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(Re)Mapping the centres Membership and State

Trevor Harris

The Decentralization of Power within the U.S. Congress since 1937: Pluralism or Elitism?

Salah Oueslati

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1The American Constitution scatters political power across a wide spectrum of positions within the government. First, it divides power in significant ways between the national government and the various state governments, and further fragments the power of the national government among the three major branches. Historical developments have carried this fragmentation well beyond the framers’ intention. Today, significant decision-making power is located in numerous sub-units of the three branches of government, such as committees and subcommittees of Congress or the middle ranges of the executive bureaucracies. Figure 1 shows how the Framers of the American constitution used two main devices – federalism and separation of powers – to fragment, divide and neutralize political power.

2Among the three branches of the American government, Congress has experienced the greatest degree of decentralization of power. First, this pattern of power fragmentation has led to the decline of party leadership within Congress, the multiplication of power centres, and an increase in points of access for groups and individuals. Second, dispersal of power has gone hand in hand with the proliferation of interest groups or what Berry (1997) has described as "interest group explosion". Allan Cigler and Burdett Loomis argue that "the weakness of political parties has helped to create a vacuum in electoral politics since 1960, and in recent years interest groups have moved aggressively to fill it" (1995, 20). Has this evolution resulted in a further democratisation of the legislative process, or has the power structure tilted further out of balance in favour of organized interests? To attempt to answer this question, we have to distinguish two different periods of the American history, from 1937 to the early 1970s, and from the 1970s to the present.

Figure 1: the fragmentation of the U. S. political system

I - From 1937 to the early 1970s

3Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the first observers to be fascinated by the development of groups in the young American republic and to describe the American tendency to organize in order to participate in the political process; he writes: "In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or applied to a greater multitude of objects, than in America" (de Tocqueville [1835-40], 1956, 95). However, de Tocqueville's enthusiastic vision of the role of groups was not shared by James Madison. The latter expressed very early, in the Federalist Papers n° 10, his concern over the negative influence of factions. Madison was however aware that factions were a necessary evil, impossible and even undesirable to eliminate because he thinks that "the latent causes of faction are... sown in the nature of man." Madison argues that the only solution is to control the effects of faction not to eliminate them, he writes: "There are two methods of curing the mischief of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other one by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions and the same interests."

4As government has grown at all levels, American political scientists, politicians and observers have recognized the central role that interest groups play in American politics. However, opinions are sharply divided, some have concentrated on the capacity of the group system to promote democratic representation, while others have demonstrated the capacity of organized interests to subvert the democratic process to their own benefits.

5Group theorists like Arthur Bentley (1949) and David Truman (1971) traditionally assume that the equilibrium of public interest is achieved by the balancing of different interests. Different interest groups compete with one another in a system where no policy is likely to be completely against any one interest because policies are modified and amended at least partly in a group's favor because of its involvement in the system. It is then claimed that if any one interest was seriously damaged, the people concerned would mobilize and organize to work to redress the balance.

6This theory has attracted countless criticisms. Public choice theorists attack it on the basis that such a system tends to increase public expenditure endlessly. The reasoning here is that "with open access to multiple decision-making centres the potential for log-rolling is enormous. So, if one group, sector, region, state or local government is the recipient of a federal program, all the others will be too". Benefits have to be spread evenly so that "governments end up handing out far too much to various interests which leads to inefficiency and excessive government spending" (McKay, 1997, 267). The critics do not, however, want to see the groups abolished but instead the role of government in economy and society at large drastically reduced. The decline of parties and the rise of single-issue and special interest politics have, according to these critics, led to further fragmentation of the system and increased potential for log-rolling and yet more government regulations and programs.

7Critics on the left argued that there was a bias in the system that some groups were more able to exploit than others (see Ε. E. Schattsneider, 1960). Business interests, in particular, are advantaged, while labor, the poor and minorities are disadvantaged. Mancur Olson's book, The Logic of Collective Action, first published in 1965, had a devastating effect on the pluralist assumption of group representation. Olson argued that all groups do not enjoy an equal chance of participating in the pressure system. He demonstrated how some groups, notably small, business-oriented ones, had great advantages in organization, while other groups – mainly those with many potential members and seeking only collective benefits – were unlikely to mobilize. According to Olson, the major obstacle to group participation is the "free rider" problem: "rational" individuals choose not to bear the participation costs because they can enjoy the group benefits whether or not they join. For example, the economically disadvantaged, would never overcome the obstacles to mobilization with the ease of other groups.

