A Mirror of the 20th-Century Congress

Congress has fallen on tough times. At the beginning of 2020, its approval rating stands at 23 percent, with over 70 percent disapproval, according to Gallup. This is a relatively positive number for Congress. Over the past several years, the congressional approval rating has mostly been in the teens and even dipped to nine percent in November of 2013. One has to go back to 2009 to find an approval rating in the 30s, and to 2005 to find a rating in the 40s.

Scholars call it a “Broken Branch,” members are retiring at historically high rates, and Sen. Joe Manchin told his colleagues “this place sucks” when they implored him to run to retain his seat in 2018.

What happened? The only way to understand what led Congress to this point is to examine the institutional reforms of the previous century that set the stage for today. A pivotal figure of the 20th-century Congress was Jim Wright, whose biography is carefully told in J. Brooks Flippen’s new book, Speaker Jim Wright: Power, Scandal, and the Birth of Modern Politics. Though not well-known today, Wright was one of the most active and influential politicians of the 20th century. His story is the story of the decline of our legislative branch.

Those deeply interested in Wright’s story will enjoy the first 100 pages, which describe his childhood in Texas and Oklahoma, his education, his service in World War II, and his early political career in the Texas state legislature, as Mayor of Weatherford (a town west of Fort Worth), and his election to the House of Representatives. But most readers will find the trajectory of Wright’s 34-year-long career in Congress to be of greatest interest.

The trajectory of that career illustrates three important features of Congress in the last half of the 20th century. First, Wright’s biography mirrors the biography of the mid-century Democratic Party itself. A pragmatic moderate from Texas, Wright formed part of the famous “Austin-Boston” connection that anchored the Democratic Party’s dominance in the House.

This coalition, of course, contained disparate elements that often conflicted, as conservative southern Democrats fought with their liberal northern counterparts. Wright was himself a reflection of these disparate ideas and policies. He was certainly a progressive Democrat relative to his peers in Texas. Flippen explains that Wright was “in the vanguard of a new Democratic Party that within decades would come to alienate much of the party’s traditional southern base.” Yet he was also deeply critical of the New Left upon its emergence in the late 1960s and resisted the progressive wing of his party on civil rights and environmentalism. In addition to this, he was a budget hawk who restrained federal spending and put forth proposals to reduce federal debt.

Wright, therefore, found himself in the middle of a party that was increasingly split between progressives and conservatives during the middle part of the 20th century. Wright’s story is a reflection of the Democratic Party’s story. This indicates the second feature of Congress revealed in Wright’s biography: Like most members during the mid-20th century, Wright managed to overcome these ideological tensions by avoiding them entirely. Rather than legislate on national, ideological issues, members of Congress such as Wright preferred to engage in local, interest-based, constituent service work. Wright’s work mirrors not only the 20th-century Democratic Party, but also the mid-20th century Congress at work.

Wright served on the Committee on Public Works for several decades, a committee that controlled the infrastructure spending projects that brought home the bacon to members’ districts. Infrastructure spending may have been mildly controversial as a national issue, but the local benefits each individual project brought were all gain, no pain for members back home. Wright represented Fort Worth, which received tremendous financial support for numerous projects. He won defense contracts for General Dynamics (a local company) to build B-52 bombers, fought to keep Fort Wolters operational, retained a Post Office regional transportation division in Fort Worth, funded flood control improvements for the Trinity and Brazos rivers, and generally worked to keep money and jobs in his district. Flippen writes that Wright was “one of the most prodigious providers of federal aid ever.”

The structure of Congress during the mid-20th century was designed to expedite these claims—keeping divisive, ideological issues off the agenda in favor of committee-based work that focused on bringing specific benefits to local constituencies. The seniority system for committee chairs left them relatively autonomous from party leaders. Members did not have to toe a party line, allowing them to cater to their constituents rather than the national party. Committee chairs had tremendous authority, giving them incumbency benefits that led political scientists to call them the “barons” of Congress.

