Archive | Institutions

David Broder and the Mystical Faith in Leaders

So David Broder read George Packer’s article on the Senate and responds:

Packer does as good a job as I have ever read of tracing the forces that have brought the Senate to its low estate. But he does not quite pinpoint the crucial factor: the absence of leaders who embody and can inculcate the institutional pride that once was the hallmark of membership in the Senate.

Jonathan Chait rightly goes to town:

A more realistic analysis holds that the South’s post-Civil War racial Apartheid system created a highly unusual arrangement in which political parties were not sorted out ideologically—some of the most right-wing members of Congress were Democrats, and many progressives were Republicans. In that atmosphere, party ties had a very weak hold on individual members, especially Senators. Thus it was possible for social norms to encourage cooperation and limit the use of the filibuster to very rare occasions, usually involving civil rights.

I am similarly mystified by this belief that the problems in our political system can somehow be solved by the “right” leaders—the ones who are expected to hue to some golden mean on every dimension: passionate and yet calm, having strong principles but yet still willing to compromise, etc., etc. “Leaders ready to lead,” says Broder. Packer seems also to buy into the notion that once we had “great” Senators and now we don’t:

Ira Shapiro, the former aide, who is writing a book about the Senate of the sixties and seventies, said, “It was a huge loss of the most experienced, accomplished senators being replaced by neophytes. All of a sudden, in 1981, more than half the Senate had been there less than six years.” He added, “The shattering of the great Senate has long-term effects that keep showing up. It gets worse over time, but it just never gets restored.

Blaming bad leaders gets the causes of the Senate’s challenges wrong. Chait and Jon Bernstein are right to pinpoint very different factors. Senate Democrats and Republicans—like their counterparts in the House—don’t agree on much, thanks to ideological sorting and polarization, and, like most people who don’t agree on much, they use whatever tricks they can to get their way. In the Senate, that means holds or denying unanimous consent or filibusters or whatever.

Chait shows a chart of the sharp increase in cloture voting. Here’s another one: the ideological position of the median Senator in each party from 1879-2008 (the 46th-110th Congresses):

There are three things to note in that chart. First, as Chait suggests in the quote above, and Brendan Nyhan has also noted, the era of unpolarized parties is the exception and for the reasons Chait suggests. Polarization is the norm.

Second, there is little support for Packer’s argument that the good Senators were replaced with the bad (conservative) ones, something he traces to an alleged turning point in 1978:

The Senate’s modern decline began in 1978, with the election of a new wave of anti-government conservatives, and accelerated as Republicans became the majority in 1981. “The Quayle generation came in, and there were a number of people just like Dan—same generation, same hair style, same beliefs,” Gary Hart, the Colorado Democrat, recalled. “They were harder-line. They weren’t there to get along with Democrats. But they look accommodationist compared to Republicans in the Senate today

That date does not coincide with any sharp increase in polarization.

A third point is an implication. In an era of polarized parties, it makes even less sense to yearn for “leaders ready to lead.” The “leaders” in the Senate don’t float down from the ceiling, bathed in golden light. They are elected by their respective parties. In an era where the parties are ideologically far apart, guess what they want from their leaders? A willingness to fight for what the party stands for.

Take Packer’s story of the temporary collaboration between Bob Corker and Mark Warner on financial reform. Here are two guys, somewhat moderate, apparently nice, got excited about policy, worked in good faith with each other, got a bill to the full committee. Leaders ready to lead! But then after a month, Dodd pulls the plug on negotiations, thinking no compromise will earn Republican votes. Corker is mad. When the bill gets out of committee, McConnell repudiates it anyway, even though it still contains Corker’s work. Corker himself initially speaks out on the floor in favor of further bargaining and compromise, but then votes for an amendment that would strike the very provisions he and Warner had worked on and ultimately votes against the bill.

This is how partisan polarization and the institutional norms it helps create make short shrift of “leaders ready to lead.”