8Moreover, the internal organization of Congress favoured powerful well-established groups to the detriment of the public interest. In spite of the decentralization of power within Congress, the "subsystem" excluded outsiders (consumers, minorities, etc.) from participating in the decision-making process. In fact from the late 1930s to the early 1970s, Congress was ruled by a relatively small number of powerful chairpersons. According to Roger Davidson "these committee barons wielded formidable powers, informal as well as formal" (1981, 104). Long careers, low turnover, and the seniority system isolated these committee leaders from the American public. Decision-making all too often took place in closed circles and behind closed doors. An increasing number of critics started to put into question the representative character of congressional decision-making and talked about the formation of subsystems or Iron Triangles.

Figure 1.1: Iron Triangle

9Figure 1.1 is a sketch that shows how the subsystem takes a triangular shape, with one point in an executive branch administrative agency, another point in a Senate or House legislative committee or subcommittee, and a third point in some stable and powerful interest group. This privileged relationship in the field of defence gave birth to the notion of the military industrial complex put forth by President Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address in January 1961. Theodore White gives a good description of how the three partners of the Iron Triangle enjoy mutual benefits:

Political scientists identify in Washington examples of what they call an Iron Triangle — an interlocking three-way association between a well financed lobby (whether be it mining, education, highways, oil or other areas), the congressional committee or subcommittee that makes laws on such subjects, and the bureaucracy in Washington which applies these laws. When these three — the committee, the lobby and the bureaucracy — in a given area all agree, wash each others' hands with influence, information and favours, they are almost impervious to any executive or outside pressures. (White, 1973, 71-72)

II - From subsystem to issue network (advocacy coalitions)

10In recent years, some scholars have argued that while sub-governments continue to exist in some policy areas, "their influence is less pervasive than in the 1940s and 1950s, and the system can no longer be characterized as a loose collection of sub-governments" (see Thomas Gais, Mark A. Peterson and Jack Walker, 1984, 161-186). They argue that this change is partially caused by the rapid proliferation in the numbers and kinds of interests in the American political system. Moreover, the recent structural changes that have taken place particularly in the House, further decentralized power and have made it more difficult than before to maintain such closed and stable systems.

11In the early 1970s, the Democrats introduced major procedural reforms designed to weaken the entrenched power of committee chairpersons and speed up the legislative process:

  • In 1970 the House ended non-recorded teller voting and switched over to electronic voting on roll calls.
  • In 1973 committee meetings were opened up to the public.
  • In 1975 all nominees for chairperson were subject to an automatic secret ballot by caucus members.
  • Subcommittees were greatly strengthened and increased in number, and they were allocated extra staff. Furthermore, a subcommittee "Bill of Rights" (1973) liberated subcommittee chairpersons from the control of the chairpersons of full committees.

12In the Senate where individualism has always characterised senatorial behaviour, relatively modest reforms were adopted. They provided senators with increased staff resources which had contributed to their independence from committee and party leadership. These reforms have accelerated and accentuated the trend toward fragmentation and dispersal of power:

  • Subcommittees have become the leading initiators and drafters of legislative measures. As a result, power and initiative have shifted from committees to the much greater number of subcommittees.
  • As a large number of individuals acquired more power within Congress, points of access and influence for interest groups have increased.

13In addition, the increases in the staff and the major role they play in drafting, introducing, negotiating and analysing bills and amendments for committee and subcommittee members have resulted in further multiplication of centers of power. Indeed some believe that members depend too heavily on these "unelected representatives" because they are unable to cope with the new demands on their time and energy (see Malbin, 1980). In the Senate the growth of committee staff began in the 1950s and was a direct result of the dispersal of power to junior senators, a process that was initiated by former majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson. The socalled Johnson Rule of the 1950s assured every Democratic senator of at least one good committee assignment (Malbin, 1981). This "atomisation" of power within Congress has paralleled the explosion of interest groups. The latter have more points of access, but they have also to lobby a greater number of congressmen to get something accomplished.

14It is undeniable that the structural changes in Congress and the rise of public interest groups have made the policy-making system more open, more conflictual and highly participatory. Public interest groups have been able to overcome what Mancur Olson (1965) calls "the dilemma for collective action" and tried to counterbalance the power of business interests. Numerous political scientists showed that there exist a variety of ways in which nonmaterial benefits can be important in overcoming the collective action dilemma. James Q. Wilson (1973, 1995) pointed not only to material, but also "solidary" and "purposive" incentives. Robert Salisbury (1969) focused on the role of individual entrepreneurs in creating groups and offering potential members selective incentives (not always material) to join. In recent years many studies show that growing complexities of the market place, technological change, and the changing nature of competition have led to the break-up of policy sub-systems in a great number of issue areas. Moreover, internal division within the business community creates opportunities for public interest groups to make alliances with powerful interests, thereby creating the possibilities of increased representation through coalitions (see Heclo, 1978; Bosso, 1987; Jenkins-Smith et al., 1991; Berry, 1993).

