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How centralized or decentralized should power be in the House of Representatives?

To:             The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

From:       James M. Curry, University of Utah

Reform:  How centralized or decentralized should power be in the House of Representatives?

In recent decades, Congress has centralized power, resources, and decision-making in the hands of party leaders and legislative party organizations. Among reformers, a popular class of proposals involve decentralizing Congress’s internal organization and processes.[1] The idea is to open up congressional processes, in effect devolving power back to committees and individual representatives and away from party leaders.

But just how centralized or decentralized should the House of Representatives be? On one hand, decentralization may curb the excesses of today’s highly centralized Congress. Yet, on the other hand, it is unclear that the problems targeted by decentralization’s proponents are those that decentralization can solve. Moreover, decentralization may carry unanticipated risks for Congress’s capacity as a legislative institution, as there are under-appreciated benefits to centralization.

I want to offer some light skepticism of decentralization proposals. To be sure, decentralization is not all bad and would certainly bring some important benefits, such as improved opportunities for rank-and-file members of Congress to be influential. But decentralization is not a panacea. It is far from clear that it would solve many of the problems that reformers have set out to solve. And just as decentralization may bring certain benefits, it will undoubtedly come at some cost.

What decentralization will not solve

Decentralization is typically framed as a solution to three classes of problems. However, each is either overstated, not clearly related to the degree of centralization or decentralization in Congress, or both.

  • Gridlock & Productivity: Gridlock is a problem for Congress, but the degree to which gridlock has increased in recent years as Congress has centralized may be overstated. The number of laws passed by Congress, and the rate at which Congress addresses issues on the public agenda, has declined, but at the same time, the number of pages of new laws enacted has remained relatively flat, the number of landmark laws enacted has not decreased,[2] and the decline in the total number of laws enacted is mostly due to a decline in commemorative legislation. More importantly, a connection between centralization and increased gridlock (if it exists) is entirely unproven. No studies have directly tied centralization to overall rates of gridlock.
  • Partisanship & Party Conflict: Scholars have tied rising party polarization and party conflict in Congress to various factors including partisan sorting, southern realignment, campaign finance, and a more competitive national political environment. Centralization is not one of the established causes. There is some evidence that contemporary party leaders have impressive powers to hold backbenchers in line on roll-call votes, but party leaders frequently undertake these efforts to pass bipartisan legislation. Others argue that party leaders have been more aggressive in using their control of the congressional agenda to keep bipartisan proposals off the floors of the House and Senate in recent years, but overall congressional enactments remain as bipartisan as they were in 1970s.
  • Poor-quality Lawmaking: Centralization, and the decline of “regular order” and committee-led processes, are also argued to result in poorer-quality laws. The logic is that traditional committee-led deliberative processes result in better bills and laws, and that centralized processes result in sloppy, contradictory, or poorly considered legislation. But, to date, there is no systematic evidence supporting this argument.[3] We do not even yet know if laws, generally, have decreased in quality in recent years, much less that centralization plays any role in this unproven phenomenon.

The costs of decentralization

The shortcomings of centralization, and the benefits of decentralization, are at the forefront of contemporary discussions of Congress. But not that long ago the decentralized and committee-led nature of Congress served as a focal point for criticism of the institution. Scholarship in earlier eras disparaged committees as unrepresentative legislative bodies that used their considerable power to advance narrow interests over general interests, and develop ‘cozy little triangles’ among special interest groups, committees, and federal agencies. The seniority system that accompanied the committee-led Congress was likewise viewed as problematic, allowing powerful committee chairmen to dominate action under their jurisdictions and often acting contrary to majorities in the majority party or in Congress as a whole. Many of the institutional reforms that begot centralization were put in place as a response to these evils of committee power.

Decentralized, “regular order” processes also carry costs. These open processes—which allow individual legislators opportunities to offer amendments, extend debate, and scrutinize legislative provisions—are good in theory and can work in practice if everyone involved intends to legislate in good faith. But legislators can also use open processes to engage in dilatory tactics, offer poison pill amendments, force votes on items meant to embarrass other lawmakers, and generally take steps to delay, obstruct, or kill legislative proposals rather than work to improve them (whether intentionally or not). These concerns are often top of mind for legislative leaders trying to work legislation through the House and Senate, and they underscore how decentralization can be a problem congressional productivity.