Blaming leaders also gets the possible solutions to the Senate’s challenges wrong. I find this faith in “leaders who are ready to lead” completely child-like. When my two-year-old can’t do something, he cries and says “Daddy, I can’t do it! Help! Help!” He expects me—all-powerful Daddy—to swoop in and fix things.

Politics doesn’t work how two-year-olds think the world works. In fact, adults typically realize that few domains of life work like my son wants it to. You don’t fix institutions by finding perfect people to inhabit them. Even if such people existed, who is to say that they wouldn’t themselves be rendered imperfect by the institution itself? So you change the rules. You design better institutions.

Madison knew this, even if pundits can’t seem to remember their Federalist papers. You don’t even have to go beyond the one or two that thousands of college freshmen read every year. Here is Madison in Federalist 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

He’s defending the separation of powers, not the Senate, of course. But the point stands: we take it on faith that men are not angels, that leaders are always going to be driven by their own interests. That’s why we’re not two-year-olds. Then we design the institution accordingly.

What the rules should be in the contemporary Senate is an open question. But that’s what people who want a more functional Senate should be talking about. Not wishing for angels.

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The Partisanship of the Governor Doesn’t Matter Much

A colleague recently flagged this paper on a polisci listserv. It seems an important antidote to speculation—e.g., this, from a year ago, by Adam Nagourney—about GOP gains in the governor’s mansion, however likely they may be.

Using panel data from US states over the period 1941-2002, I measure the impact of gubernatorial partisanship on a wide range of different policy settings and economic outcomes. Across 32 measures, there are surprisingly few differences in policy settings, social outcomes and economic outcomes under Democrat and Republican Governors. In terms of policies, Democratic Governors tend to prefer slightly higher minimum wages. Under Republican Governors, incarceration rates are higher, while welfare caseloads are higher under Democratic Governors. In terms of social and economic outcomes, Democratic Governors tend to preside over higher median post-tax income, lower posttax inequality, and lower unemployment rates. However, for 26 of the 32 dependent variables, gubernatorial partisanship does not have a statistically significant impact on policy outcomes and social welfare. I find no evidence of gubernatorial partisan differences in tax rates, welfare generosity, the number of government employees or their salaries, state revenue, incarceration rates, execution rates, pre-tax incomes and inequality, crime rates, suicide rates, and test scores. These results are robust to the use of regression discontinuity estimation, to take account of the possibility of reverse causality. Overall, it seems that Governors behave in a fairly non-ideological manner.

That is from a 2008 paper by Andrew Leigh. Here are gated and ungated versions.

The tendency to treat elections by as a horse race makes it hard to acknowledge that electing a new party may not change policy that much. After all, if policy won’t change much, why should we fixate on who is winning and losing during the campaign? This leads people to overestimate executive power and underestimate how much current policies can be protected by less visible actors, such as legislators, bureaucrats, and interest groups.

Policies, like political institutions, tend to be sticky. That’s hardly a novel point, but it bears repeating.

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Does Executive Experience Make A Better President?

Brad DeLong says:

…nobody who has not served a full term as a state governor or managed a similarly large organization should be supported in any presidential run. FDR and DDE are certainly the class acts of the twentieth century.

Jon Bernstein looks at the Siena College data and responds:

…there’s not much of a difference, but what differences there are tend to suggest that legislators, and not governors, have a small advantage.

Some more elaborated statistical analysis suggest, actually, that prior experiences of any kind have little to do with presidential greatness. Or so argues John Balz in a recently published paper (gated). We discussed an earlier version of this paper here, and there is an ungated pdf at that link. From the abstract:

Overall, there is no evidence that political experience improves the likelihood of strong presidential performance, and even some weak evidence that political experience in certain political positions, most notably mayor and member of Congress, leads to poorer performance. In the end, great presidents are not great simply because they have spent their lives in politics and learned important lessons.

