Home Energy Yields Pendulum Model to Particle Accelerator Model

While preparing for a talk on the relationship between House Speakers and the Rules Committee (subtitled “The Chairpersons Committee?”), I took the opportunity to re-read two stories from the Congressional Research Service – one from the House and the other from the Rules Committee, published in 1965 and 1983 respectively.

What jumped out at me was the underlying theme of the pendulum swinging in power, alternating between committee-centric and party-centric system dominance. It was an action-reaction tale of how when one form of power became obsolete, unpopular or authoritarian, there was a revolt that shifted power to another place – from committees to chiefs of gone, and vice versa.

When asked during the question-and-answer period at the end of my speech if there was any hope of reversing what I had described as the highly polarized, hyper-partisan and even vicious political environment today, I hesitated before answering. I finally replied that I saw no chance of the pendulum returning to the collegial and deliberative mode of the previous laws.

Digging deeper into the matter later, I concluded that the pendulum metaphor needs to be retired and a new metaphor is needed to describe the current dangerous escalation of partisan vitriol, demonization and confrontation, which usually ends in deadlock. It is more like the particle accelerator (aka “atom smasher”) – a device in which beams of protons and antiprotons are set in motion in a vacuum chamber at very high speeds, moving in opposite directions , until a magnetically induced collision is triggered.

This is how I see the two parties in Congress today – moving at an accelerating pace in opposite directions and clashing every two years at the polls. The main difference, however, is that particle accelerators are beneficial in basic scientific and medical research and in the treatment of cancer. The political version seems to have no redeeming value socially or politically.

Yes, collisions produce shifts in party control over Congress. Unlike the pendulum phenomenon, however, there is no noticeable change in the functioning of the institution: the parties simply exchange the textbooks of the majority and the minority, then proceed as before, preparing for the next collision two years later.

While preparing for this same speech, I came across a plausible answer in a 2020 CRS report titled “The ‘Regular Order’: A Perspective,” by Senior Specialist Walter Oleszek. In addressing the question of why a return to the old regular order of deliberative legislation does not seem likely, Oleszek cites a number of factors or variables that have been added to the mix over the past few decades that significantly complicate the things. These range from the growth of partisan media and the proliferation of lobbyists and special interest groups, to the breakdown of social interactions among members, to the growing polarization and electoral volatility of the general public.

This last factor, electoral volatility, tells us a lot about what has changed over the past four decades. Oleszek notes that in the last 20 Congresses (1981-2020), each party has held the House 10 different times, and Republicans have held the Senate 11 times and Democrats have held nine.

Oleszek quotes a political analyst as saying: “Once a political party has decided on the path to government, it wins back the majority [and] not working with the existing majority, the incentives change. Instead of cultivating good relations with your colleagues opposite, you must destroy them [politically] because you have to convince voters to destroy them too.

According to this theory, when one political party or the other controls Congress for long periods of time, both parties have an incentive to work together for bipartisan compromises that will be more acceptable to the general populace than would be partisan solutions. This is how the House operated for much of the 20th century, when a conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans compromised and forged bipartisan consensus solutions.

But this model was understandably challenged by a large cohort of newly elected Liberal Democrats in 1974 (“Watergate babies”) who had been educated in the need for a “more accountable two-party system”. John Lawrence’s book, “The Class of 1974”, is subtitled “Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship”. Gone is the seniority system to elevate senior committee members (usually Southerners) to committee chairs, and committee appointments and political decision-making through secret Democratic caucuses (“King Caucus”) . Another feature was more transparency in the commissions and in the field.

By 1979, however, the new openness had critics, even among liberals, who thought far too much time was taken up in protracted debates and amendments. A group of about 40 members wrote to the president and asked for less open amendment rules from the Rules Committee and more restrictive or structured rules in which only specific amendments were allowed.

The move sparked a backlash from minority Republicans who saw it as a suppression of the democratic process and members’ rights. It was a trend that would only accelerate, even when Republicans finally took majority control of the House in 1995. The House partisan accelerator was activated, setting the two parties on an inexorable collision course. .

While the physical metaphors of pendulums and particle accelerators have been helpful for the purposes of this column, our political system is not a machine operating independently of those who control the real levers of power. It is the people who ultimately pull the strings that determine the direction our country and its government will take.

Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The opinions expressed are solely his own.

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