Figure 1.2: Issue network or advocacy coalition

15Figure 1.2 shows how divisions among powerful economic interests put one side of the debate in at least a temporary alliance with a broader interest (Consumer). Businesses are generally producers but they quite often find themselves in a position of consumers. One of the most widely cited examples has been the huge subsidies that the federal government gave to American sugar producers in the form of price supports and import controls. American consumers had to support a sugar price roughly double the world market price. During the 1995 budget debates these subsidies were under consideration for cuts. The clash over this issue was not between consumer organizations and sugar producers, it was rather between the latter and large industrial manufacturers of sugar-laden products, like Coca-Cola corporation or breakfast cereal manufacturers. Consumer organizations made a temporary alliance with these two companies to have more clout in Congress (see Bradsher, 1995). According to Frank R. Baumgartner and Beth L. Leech:

Increased economic diversity has created more conflicts within existing policy communities, creating the opportunity for those not so well endowed with organizational resources to forge coalitions based on shared interests. This surrogate form of 'vicarious representation' is an important element of the interest representation process in the 1990s. (Baumgartner and Leech, 1998, 97-98)

16The way the political scientist Andrew McFarland (1987) sees public interest groups is that they are a part of a "civic balance" system of values. He believes that "special interests tend to control particular areas of policy unless public interests are organized. The role of public interest groups in this view, is to intervene in politics to redress the balance of power to the benefit of the public". Jeffrey Berry (1993) has the same idea of public interest groups serving as a counterforce for private interests and he thinks they have effectively challenged the political power of big business since the 1960s. According to him, because there are many influential elites in America, each group has a tendency to counterbalance the power of the others. Consequently, no group can dominate the policy system and one should rather talk about "minority rule", where each organized minority enjoys some degree of power in public policy-making. An organized minority has the power to disrupt the policy-making process, which results in a more open and participatory system. Today policy-making has moved away from closed sub-governments and is best described as taking place within "issue networks". Coalitions within these networks involve numerous groups and they are not stable as each issue tends to create a new coalition. The membership of these policy networks is fluid and agendas constantly shifting and thus the policy-making system is more open, more conflictual and highly participatory. The system of interest group representation is thus far from frozen or static; even if it is not without bias, is constantly evolving and capable of adjusting to new societal developments. The success of the new social movements in generating public support in the areas of civil rights, women's rights, consumer rights and the environment, demonstrates that the pressure system is or at least could be open and responsive to the demands of diffused interests.

III - The 1990s: "More of the same"

17The American system may certainly be open and accessible, but its policies are hardly neutral nor are public benefits equally distributed. Since money still plays such a central role in policy-making, it has to be acknowledged that public interest groups have not been successful in reducing its influence. Short term victories and policy changes may be credited to public interest advocacy, but long-term major policy changes can hardly be labelled as being achieved by these groups. So many social groups are manifestly left outside of the mainstream system of representation that it is difficult to support the view that such a system is neutral or unbiased. Public interest groups that claim to represent the underrepresented or the unrepresented have in fact a staff and membership made up of professional, suburban, upper-middle-class income groups. Ironically, an increasing number of conservative groups also identify themselves as public interest groups and claim to represent the average citizen. The example of the National Taxpayers Union, which seeks to lower taxes illustrates the contradiction of groups that claim to represent the underrepresented and at the same time support measures that would have negative consequences on an important segment of the population, and more particularly the recipients of government programs that may be cut or eliminated because of reduced tax revenues (see Schlotzman and Tierney, 1986).

18The democratisation of the legislative process did allow a great variety of interests to be represented. Groups representing women, minorities, environmentalists, anti-nuclear power activists, and many other diffuse interests did indeed sometimes prevail, however, those groups generally represent the middle and the upper-middle classes, not the lower ones, and even if a majority of Americans take part in the group system those with higher social status are much more involved than others (Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993; Verba et al., 1995). Business and members of certain professions enjoy several and insurmountable advantages for mobilization when compared with groups that defend diffused interests, as Olson demonstrates. The former are the best financed and the best prepared to adapt to new changes.