Here are some details:

Time spent as a mayor, a member of Congress, a state administrator, a federal judge or attorney, or a soldier leads to a lower ranking….The largest of these effects is for mayoral service, with each year in office lowering one’s ranking by more than three spots. Since only three mayors ever became president, these findings should be interpreted cautiously.
On average, experience as a diplomat, soldier, and a member of the private sector also decreases a president’s ranking, although the effect is not robust to 95% credible intervals. Experience as a governor, state legislator, state administrator, and general improves ranking, on average, but these effects are also not robust to 95% credible intervals. The largest of these effects is for general, which might be driven by the top-10 rankings of three presidents with long careers as military leaders: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Dwight Eisenhower. It should be remembered that the president with the most experience as a general, Zachary Taylor, was also one of the country’s worst presidents.
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The Future of the Pelosi Speakership

In my final post on the speakership, I’ll discuss what the future might have in store for Pelosi. Will she continue to be a powerful speaker, or is there the chance that her influence might decline?

First, however, I want to recommend a new book on the Pelosi speakership by Ronald Peters and Cindy Simon Rosenthal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics. (I would have mentioned the book sooner, but I just got my copy this past weekend.) It’s the most up-to-date and thorough study of Speaker Pelosi I have read, filled with insights about Pelosi’s governing style, the constraints she faces as speaker, and how her leadership reflects broader changes in congressional politics in recent years. I highly recommend it.

So what does the future hold for Pelosi? It’s probably a safe bet to assume that, with a partisan Congress and a Speaker able and willing to use her power, Pelosi will remain an influential leader, and the office of the Speaker will continue to be as strong (if not stronger) in the years ahead. On the other hand, no speaker is invulnerable. And Pelosi is not universally loved in the House; as NPR reporter Andrea Seabrook noted in March, in the wake of health care’s final passage in the House, “some lawmakers feel stepped on, others a bit sold out.”

As I see it, Pelosi has at least two potential weaknesses that could make it harder for her to achieve her goals or even lessen her authority within the Democratic caucus. (If Democrats fail to retain control of the House after November, of course, her power would be diminished even further: besides losing the speakership, she could potentially face some serious disgruntlement among Democrats, if not an outright challenge for the position of party leader.) These possible weaknesses are:

1. Overly partisan. Though the speaker is the top leader of her party in the House, the Constitution is vague about what the job actually entails (stating only that “the House shall choose its speaker”), and the speakership did not start out as a partisan office, as Ronald Peters documents in his excellent book on the office. Nonetheless, it has become an increasingly partisan position over time, especially in the past few decades, and is arguably as partisan as ever under Pelosi (which Peters and Rosenthal also note in their recent book).

This is a problem for Pelosi for two reasons. First, it prevents her from being able to draw upon Republican votes to help pass bills, forcing her to look for votes from Democrats from marginal districts; these Democrats may be at particular risk of losing reelection if they help Pelosi, particularly on partisan legislation, and may resent being compelled to do so. Second, it diminishes Pelosi’s authority as an officer of the entire House, an important role of the speaker (as I argue in my book). Pelosi cannot be expected to protect the House’s institutional authority, or the rights of all members, when nearly half of those members believe the Speaker does not represent them.

Congress is partisan for lots of reasons, and I don’t expect a speaker to ignore the pressure from her party to be partisan. But as Dan Burns and I have argued elsewhere, leaders can play an important part in ensuring that regular order and procedures are followed in Congress, rather than permit rules to be regularly exploited to help the majority party at the minority’s expense. In other words, they do have some leeway to act in non-partisan or bipartisan ways. Even if Pelosi’s partisanship does not handicap her in the future, it could be a problem if her successor continues her partisan leadership style.

2. Emphasis on personal loyalty. In many ways, Pelosi has substituted party loyalty for personal loyalty as a benchmark to judge House Democrats. As Peters and Rosenthal put it, “in Pelosi’s world, loyalty counts for a great deal” (p. 67).

As I noted in my previous post, this has probably helped her win some difficult votes, if only because she has established a reputation for punishing disloyal Democrats. But it can also be a dangerous tactic. Some Democrats may become resentful if they perceive that only those who are chummy with Pelosi are rewarded, or if they are punished because they are not deemed sufficiently loyal by the Speaker.

