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s than in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s."

But in fact, positing Congress with stable rules before and after a mid-1970s revolution doesn't get it right, and Frum's list of bills doesn't quite work, either.

Start with the Senate, because it's easier.  Frum dates the Senate's problems to the reduction in votes needed for cloture, which he claims increased the number of filibusters.  Greg Koger does find some support for this theory, but it is not the only or even the major factor in filibusters, which had already begun increasing early in the 1960s and would spike much later.  In my view, the shift from "filibuster civil rights" to "filibuster a bunch of things" (going on in the 1960s and 1970s) to "filibuster all major things" (beginning in 1993) to "filibuster practically everything" (2009) is much more about the Republican Party, the incentives it provides for Senators, and the (in my view mistaken) general belief by everyone that "filibuster everything" is a successful electoral strategy.  Whatever the causal relationship, however, the point is that the most important changes in the rules and norms of the Senate don't match up with Frum's productive period very well.

But really, Frum's case is in the House, and there he really misunderstands the reform process.  Reform wasn't a one-shot deal in the mid-1970s; it was a process that began with the election of a very liberal Congress in 1958, and began to take effect with the destruction of the independent power of the Rules Committee beginning in 1961.  Before that, the pre-reformed Congress was hardly the picture of efficiency that Frum supposes (and note that only one of Frum's example bills, the interstate highway system, is from the 1950s part of his 1950s, 1960s, 1970s "good years").  Indeed, liberals were up in arms about how backwards and ineffective Congress was, especially when it the liberal Congress elected in 1958 and then the unified Democrat government elected in 1960 failed to pass much of anything.  There's a mythology that Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson  would just sit down over a drink and resolve everything, but in reality Rayburn's Speakership was far weaker the modern Speakers, and no one in the House could  control a committee chair who decided he didn't agree with what the rest of the Democrats wanted to do.

Frum's critique is a familiar one from, of all things, the Jimmy Carter years, when many believed that reform had created a Congress with too much openness and too much decentralization.  Those early observers missed the other side of reform: centralization within the party (instead of the committee) structure.  As Tip O'Neill, Nancy Pelosi, and every Speaker in between have realized, the House is far more efficient now than it was in the pre-reform era.  Yes, it is also far more partisan.  But partisan doesn't mean gridlock, and there's just no question but that the post-1975 House is much less gridlocked than the pre-1962 House was.

Frum is correct that there was a whole lot of major bills passed in a short period of time, but it's really a narrower period than he thought -- roughly 1964 through 1976, after reform was well under way.  And to the extent that Congressional procedures brought that to an and, it's very difficult to find evidence for it in the behavior of the House of Representatives.  I happen to agree with some of Frum's preferences; I would like a campaign finance regime that frees candidates from spending a lot of time raising money, and I'm generally not one who believes that openness is an unambiguous virtue.  But if there's a procedural problem in Congress today that's causing excessive gridlock -- and given that I think health care reform is very likely to pass and that the Democrats were pretty productive last year,  I'm not sure there is -- it's the filibuster in the Senate, and that's not in any important direct way a consequence of 1970s reforms.