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Congress: The People's Branch?

6b. Leadership in Congress: It's a Party Matter

Split personality
Republicans and Democrats in Congress continually battle each other on party lines, even though many claim that the parties are essentially the same.

Is walking the plank dangerous? Certainly, for a pirate. But for a politician, it may be prudent.

Partisanship — or fierce loyalty to one's political party — generally is not admired in the United States today. Many people today call themselves independent voters, and bickering between the parties in Congress is often condemned. But parties are very important in both the House of Representatives and the Senate today. Even though political parties do not play as big a role in elections as they once did, they still provide the basic organization of leadership in Congress.

After each legislative election the party that wins the most representatives is designated the "majority" in each house, and the other party is called the "minority." These designations are significant because the majority party holds the most significant leadership positions, such as Speaker of the House. Usually, the same party holds both houses, but occasionally they are split. For example, from 1983-1985, the House majority was Democratic and the Senate majority was Republican.

Blue Dog Democrats
Coalition groups like the Blue Dog Democrats are trying to bridge the party gap in Congress.

At the beginning of each new Congress, the members of each party gather in special meetings to talk party policy and themes and to select their leaders by majority vote. Democrats call their meeting a "caucus," and the Republicans call theirs a "conference." Next, when each house convenes in its first session, Congressional leaders, such as the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader in the Senate, are selected. And even though the whole house votes for its leaders, the majority party makes the real selections ahead of time behind the scenes when they select party leaders.

House Leadership

Because the House has 435 members to the Senate's 100, House leaders tend to have more power over their membership than do Senate leaders. With 435 people trying to make decisions together, their sheer numbers require leaders to coordinate the lawmaking process. Political parties choose all top leadersip positions.

Speaker of the House. The Speaker is the most powerful member of the House of Representatives, and arguably, the most influential single legislator in both houses. Always a member of the majority party, the speaker's influence depends partly on strength of personality and respect of colleagues, but also on several important powers.

Speaker Hastert
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert must address the media almost daily on issues discussed in the House of Representatives.

The Speaker:

  • presides over proceedings on the House floor
  • influences which bills go to which committees
  • influences committee assignments for new members
  • appoints the party's other leaders

  • rules on questions of parliamentary procedure

The majority leader usually the second ranking member of the majority party, is the party leader on the floor. Often hand-picked by the Speaker, the majority leader helps plan the party's legislative program. Many Speakers came to their positions by serving as majority leader first.

The minority leader heads and organizes the minority party. Because the party has less voting power than the majority party has, this person's influence is usually limited. If the minority party succeeds in the next congressional election, the minority leader could well be the next Speaker.

Senate Leadership

Elbridge Gerry
Elbridge Gerry was an early architect of partisanship. His election to the Massachusetts Senate was aided by redrawing district boundaries to include a majority of his own party members. This practice is called gerrymandering.

The Senate leadership is characterized by its highest positions actually having very little power. By Constitutional provision, the president of the Senate is the Vice President of the United States, who only can cast a vote in case of a tie. The Vice President rarely sits with the Senate, so a President pro tempore is selected to take his place. This role too is largely ceremonial, so the chair is often passed to a junior Senator.

The floor leaders are the real leaders in the Senate, although they generally have less power than do leaders in the House. The majority leader is usually the most influential person in the Senate. He has the privilege of beginning debates on legislation, and he usually influences choices for committee assignments. He shares his power with the minority leader, who leads the other party. Usually the two leaders cooperate to some extent, but the leader of the majority party always has the upper hand.

The major leadership positions — Speaker of the House, and majority and minority leaders in both houses — are based almost exclusively on party membership. Does this system encourage party loyalty above all else in members of Congress who want to get ahead? If that is the case, the impatience that Americans have with "partisan politics" is understandable.

On the Web
Homepage of The Speaker of the House
A comprehensive and frequently updated site about the Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert of Illinois, this website contains public statements and articles written by and about the House Speaker. This partisan, government-run site has a multimedia section where video clips of public ceremonies and clips of public interviews supplement the text.
Office of the House Majority Leader
The Office of the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives (quite a mouthful) operates this website dedicated to blasting the opposition party and trumpeting the triumphs of its own party. Tom DeLay, a Congressman from Texas, is the current Republican House Majority leader. The site's main page may look bland, but the meat of the site is found through a quick internal search engine at the bottom of the page.
House Minority Leader
California Democrat Nancy Pelosi's beaming smile greets you on this page dedicated to representing the minority party in the House. Pelosi is the first woman to hold this position, and the highest ranking woman ever in Congress. This site outlines the Democratic policies in a highly partisan manner and takes jabs at the opposition party. The media center lets you look at issues important to the party that are updated on a weekly basis. Ay carumba! There is a Spanish language version of this site as well.
A Plea in Defense of "Necessary Partisanship"
Party politics can be gritty, ugly, and mean, but maybe the U.S. needs them as much as it needs the Constitution. This article argues in defense of partisanship. Sure, it may seem like a nasty business and both sides blame each other for causing the mess, but maybe the epic struggle between parties is what keeps the country going.
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