Emphasizing loyalty can also force a leader into making unwise political decisions. Perhaps the best example of this was Pelosi’s decision to support John Murtha in his race for Democratic majority leader in 2006, challenging the more popular Steny Hoyer (who was also widely favored to win). Pelosi probably supported Murtha out of a sense of personal loyalty, but when Hoyer won, it unnecessarily raised questions about Pelosi’s judgment and influence.

Two other features of the Pelosi speakership might also be viewed as serious liabilities, though I do not. One is Pelosi’s liberal preferences. Pelosi as a “San Francisco liberal” is a popular epithet among Republicans, especially as a way of encouraging donations (if not votes) from the party faithful. But one can’t forget that Pelosi’s party is also quite liberal; and regardless, she has demonstrated the ability to be a good-faith bargainer with Democrats with whom she disagrees – at least when she needs their votes. Her willingness to let Bart Stupak offer a pro-life amendment to the House version of health care in late 2009, over the sharp complaints of pro-choice Democrats, is a case in point.

Second, as partisan as she may be, Pelosi has at times demonstrated some independence from her party on certain legislative matters. Most notably, in 2007 she pushed for the passage of a resolution condemning Turkey for the genocide of ethnic Armenians in the early 20th century. She did this even though it threatened U.S.-Turkey relations and was not strongly supported by her caucus. However, I argue in my book that speakers are not strict “agents” of their party, as is the conventional wisdom among most scholars. Rather, speakers can exercise leadership on behalf of other concerns besides that of their party in Congress without necessarily endangering their position as speaker. Pelosi’s move was a function of her long-time advocacy for human rights and reflected the concerns of the sizeable Armenian population in California, and it did not hurt her authority within her party.

At this very moment, I think it’s safe to say that Pelosi is at (or near) the top of her game. Her influence in the House is substantial, and she can take credit for helping enact several major pieces of legislation, health care reform among them. But some of the very things that have made her strong – a partisan House which grants many powers to the speaker, an emphasis on loyalty – are also potential weaknesses. If she remains speaker after November, it will be worth watching closely to see if these become more serious threats to her power.

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Pelosi and the Speakership: Interlude

Memorial Day planning has taken up more time than I expected (we’re hosting 7 adults and 3 kids over a four-day period), so my last post on Pelosi and the speakership will be delayed until next week.

Coincidentally, however, last night I happened to see none other than Pelosi herself, at the Sons of Italy annual dinner:


I got to shake her hand, too. But I didn’t get a chance to ask about her “mother-of-five” voice.

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The Power of Pelosi

In my previous post, I made the case that Speaker Pelosi played an important and influential role in the passage of health care reform. But why exactly was Pelosi so influential? What is the secret to her influence in the House, and does it tell us anything about leadership in Congress more generally?

Let me begin with what I suspect most people consider the quintessential model of a powerful congressional leader: Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (here pictured famously pressing his case to a fellow Senator, Theodore Green of Rhode Island).


While Johnson was a legendary Senate majority leader – perhaps best chronicled in Robert Caro’s wonderful book Master of the Senate – his aggressive, at times commanding, approach to winning votes was unusual (and, in today’s Congress, almost certainly not replicable). Party leaders, including speakers, can be quite powerful without necessarily having to do things the Johnson way.

Below are four reasons I think Pelosi is able to exercise so much influence in the House, not only on health care but on many other matters. I welcome readers who disagree or find the list incomplete to offer their own.

1. Formal powers. The rules of the House and the majority party give the speaker considerable formal authority. Her powers include deciding which committee(s) bills are referred to; appointing members of conference committees; chairing (and naming many members of) the party committee which decides committee assignments; and nominating members of the powerful Rules Committee. Many of these powers were granted to the speaker starting in the 1970’s (as documented by Barbara Sinclair, among others), giving Pelosi advantages that many of her predecessors never had.

