Power in Congress

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Saturday, January 12, 2002
This was my introduction, as a freshman member of Congress, to how power works on Capitol Hill: Following the lead of the President, a small group of us introduced a measure to extend the term of House members from two years to four. Given its support in the White House, we thought we had a chance for success, so we were optimistic when we approached the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, an awesome and fearsome New Yorker named Emanuel Celler. I was designated the spokesman for the group. How, I wanted to know, did Mr. Celler stand on the bill? "I don't stand on it," he responded. "I'm sitting on it. It rests four-square under my fanny and will never see the light of day." He was right. It didn't. That day I learned a vivid lesson about congressional power-that some individuals have enormous power within the institution either to move legislation forward or to kill it. 

As national attention focuses on Congress these days-on how it deals with economic stimulus packages or domestic security funding-it's crucial to remember that power is not equally shared within its walls. To understand why some proposals make it and some don't, you also have to understand who has the real power in Congress. 

This is not quite as easy as it might seem. For one thing, congressional power shifts over time. In the 19th century, the Speaker of the House had enormous power over the membership, as you can gather from the nicknames of Speakers like Thomas "Czar" Reed or Joseph "Boss" Cannon. In the early 20th century, a revolt by rank-and-file members shifted power to the committee chairmen, and this decentralizing trend was amplified by the post-Watergate reforms of 1974 giving more powers to individual members. In the 1980s and '90s, there was a sense that the decentralization of power had gone too far, and over the past decade the Speaker and his leadership team have once again become more powerful. 

The truth is, though, that power in Congress shifts not only from one era to the next, but from one election to the next-as party strength and committee alignments change-and even from one issue to the next. One proposal might move through Congress because it's the priority of a powerful committee chair or is strongly supported by the administration. Another might move because its champion has a high media profile and the ability to command national support, even though he or she does not serve on the relevant committee. 

What makes Congress different from most institutions is that no one is in charge of the entire body. There is no CEO or person whose desk has a plaque reading, "The Buck Stops Here." There are easily identifiable leadership positions, of course, where the organizational charts tell you that power should reside. Yet despite their stature and their visibility in the media, congressional leaders don't actually have much power to force members to act in a certain way. This is because Congress is highly decentralized, few members consider themselves followers, and the leaders do not have many formal powers to call upon. When he was Senate Majority Leader, Bob Dole would often say that a "p" was missing from his title-that he should have been called Majority Pleader instead. 

Former Speaker Carl Albert used to say: "I have no power but the power to persuade." 

This is because individual members have power, too, and it comes from multiple sources. Obviously, it helps to hold a committee chairmanship or serve on particular committees, such as the "money" committees that in recent decades have become dominant on Capitol Hill. But beyond that, members learn to rely on other strengths. They may be persuasive debaters or securely in command of the facts they need to convince others; they may be well-liked or highly respected for their judgment; they may be adept fundraisers who can help out other members in their campaigns for re-election; they may be media-savvy or especially skillful at gaining support from key special interest groups. Power also rests in the hands of those who have effective political skills-the ability to listen, build coalitions, accommodate different points of view, and make compromises. And sometimes, power grows out of members' accomplishments outside Congress-as Senator John McCain's years as a POW have given him enormous standing on defense issues. 

Whatever its source, power is what moves ideas and legislative proposals along in Congress. The trick-and the fascination-in trying to gauge sources of power is that they are different for every bill. This makes Congress a complex institution, but as Emanuel Celler taught me, sometimes all you need is a moment to learn where power truly lies. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)