Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich once called himself "the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson."1 Like Wilson, Gingrich was a man both of theory and practice, an intellectual and a politician. These two "professorial politicians" shared many ideas in common. Indeed, one need look no further than Newt Gingrich's 1990s House Republican "revolution" for evidence of the continuing relevance of Wilson's Congressional Government. Wilson's book almost reads like a field manual for Gingrich's experiment in congressional party government.2 The parallels between the ideas of Wilson and Gingrich are remarkable; clearly, Woodrow Wilson's influence endures.
The Woodrow Wilson of Congressional Government and Speaker Newt Gingrich both admired the parliamentary ideal and tended to see Congress as central to our constitutional system, with presidents as mere administrators. Both were legislative supremacists. Both were critical of our separation of powers system, reducing it to the checks and balances.3 Both Wilson and Gingrich disliked standing committee dominance of the legislative process and sought to elevate the role of legislative parties. They abhorred "committee government," preferring "party government".
Both Wilson and Gingrich favored an open legislative process. They preferred a politics of party platforms and principle, or "grand partisanship," to a "petty" politics of competing and compromising interests.4 Both proposed the use of devices like Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America."5 Both criticized the seeming corruption of Madisonian pluralism with its special interest bargaining, lobbying and log rolling.6 Again, they preferred party government, with its confrontation of ideas, to pluralism, with its compromise among interests.
Something similar might be said today about Minority House and Senate Democrats who echo Wilson and Gingrich. Nancy Pelosi has appropriately been described by Chris Lehane as “Gingrichian.” The Washington Post dubbed her the “Lady MacBeth of Politics.” Even the mild mannered Harry Reid has become a Gingrich-like “bomb thrower” by, for example, invoking Rule 21 to force the Senate into executive session.
I think Reid’s Rule 21 gambit is fine, even useful in two senses:
(1) He got the majority’s attention, thereby highlighting an issue – confrontation can be good; the legislative process is not reducible to can’t-we-all-get-along compromise … and …
(2) Reid proved – perhaps contrary to his intention – that the minority party is part of the GOV’T and not just the OPPOSITION. Senate Democrats have leverage. Thus providing evidence that James Madison’s understanding of the separation of powers is more complete than Woodrow Wilson’s. Again, both confrontation and compromise are appropriate in our legislative process.
But I digress…
Both Wilson and Gingrich had limited appreciation for constitutional forms; individuals mattered more than institutions in their view.7 Wilson believed the public needed conspicuous leaders (perhaps like Gingrich and Pelosi?) to understand Congress. Both of these professorial politicians tended to conflate statesmanship and rhetoric; legislative leadership meant leadership by oratory.8 Above all, both saw leadership as education. The purpose of principled, party government was to promote serious public deliberation, thereby educating public opinion. Woodrow Wilson might have appreciated Newt Gingrich's exercise of the "bully pulpit" of the speakership.
Ultimately, Wilson and Gingrich both emphasized the central importance of Congress, parties and ideas in American politics; consequently, both professorial politicians were proponents of congressional party government. We can perhaps best understand the successes and failures, the strengths and limitations of experiments such as Gingrich's House GOP revolution – and Nancy Pelosi’s echo today – by recognizing their roots in Wilson's Congressional Government.
Professor Wilson's influence, of course, extends beyond politicians to the academy. Wilson's powerful and seminal influence on 20th century political science is most evident in what is arguably the founding charter of the "responsible party school" of thought, namely, the Report of the Committee on Political Parties of the American Political Science Association, titled, "Toward a More Responsible Two Party System."9 The report cites Wilson extensively.
Wilson's influence can also be seen in the writings of E.E. Schattschneider, James MacGregor Burn, James Sundquist, and former Carter and Clinton White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler's oft cited Foreign Affairs article "To Form a Government" (1980) – just to cite a few.