But while important, formal powers have, I would argue, been greatly overstated as the source of Pelosi’s influence. After all, a speaker has to be willing to use those powers (and not all have), and some speakers have tried but struggled to use them effectively (see e.g. Tip O’Neill in 1981 or Newt Gingrich in his final two years as speaker).

What matters more – what I believe is really the key to what makes speakers powerful – is the same thing that Richard Neustadt famously observed about presidents: their ability to persuade. Formal power may translate into favors or chits that can be traded for votes (e.g. “vote for health care, and the next spot on the Appropriations Committee is yours”), but not all votes can be as easily “bought,” and some may not even need to be.

In this regard, there are two common misconceptions about leadership in Congress, both based on our collective image of Lyndon Johnson. One is that strong leaders don’t persuade: they command. Yes, Johnson did once yell at a Senator, “Change your vote!” (The Senator, J. Allen Frear of Delaware, then did so.) But legislators, like anyone, almost never respond well to being bossed around. The other misconception is that persuasion involves negative tactics (e.g. leaning into a colleague’s face). Sometimes, yes; but what made Lyndon Johnson a master at persuasion was that he knew which tactics worked best for particular situations and could use them equally well. As Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described it, Johnson’s “tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint, the hint of threat…It ran the gamut of human emotions” (Evans and Novak 1966, 104).

This takes us to the second source of power for congressional leaders, including Pelosi: personal traits.

2. Personal traits. I’ve never been (un)fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of Pelosi’s persuasive skills, but I’ve heard of or seen two (both admittedly on the negative side). Pelosi often talks about her “mother of five” voice, which I can only imagine is quite intimidating. And she has the ability to scold without saying a word, as she demonstrated when Congressman Joe Wilson famously yelled “you lie” at President Obama during an address to Congress. Watch her reaction when Wilson makes his remark (starting at the 0:16 mark).

3. Close alliances. Powerful speakers are never alone; they have protégés, allies, and/or mentors who lend them support, advice, and information. Sam Rayburn, for instance, could count on help with gathering votes and information from John McCormack (the party’s long-time majority leader) and protégé Richard Bolling. Lyndon Johnson had what Evans and Novak called the “Johnson Network”: a small group of Senators whom “Johnson could count on…for help” and which “was the source of Johnson’s power” (Evans and Novak 1966, pp. 95-96).

Pelosi herself has a close coterie of allies, including Californians George Miller and Anna Eshoo, who provide advice and will whip members on her behalf if needed. Until his recent death, she also had a close alliance with John Murtha of Pennsylvania (pictured below), a long-time mentor of hers who was an important bridge to more senior and conservative members of her caucus.


By contrast, “loner” speakers can run into serious difficulties. Speaker Jim Wright, described by John Barry in his book The Ambition and the Power as a more solitary leader, was sometimes too suspicious of his party’s whip to rely on his whip counts, and Wright found himself dangerously isolated when he came under an ethical cloud of suspicion (which ultimately led to his early resignation).

4. Reputation. I’m quite certain that Tom Delay, former GOP whip and majority leader, was thrilled to acquire the sobriquet “The Hammer;” it doubtless made many Representatives think twice before turning down a request for help from him. (Few remember or realize that the nickname was originally coined to describe only his assertive fundraising skills, not his style as party whip.) Pelosi is known for being unforgiving towards those who cross her or who are disloyal. Fair or not, it’s probably a very useful reputation to have when seeking the help of lawmakers or asking for their votes.

A reputation does not have to be negative to be a source of power. Not many realize that Delay won the loyalty of his colleagues by providing food in the Republican cloakroom during late-night sessions (as noted in Peter Baker’s excellent book on the Clinton impeachment, The Breach). Pelosi also provides victuals to fellow lawmakers – she famously starts meetings by declaring “first, we eat” – but, in addition, she has cultivated an image of being a tireless supporter for her partisan colleagues. Many can recount the story of Pelosi flying all the way to Hawaii in order to make an appearance at a fellow Democrat’s fundraiser.