19The reforms adopted by Congress in the early 1970s have shown the capacity of organized interests to reap the benefits of a new situation. With the opening up of committee meetings and legislative deliberations, Congress has become more responsive to outside interests; lawmakers can no longer take decisions behind closed doors or enjoy the anonymity of unrecorded votes, but this reform did not have any impact on ordinary citizens' behaviour. Polls reveal that the electorate is not better informed about legislative action (see Tedin and Murray, 1979). Organized interests, however, have taken full advantage of this reform; their lobbyists can easily identify the lawmakers they have to influence and as Hrebenar writes,

carrying the influence battle far beyond supplying information and encouraging the representative to support their preference, interest groups are hamstringing members of Congress through judging the office holder not on overall record but on the single test of a one-time vote. Fearing election reprisals, representatives are choosing to avoid decisive actions. (1997, 237)

20Therefore openness does not necessarily mean policies that represent the national interest. The increasing intensity of interest group involvement and the rise of PACs, makes it difficult to develop comprehensive and coherent programs: as Leroy Rieselbach argues "members may be loath to act at all, preferring to entrench themselves as ombudsmen and claiming credit for serving the district; or they may limit the policy making to 'position taking' — choosing sides on substantive questions only when it is safe to do so" (1994, 107).

21Localism has always been one of the main features of American Congress and as it is put forth by Samuel Huntington: "Congressmen have tended to be oriented toward local needs and small town ways of thought.... The congressman is part of a local consensus of local politicians, local businessmen, local bankers, local trade union leaders, and local newspaper editor" (Brenner, 1983, 6). Congressmen feel that their electoral fates are decided in their states and districts and that it is electorally more rewarding to respond to local interests than to national interests. This feeling exacerbates the tendency toward individualized behaviour within Congress. and as T. Mann states "members view themselves first and foremost as individuals, not as members of a party or as part of a president's team" (1981, 53).

22Furthermore, the decline of political parties, the fragmentation of power and the skyrocketing costs of campaigns, place the members of Congress in a vulnerable position as they become easy targets of powerful interests. As Walker states (1991, 20-21), "Democracy cannot be successful without the existence of vigorous, competitive political parties." Political parties are encompassing organizations whereas interest groups favour the fragmentation of the political process and encourage the press of particularistic demands.

23The 1994 congressional elections brought a much more party-oriented Republican majority to the House. Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker, and Dick Army, the new majority Leader, were determined to push through the legislative programme outlined in their Contract with America, and to introduce a number of changes in committee operations. The 104th Republican Congress (1995-96) did manage to reduce the number of subcommittees in substantial ways and to be much more party-oriented, however, as Hrebenar argues: "the Gingrich congress was often right in the hands of a wide range of powerful interests. In that aspect, nothing has changed. The media reported that many of the key pieces of congressionally initiated legislations were written by lobbyists" (1997, 238). Moreover, the leadership of Newt Gingrich was short lived. In 1996 he was accused of a number of ethics charges and was only narrowly elected in 1997. Following the congressional elections of November 1998, his leadership was put into question and he had to resign from his position of speaker of the House.


24After a long period of what Roger Davidson (1981) calls "committee government" that occurred between the years 1937 and 1971, during which Congress was dominated by a small number of powerful committee chairpersons, major developments have taken place both within and outside Congress and have considerably affected its relationship with interest groups. Profound structural changes in the House and to a lesser extent in the Senate coupled with the decline of party leadership further decentralized power within Congress and rendered the legislative process more open and more responsive to a greater number of interest groups. The rise of public interest groups in the early 1960s has added a great deal of pluralism to the interest group system. However, this relative pluralism has left many social groups outside of the mainstream system of representation. First, because the membership of the groups that claim to represent the average citizens is made up of upper-middle-class income groups whose concerns are far from those of the lower classes; second, because interest groups' victories were temporary and short lived and have in no way constituted a real counterbalance to organized interests. Business groups have been the best endowed and the best prepared to take advantage of the further decentralization of power within Congress as they did when Congress was dominated by a small number of committee chairpersons. According to T. B. Edsall (1984), by 1980, even before the Reagan administration, business had achieved virtual domination over Congress. This domination has taken place on the economic as well as the political and ideological levels. One can wonder, like Hans O. Staub, whether the U. S. has entered into an "age of minorities" or, even more dangerous, a "tyranny of minorities."

25In his book, The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), Olson argues that special interests will mobilize consistently at a higher rate than representatives of collective interests, inevitably leading the country into economic decline as the political system is overwhelmed by an increasingly voracious set of interest groups intent on pleading their special cases. The fragmentation of power within the U. S. Congress simply reflects the fragmentation of the American politic al system at all levels, even more, it mirrors the "atomisation" of the whole of American society.


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Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1: the fragmentation of the U. S. political system
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Légende Figure 1.1: Iron Triangle
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Légende Figure 1.2: Issue network or advocacy coalition
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