Some of these authors joined forces in the Committee on the Constitutional System to publish "A Bicentennial Analysis of the American Political Structure" in 1987. The latter manifesto borrowed heavily from the thought of Woodrow Wilson, especially his early writings including Congressional Government. In sum, Wilsonian thinkers and reformers abound to this day. Wilson’s Congressional Government remains highly relevant to the study and practice of American politics.
Wilson, for example, probably would join today's neo-wilsonian reformers in bemoaning the "divided government" common in Washington in the late 20th century.
Wilson contrasts congressional government with parliamentary government, committee government with party government. "Congressional government is committee government," he laments.10 Or as he observes ruefully in probably the most oft quoted passage from Congressional Government, "Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work."11 Committee government makes Congress a "facile statute devising machine," but it renders the legislative process fragmented, incremental, inconsistent and incapable of producing coherent legislation in the interest of the whole nation according to Wilson.12 Wilson's critique of congressional government is, at bottom, a critique of Madisonian pluralism with its unleashing of self-interest and factionalism – purportedly a special interest dominated legislative process of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-your-back bargaining behind closed doors.
Central to Wilson's concern for public deliberation in Congressional Government is his desire to cure our politics of the excessive individualism or privatism that he and the Anti-Federalists saw as the essential defect of the democratic pluralism bequeathed to us by Madison.13 Wilson seeks to purify Madisonian pluralism of the surfeit of self-interest that informs our politics.
Where Madison tended to promote a pluralist politics of contending interests within representative institutions that can refine and enlarge the public view, Wilson prefers a politics of ideas premised on the principled competition between responsible parties. In the simplest terms, the choice Wilson casts seems to be between pluralism and party government, between a politics of interests and a politics of ideas, between interest accommodation and principled confrontation.
The question remains, does Wilson -- and do neo-Wilsonian scholars and reformers -- provide a complete picture of Madison's constitutional system? Or, contrary to Wilson's sharp bifurcation between committee government and party government, is our separation of powers system in fact capable of promoting both a politics of interest and a politics of ideas, both pluralism and party government? Are compromise and confrontation both integral to our political system? Can heightened partisan polarization be good?
I think so.
Ultimately, however, I think Wilson fails to understand fully the constitutional separation of powers. The heart of Woodrow Wilson's challenge to the Constitution is his critique of the separation of powers. For Wilson, the separation of powers was a "radical defect" in our constitutional system.14 Yet Wilson reduces the separation of powers to the checks and balances. He sought to overcome the "friction" of the separation of powers, first in Congressional Government with disciplined, responsible legislative party leadership, and later in Constitutional Government with strong presidential leadership.
Wilson concludes that the cure for the friction of the separation of powers can be found in the fusion of party government. Yet Wilson -- to borrow another scientific metaphor -- may have overlooked the potential in the separation of powers for fission.15 What if the separation of powers can add, rather than merely subtract, energy from the political process as political scientists like Jessica Korn, David Nichols or Jim Ceaser argue?
Arguably, Madison’s separation of powers limits the abuse of power while providing for the effective use of power through a "functional parceling out of political power" promoting "not only free but effective government." The separation of powers divides power and focuses authority.
Our separation of powers system arguably promotes ambition counteracting ambition, as well as ambition vying with ambition. As Nelson Polsby has noted, the separation of powers invites policy entrepreneurship and policy innovation.
Unfortunately, today the dominant political science understanding of Madisonian pluralism, perhaps taking its cue from Wilson, reduces pluralism to mere interest-dominated incrementalism, and reduces the separation of powers to the checks and balances, failing to appreciate the continuing capacity of our constitutional system for promoting policy innovation.
The separation of powers can promote policy change in part because the constitutional separation of powers is flexible, not static, in forming the policymaking process. In a word, power floats.
Power oscillates between the President and Congress, and between party and committee leadership in Congress. Broadly speaking, the 19th Century era of congressional dominance, noted by Woodrow Wilson in Congressional Government, gave way to the rise of “presidential government” in the 20th century.