Furthermore, as the old saying goes, the perception of power is power. Regardless of whether Pelosi’s leadership on health care reform was truly historic or impressive, all that matters to Pelosi is that people think that it was – for that can only improve her reputation for power, and thus make her more powerful.

No one, of course, is invulnerable – Pelosi included. In my next (and final) post, I’ll discuss some possible weaknesses of the Pelosi speakership, and what the future might hold for Pelosi and the office of Speaker in general.

Next Post: The Future of the (Pelosi) Speakership

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Pelosi and Health Care: How Impressive Was Her Leadership, Really?

With all the exaggerated superlatives we’ve heard about Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an honest appraisal of her leadership is hard to come by. Just how impressive was her leadership on health care? And does it truly put her in the rankings of the “greatest” or “most successful” speakers in American history, as many suggest?

First, let me offer some reasons why Pelosi’s leadership on health care reform was not as remarkable as people claim.

1) Lots of speakers have exercised significant leadership on legislation. In fact, every speaker since Sam Rayburn has provided major leadership on at least one legislative initiative. In my new book on the speakership, I examined 34 histories of Congress and American politics to identify cases since the 1940’s in which a speaker is claimed to have exercised legislative leadership. As the chart below shows, even speakers who wouldn’t make anyone’s top five list of most powerful speakers did at least a few things that subsequent historians believed were worthy of attention.


To provide a more reasonable basis for comparison, since some of these speakers served much longer than others, the chart below shows the average number of cases per year of service. (The average has gone up, but note that Jim Wright’s tenure was unusually short, while Newt Gingrich’s was both short and quite action-packed.)


Regardless of how you do the numbers, the point is that a speaker exercising legislative leadership is, in itself, not especially unusual.

2) Many speakers have won tough votes. Health care was but one of numerous instances in history in which a speaker exercised sustained and aggressive legislative leadership that almost certainly affected the outcome of a vote. One of my favorite examples is Speaker Rayburn’s efforts to extend the military draft in August 1941, which ultimately passed the House by a single vote (203 to 202). At the time, many congressmen and their constituents were unwilling to keep young men in uniform, and a good number were isolationist. To get the draft passed despite this resistance, Rayburn:

  • persuaded President Roosevelt to limit the extension;
  • lobbied legislators intensively, even delaying the vote for a day (on the pretext of a lawmaker’s sudden demise) to buy himself more time;
  • kept lobbying as the bill was debated on the floor, and even during the vote itself; and
  • abruptly ended the vote before any one of a number of legislators had the chance to switch their own votes and kill the bill.

3) Health care reform had help from many party leaders, not just Pelosi. President Obama, for instance, put health care at the top of his agenda and lobbied many key lawmakers (apparently winning over Dennis Kucinich, among others). To pass the bill in his chamber, Senate majority leader Harry Reid managed to forge a difficult and tenuous compromise among liberals and moderates in his party while keeping several Democratic Senators (like Joseph Lieberman) from “going rogue” and killing the bill. In short, Pelosi did not enact health care reform alone.

On the other hand, Pelosi’s leadership on health care was, in some respects, even more impressive than others have given her credit for. To wit:

1) Pelosi delegated little. Unlike in the days of Sam Rayburn, the majority party of today’s House features an extensive collection of party whips whose job is to determine and influence the vote choice of their colleagues. But Pelosi reportedly did the vast majority of whipping on the final bill by herself. And, from what I’ve heard anecdotally from Hill staff, her claim that she “never stop[ped] whipping” on health care was accurate: she was utterly relentless in trying to persuade Democrats to vote for the measure, cornering key “swing” Dems like Bart Stupak whenever and wherever she could. Not many speakers were as good at whipping as Pelosi has proven herself to be.

