Review of “Richard Fenno’s Theory of Congressional Committees and the Partisan Polarization of the House,” by John Aldrich, Brittany Perry, and David Rohde
In their article, the authors argue that Richard Fenno’s forty year-old theory of congressional committees is still a useful approach to understanding the function of committees in a House of Representatives that is significantly different from the one that Fenno studied in the 1970s. Fenno maintained that congressional committees served as the principal means by which members sought and achieved “one or more of three goals: reelection, power within the chamber, and good public policy.” The significant difference noted by the authors is the increased partisanship of the congressional parties and the heightened party discipline that the partisanship entails. This resulted, say the authors, from the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 after forty or more years of Democratic control. Reflecting this change, the authors amend Fenno’s theory by adding a fourth goal—“the achievement or maintenance of majority status—” because the demise of the Democratic hegemony means that in congressional elections, both parties now have a chance to win control of the House and Senate.
The authors test the amended Fenno theory by examining how three contemporary House committees—Rules, Appropriations, and Ways and Means—serve members in achieving the four goals in this era of intensified partisanship. The authors find that these committees continue to provide the means by which congressmen achieve the goals on the amended Fenno list:
Both the personal incumbency-oriented goals and the collective goals of the party [can] be achieved by the majority party’s capturing of the traditional sources of power in the House, the committees, and by the implementation of collective goals through those committees. (Emphasis added.)
The authors argue that the most important difference in congressional politics since Fenno’s time has been the intensification of “party polarization on policy.” This change has made the goal of “good public policy”—or perhaps we should read that as “good party policy”—even more important for the parties and for their individual members. This is true for the parties, because increasingly the national parties are identified in the minds of the voters as representing this or that platform or policy agenda. The parties need to be able to follow through on their promises.
For the members, who are increasingly identified with the policies that their party labels represent, being able to work in the committees and make the committees reflect their political will is important for their own reelection goals. The voters are more partisan than they were in the 70s.
Each of the three committees that the authors study supports this argument. The Rules Committee as the essential arm of the majority leadership is tasked with providing majority with the most favorable environment for floor action on party initiatives. Ways and Means, with its oversight of perennially important issues such as Social Security and taxes, also allows the majority party members to report bills reflecting the party positions. Finally, Appropriations, which strongly influences that level of funding necessary to favor the majority’s programs and starve those favored by the minority, also facilitates the majority party’s goals.
The authors offer a persuasive argument for the continued validity of an amended—albeit a significantly amended—Richard Fenno theory.