Party Factions and the Roots of Institutional Change in Congress: The Democratic Study Group and Liberal Democrats’ Campaign to Reform the House of Representatives (1959-1994)
Emily Baer’s project, “Party Factions and the Roots of Institutional Change in Congress: The Democratic Study Group and Liberal Democrats’ Campaign to Reform the House of Representatives (1959-1994),” addressed how factions within political parties promote policy and leadership change in the U.S. Congress through institutional reform. Congress is frequently criticized as an institution structured by rules and norms which make policy and leadership changes among its members difficult. Leaders are often slow to respond when policy preferences within parties change, a new group or constituency emerges, or elections reveal policy shifts among the public. The relative impermeability of parties to new ideas and leaders poses a significant problem for democratic representation and responsiveness within parties. Her dissertation approached these issues through a case study of the Democratic Study Group (DSG), the faction of liberal Democrats in the House from 1959-1994 and leader of the 1970s reform era; Liberals organized DSG out of their frustration with party leaders status quo; inability to overcome the power of southern conservative committee chairs, ultimately leading to a series of reforms significantly redistributing power between the Democratic leadership, committee chairs, and individual members. Today, this historic effort has taken on a renewed importance as a new faction; the Republican Freedom Caucus (analyzed as a comparative case) has emerged to challenge the balance of power between junior members and party leaders. But while the 1970s reform era is widely recognized for increasing representation and responsiveness in the Democratic Caucus, we know little about how a faction was empowered to lead the reform effort. In Baer’s dissertation, she questioned and analyzed using original archival research and in-depth interviews with former Members of Congress and their staffers: How do political parties respond to the changing preferences of their members? How does the rise of a new faction shape power in parties? And how can factions overcome the institutional hurdles to reforming rules and procedures, and expanding party leadership pathways and policy agendas?