2) Pelosi faced multiple handicaps. The Speaker lacked several tools available to previous speakers in passing the final version of health care reform. She could not use a special floor rule to shield lawmakers from a direct vote on the final bill. (It was briefly considered but then dropped after the idea faced strong public criticism). Nor could she keep the voting clock open for last-minute arm-twisting, a useful tactic that was discredited when Speaker Dennis Hastert kept the clock open for a record three hours to pass a Medicare prescription drug bill in 2004. And the procedural environment of the Senate meant the Senate bill had to be passed as it was; “goodies” could not be added directly to the legislation in exchange for votes. (A bill of “fixes” was passed separately, but Senate rules limited what that bill could contain.)

3) The final bill passed by more than the bare minimum. If the House had enacted the final version of health care by only one vote, every Democrat who voted for it could have been accused of being the one responsible for its enactment. That’s not a good place to be if you’re an electorally vulnerable Democrat. (Just ask Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky.) By passing the bill by a larger margin, Pelosi avoided this danger – a noteworthy feat when one considers just how many Democrats who voted for the bill would have preferred not to.

On balance, I think the latter three points, plus other things we know about Pelosi’s role in the legislative process (such as her strong and successful push to avoid passing a more limited bill, which she dismissed as “Kiddie Care”), indicate that she clearly is an influential speaker: her leadership was critical to the final outcome (whether you agree with that outcome or not) and was impressive enough to be included in future histories of Congress and public policy. Nonetheless, her actions should be evaluated in comparison to what other speakers have done, and are expected to do, as part of their job; and in this respect, I do not think they were themselves sufficient to put Pelosi on a list of the greatest speakers in history.

Her leadership on health care does raise another question, however: how did Pelosi pull it off? Or, to put it more broadly, what is the source of Pelosi’s influence? I’ll turn to this topic in my next post.

Next Post: Why is Pelosi Powerful?

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Pelosi and the Power of the Speakership

My thanks to the Monkey Cage for giving me the chance to guest-blog on a topic of particular interest to me: party leadership in the U.S. Congress and, in particular, the Speaker of the House.

A lot of folks are paying attention to the office of Speaker these days, thanks to its current occupant, Nancy Pelosi – the first woman (and the first Italian-American and Californian) Speaker who is widely credited for pushing major health care reform through Congress. But most of the talk has been about whether Pelosi is among the “greatest,” “most powerful,” or “most successful” speakers in history (as Sarah Binder astutely predicted on an earlier Monkey Cage post). While this may be a fun topic to discuss around the D.C. water-cooler, it (a) has been debated with little historical perspective, and (b) has ignored other interesting and provocative questions raised by Pelosi’s leadership.

In my future posts, I’ll provide some historical context for understanding and judging the Pelosi speakership, and also explore what Pelosi’s actions tell us about leadership in Congress more generally. I’ll offer answers to the following questions:

  1. Was Pelosi’s leadership on health care as impressive as pundits claim, especially when compared with what other speakers have accomplished?
  2. If Pelosi is as powerful a speaker as people say, why is she so powerful? Does her influence tell us anything more generally about what makes congressional leaders powerful or weak?
  3. What might the future hold for Pelosi and the office of Speaker? What vulnerabilities, if any, does Pelosi have?

To answer these questions, I will draw from some of my own research, including my new book on the Speaker, as well as my recent thoughts and observations about the Pelosi speakership.

So, on to the Speaker!

Next Post: Evaluating Pelosi’s Leadership on Health Care

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Putting Obama (and Ryan Howard) in Context

Before we get to Obama, consider Ryan Howard:

Howard is not part of the game’s elite. Although there is no doubting his power, his home run output is helped by his stadium. According to, 16 percent more home runs were hit in games played at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park than in the Phillies’ road games from 2006 to 2009.
Similarly, Howard’s mammoth R.B.I. totals stem from the on-base skills of the batters preceding him. Over the last four years, 1,993 men have been on base for him, the highest figure in baseball. During that time, the Kansas City Royals’ David DeJesus has driven in a similar percentage of runners, with 18.3 percent to Howard’s 18.8 percent. But because DeJesus hits leadoff for the lowly Royals, and Howard hits cleanup for the mighty Phillies, DeJesus’s R.B.I. totals pale in comparison.
Howard does no such favors for the players hitting behind him. During his first two full seasons, he was usually followed in the Phillies’ lineup by the punchless Aaron Rowand, leading to a large number of intentional walks. But once the team began putting sluggers in the fifth slot — Pat Burrell in 2008, and a mix of Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez in 2009 — Howard’s free passes plummeted, taking his on-base percentage with them. Over the last two years, Howard’s on-base percentage, .349, barely exceeds the .343 mark that a league-average hitter would have posted in Philadelphia.