This system worked very well for incumbents such as Wright, who gained security by downplaying divisive national issues in favor of local constituent work. But it led to a Congress that was generally unwilling to address emerging national problems that required unpopular solutions. Pressure from inside and outside the institution transformed this system, leading almost directly to Jim Wright’s fall and to the current state Congress is in today.

The mid-20th century Congress validated Tip O’Neill’s famous aphorism, “all politics is local.” Unfortunately for Wright, that aphorism was as outdated by the end of the century as it was valid when O’Neill first started using the phrase (apparently in the 1930s). Thus, the third feature of Congress revealed by Wright’s biography: his fall from power in the 1980s was due to the demise of the local, individualistic mid-century Congress.

Wright was both the victim and part of the cause of this decline. He participated in the very partisan vitriol he would later condemn, lashing out at Eisenhower and accusing Republicans without proof of using the IRS to harass Democrats in his early career in the House, and pushing legislation through the House on partisan lines when he ascended to leadership in the 1980s.

The increased partisanship that Wright both contributed to and suffered from was facilitated by his centralization of power in the hands of party leadership. He undermined the very basis of his local popularity—the decentralized nature of the House—by supporting reforms that gave power back to the leaders. He supported Tip O’Neill when the latter bypassed the committee structure to enact President Carter’s National Energy Plan, built party-based fundraising machines that tied members more to their parties than their local constituents, created his own influential leadership PAC, and used leadership influence over committee assignments to reward loyalty and punish betrayers within the party.

In short, Jim Wright contributed to as much as he suffered from the increased partisanship, gridlock, acrimony, and dysfunction of the House of Representatives. Thanks in part to his decisions, the Democratic Party became more homogeneously liberal, and the Republican Party more homogeneously conservative. The era of independent committee chair “barons” was over, as was the relative comity that accompanied it. Congress’ decline was Wright’s decline, and vice versa.

Flippen understands these connections between Wright’s trajectory and Congress’, even if his thinly-veiled sympathy for his subject colors his judgment at points. He acknowledges Wright’s missteps but seems committed to portraying the Speaker in the most favorable light. In his telling, Wright was a moderate who had “faith in bipartisanship and compromise,” an idealist but a pragmatist, a “bridge” between the conservative and liberal Democrats, one of the great rhetoricians in the history of Congress, and an institutionalist who put the good of Congress ahead of his own self-interest. I believe I circled the term “idealist” as applied to Wright on half of the pages of the book.

Only after inculcating sympathy for Wright does Flippen add the qualification: at the end of Wright’s tenure there was:

“…more than enough culpability to go around. Wright had mastered the art of pushing the rules to their limit, his actions at times audacious if not technically illegal…. Jim Wright was a master, calculating his every move and preparing for the future with one eye on the animated political culture that surrounded him. It worked—at least until the age of Gingrich.”

Here, Flippen makes the same mistake many have made before him: blaming Newt Gingrich for developments in Congress that had begun to occur long before his ascendancy. It didn’t work “until the age of Gingrich”—it was already broken by the time Gingrich arrived.

In his resignation speech on May 31, 1989 (due to ethics scandals surrounding bulk sales of his book and a position given to his wife, Betty), Wright denounced the new politics that he had helped to create. “I do not want to be a party to tearing up the institution,” he said. But he had been a party to it.

In the end, neither Tip O’Neill, nor Jim Wright, nor Newt Gingrich appear in this tragedy as independent actors contributing to Congress’ demise. Instead, they appear as the dependent variables. They did not produce the environment so much as they were produced by it. The mid-century Congress was unsustainable, and the partisan forces outside Congress ultimately, inevitably pressed representatives to follow where the people they represented were going: into two ideologically-sorted camps to fight over the future direction of the country. Understood this way, it is worth pondering whether a return to the mid-century Congress—the one that enabled Jim Wright and his colleagues to eschew controversial issues in order to distribute benefits to constituents—would truly constitute progress.