The benefits of centralization

Centralization certainly carries its own costs. But we should not lose sight of the benefits of centralization for Congress’s capacity as a legislative institution:

First, centralization can help Congress preserve legislative capacity in a difficult political environment. Despite common perception, Congress today enacts laws with as much bipartisan support as it did in the 1970s, and the use of centralized processes does not meaningfully affect levels of bipartisan support found on final passage votes. Rather than a means of jamming through partisan laws, centralized processes are an adaptive means to help Congress continue to achieve legislative outcomes in an environment of intense two-party conflict that makes legislating of any kind very difficult.[4]

Centralized processes can work where decentralization fails. Centralized processes are typically more efficient in that they help Congress avoid the obstructionism and grandstanding by restricting open processes and moving agreed-upon legislation forward without unnecessary delays. Centralized processes are also flexible in that party leaders can work around problematic lawmakers, including committee chairs who may be hostile to the legislation, or build legislative proposals that cut across committee jurisdictions—something less possible when committees attempt to legislate on their own. Centralized processes also benefit from their relative secrecy. Government secrecy is certainly not popular, but moving negotiations behind the scenes allows negotiators to have an open and honest give and take and find points of agreement—an exercise that becomes much more difficult in open meetings that allow lobbyists and activists to exert pressure on reelection-minded lawmakers.[5] These three benefits can help Congress find agreement, and avoid stalemate, in ways decentralization often cannot.

Second, centralization bolsters Congress’s capacity for conflict-clarifying representation. Scholars of an earlier era criticized congressional parties for their inabilities to offer clear, competing visions to the electorate. Today’s congressional parties, by virtue of the power and resources centralized in party leaders and party’s legislative organizations, are far better able to drive congressional debates so as to clearly define the stakes for external constituencies. Leadership control over the floor, especially in the House, allows majority parties to bring up messaging bills for debate and party-line votes. And both parties can leverage their procedural prerogatives, and substantial communications offices, to create messaging moments and then broadcast these messages to the public. This increased capacity for the parties to engage in conflict-clarifying representation is typically seen as a problem with Congress, but the ability of congressional parties to clearly define their positions and effectively communicate them to the public is a benefit of centralization that many reformers of the mid-20th century would have applauded.

A balance is needed

The purpose of this memo is not to argue centralization is all good for Congress, or that decentralization is all bad. Rather, we should recognize the tradeoffs apparent in different approaches to congressional organization. Simply, different approaches may work better or worse in different political environments and contexts. Generally, reformers and members of the Select Committee should consider these tradeoffs, and be careful of overreacting to the current situation. Too much decentralization is unlikely to be any better than too much centralization.


[1] Such proposals are quite popular. See, e.g., Casey Burgat and Kevin Kosar, “OK, so the House wants to reform itself? Here’s what it should really do,” Politico, January 29, 2019; Cliff Stearns and Martin Frost, “Congress must listen to John McCain,” The Hill, July 28, 2017; Lee Drutman, “The House Freedom Caucus has some good ideas on how the US House should operate,” Vox, October 20, 2015.

[2] A bivariate analysis of David Mayhew’s landmark laws data shows that a time counter does not have a statistically significant impact on the number of new landmark laws enacted between the 80th (1947-48) and 114th (2015-16) congresses.

[3] Jonathan Lewallen studies incidences of legislative error in Senate drafting, but does not demonstrate that centralized power relates to more frequent errors.

[4] Fenno (1962, 317), writing about the logic underlying the consensus-based work the House Appropriations Committee in the mid-20th century, wrote, for instance, that “nothing would be more disruptive to the Committee’s work than bitter and extended partisan controversy.” Today, we have constant partisan controversy.

[5] See, Arnold (1990, 275).

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Topics: Reform Efforts
James Curry
James M Curry is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah, and co-director of the Utah Chapter of the S...