Or a more immediate example: following 9/11 we had an overnight resurgence of the presidency following the 1990s Gingrich-led experiment in congressional party government.
In a manner of speaking, the Woodrow Wilson of Congressional Gov’tand Constitutional Gov’t were BOTH right – or put differently – each was half wrong. The Madisonian separation of powers provides for a strong and effective Congress and a strong and effective President, both strong committees and strong parties depending on the times and the need.
In conclusion, the separation of powers incorporates the potential for a strong Congress and a strong President, the potential for "congressional government" and "presidential government." The separation of powers mediates a healthy tension between pluralism and party government in Congress, between "committee government" and "party government." Congress is not just the politics of pluralist accommodation among contending interests, rather it is also responsive to a principled politics of ideas. Compromise and confrontation are both virtues in our constitutional system. That means partisan polarization can be good. Nominating an Alito, for example, can make more sense than nominating a Miers.
This is not to say, however, that our Madisonian system embodies the idealized party government that Wilson and neo-wilsonian reformers prefer. Rather, our constitutional system can foster strong party leadership and a principled politics of ideas, while grounding party and principle in a pluralist politics of contending parochial interests. In effect, the separation of powers maintains a healthy tension between these two halves of a whole. The President and Congress (and similarly party and committee leaders) are powerful in our constitutional system, depending on circumstances such as the institutional time – as Stephen Skowronek calls it – and depending on the issues and individuals involved.
Woodrow Wilson had the perspicacity as a political scientist and a politician to see the strengths and weaknesses of our constitutional system. He remains a worthy opponent for the Father of our Constitution.
(Adapted from “Introduction” by William F. Connelly, Jr. to Woodrow Wilson’s Congressional Government, 2002, Transaction Publisher, New Jersey)
1 CNN NEWS, February 20, 1995, 8:21 a.m. Transcript #7:7. Woodrow Wilson called himself a "literary politician." See Sidney A. Pearson, Jr. "Reinterpreting the Constitution for a New Era: Woodrow Wilson and the Liberal-Progressive Science of Politics," an introduction to Wilson's Constitutional Government, 2.
2 See, for example, CG, pp. 98 - 9, 117
3 CG, pp. 254, 257, 266, 312, 318-19, 330.
4 See CG p. 85 and Newt Gingrich, 1994, "Gingrich Address: New House Speaker Envisions Cooperation, Cuts, Hardwork." Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report November 12: 3296.
5 See Stid "Newtonian Revolution" p. 6. Also, CG, p. 98.
6 Wilson shares with contemporary reformers such as John McCain and Ross Perot a fundamental dissatisfaction with the excesses of pluralism. Nevertheless, Wilson was not a simpleminded good government reformer inclined to cast aspersions on the integrity of most politicians. See Constitutional Government, p. 105. See also, James W. Ceaser Presidential Selection, p. 38 and "The Strange Career of Ross Perot" in Upside Down and Inside Out: The 1992 Elections and American Politics. See also Micheal Barone, "McCain vs. Madison" National Review, March 20, 2000, 19-20.
7 CG, p. 41. See also, Wilson's Constitutional Government, p. 165: "Every government is a government of men, not laws."
8 CG, p. 207.
9 American Political Science Review, supplement volume 44 (September 1950)
10 CG, p. xvi.
11 CG, p. 79.
12 CG, p. 187. See Harry Clor, "Woodrow Wilson," in Frisch and Stevens, eds., American Political Thought: The Philosophic Dimension of American Statesmanship(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), pp. 191-218 and L. Peter Schultz, "Congress and the Separation of Powers Today: Practice in Search of a Theory," in Wilson and Schramm, eds., Separation of Powers and Good Government (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994), pp. 185-200.
13 See Clor, "Woodrow Wilson," and Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For.
14 CG, p. 284.
15 William F. Connelly, Jr. and John J. Pitney, Jr., Congress' Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994), pp. 8-9.