That is from Dan Rosenheck’s discussion of whether Ryan Howard is worth $125 million over the next 5 years. One of the useful things about the “Moneyball” approach to baseball is that it puts players in context—their ballparks, the hitters before and after them, other players, etc. And then our understanding of those players may change dramatically.

The same exercise must be done for presidents. Steven Schier nicely makes the case here, drawing in particular on the work of Stephen Skowronek. Here is Schier:

Skowronek claims that the context in which a president enters office develops “expectations that surround the exercise of power at a given moment; the perception of what it is appropriate for a given president to do” (1997, p. 18). He argues that context shapes many elements of a president’s power, because external factors shape the extent to which the president can utilize power resources. The contextual atmosphere surrounding the president has many implications on the utility of tools at his disposal, including that of presidential persuasion.
Barack Obama benefited from a favorable context upon entering office, with large majorities of fellow Democrats willing to follow his agenda. Obama’s eventual decline in public approval resulted from a bad economy and a controversial agenda that limited his support largely to the category of fellow Democrats. The context for Obama’s governance encompasses ideological and partisan “sorting” among the public and legislators, producing political polarization that has limited Obama’s persuasive success to fellow partisans. This impeded but failed to derail his agenda during his administration’s first fourteen months. Obama’s public support fell during this time, but not to levels eclipsing his ability to persuade congressional Democrats in Washington.

Ultimately, to answer questions like “Is Obama popular?” or “Is Obama powerful?” we have say, “relative to what or whom?” Thus, the economy, the party in control of Congress, the level of agreement or disagreement within the president’s party, and other factors are important, and maybe more important than the president’s personality or leadership. A president’s place in “political time”—to borrow a term from Skowronek (here)—tell us a lot about how successful he will be, or will be perceived to be.

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The Ideologies of Supreme Court Justices and Presidents


In an earlier graph, I mapped the ideological “ideal points” of recent Supreme Court justices using scores developed by Andrew Martin and Kevin Quinn. Above is a similar graph using a different set of measurements developed by Michael Bailey at Georgetown. The data are here. Mike’s data are useful because they put presidents, members of Congress, and justices on the same scale and do so over time. This entails leveraging various kinds of “bridge” observations—actors who take positions on issues facing another institution (e.g, as Obama did when criticizing Citizens United v. FEC), actors who take positions on issues faced by earlier incarnations of their institutions (e.g., when Thomas expressed his view that Roe v. Wade was incorrectly decided). The details are discussed in this article (pdf).

Both graphs tell a somewhat similar story about the Court. There are clear differences between the conservative and liberal justices. Kennedy and O’Connor are in the middle. Stevens, the focus, starts toward the middle, moves left over time, and slightly back to the center toward the end of this period. The two graphs have their differences as well, but I think these are secondary.

The graph above also illustrates or confirms some interesting things about the relationship between the views of presidents and justices. As is well-known, several Republican appointees—Stevens and Souter for sure, but also Kennedy and O’Connor—were never as conservative as the president who appointed them and became somewhat less so over time. But other nominees worked out pretty well. Certainly Rehnquist, Scalia, Roberts, Alito, and Thomas had views similar (on average) to their patrons and, in general, to all the Republican presidents depicted here. Similarly, Clinton’s picks were similarly in step with him (again, on average).

Just for fun, I threw in a couple House speakers, Gingrich and Pelosi. It’s not surprising where they’re located, although Gingrich’s rightward movement is notable.

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