How does the party system affect the lawmaking process?
October 29, 2015
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
In George Washington’s farewell address as president, he warned of the rise of political parties. Fearing tyranny from the few, he said: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
And while political parties have not become a force of tyranny, as the first president warned, they have become integral to the political process. The two dominant political parties vet the candidates for most elected offices, help elected officials align with like-minded officials and show the power of unity and block voting.
They also have a hand in partisan gridlock, political races that get sidelined by one or two issues, unfairly drawn congressional districts, and pork barrel spending. While partisan politics occurs on nearly every level, most people point to Congress as the place where it isn’t always working best for the American public.
Does the party system impede the legislative powers of Congress?
Congress is responsible for passing bills that the president then signs into law or vetoes. The party system has a significant impact on this process. If the president and majority of Congress are from the same party, checks and balances may be limited. If the president and the majority of Congress are from different parties, then they may be in conflict over legislation and the legislative process is stymied.
The legislative process to get a bill to the president’s desk is quite complex, and in every step, the party system comes into play. First and foremost, party politics are influential in the selection of committee members and chairs.
When lawmakers want to introduce a bill, they put it in writing and give it to the clerk, who passes it to the committees that have jurisdiction over provisions in the bill. So if the bill was about financing a new road with a new tax, it would go to the Transportation Committee and the Ways and Means Committee, which has oversight of taxes. Committees are where the fate of legislation is decided. The committee chairs decide which bills are reviewed. If they don’t like a particular bill, they can simply not bring it up for debate and a vote, essentially killing it.
Given all their power over how bills are introduced, how are committee members and the chair selected?
The parties decide committee membership. Each party creates a committee to recommend who will represent the party on the different committees. At the beginning of every new Congress, lawmakers indicate to party leaders which committee they would like to sit on, then the party leaders come together and decide on committee members. There is a formal vote, and the committees’ membership is finalized during the opening days of each new legislative year.
Parties use seniority, meaning the length of time a legislator has served in Congress and on a particular committee, to determine who sits on the committee and who will chair it.
Another factor in deciding committee membership is whether a legislator follows the party line or breaks with the party on issues. Lawmakers who are considered “team players” for the party will probably sit on more influential committees. If the lawmaker is more independent of the party, then he or she will probably not sit on many committees and the likelihood of becoming a chair is unlikely.
In the Senate, the Republican Party has attempted to weaken the effects of seniority by instituting term limits for committee chairs. The GOP policy, adopted in 1994, limits committee chairmanship to three terms. Its supporters argue that it keeps committee memberships dynamic and allows new ideas to enter into the legislative process. The policy also takes effect when the GOP isn’t in the majority in the Senate and Republicans fill the minority chair of committees.
A growing number of Democrats have begun advocating for a similar policy. Some have even praised the Republicans’ term limits. “A number of people would say Republicans have struck a better formula for advancement,” said Rep. John Larson of Connecticut. “And I don’t think it’s a bad thing for leadership at all. I mean, it’s verboten to say it, but it’s true, and I think even our current leaders would recognize it, all of whom I support.”
Opponents of term limits from both parties are often senior leaders whose time as committee chair is dwindling. Mainly critical that the term limits apply to minority chairs, they argue that the limits restrict a good legislator’s service.
“Don’t ask me to do a good job in the minority and make a rule that says you can’t continue to do a good job as chairman,” Texas Rep. Joe Barton said. Barton said the term limits are counterproductive by forcing leadership changes when they aren’t necessary and taking power away from ranking representatives who have more insight to the legislative process than more junior members.
Proponents of seniority and the party system’s influence on the legislative process say that the complex nature of Congress leads to more experienced lawmakers accumulating power. Learning how Congress works, developing relationships with other members, and learning the intricacies of the legislative process take time, proponents say.
What do you think?
Does the party system affect the lawmaking process in a negative or positive way? Does seniority help or hurt the legislative process? Should there be term limits on committee chairmanship? Was Washington’s fear of political parties justified? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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