Lessons on Congressional Reform from Donald M. Fraser

Source: Congressional Pictorial Dictionary.

This month, former Congressman Donald M. Fraser (D-MN) passed away at the age of 95. For many observers of politics, Fraser is most widely known for his efforts – along with then-Senator George McGovern (D-SD) – to reshape the Democratic Party’s presidential nominations process in the aftermath of the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention. But perhaps his most significant legacy is his leadership of party and institutional reform in the House of Representatives – a legacy that continues to shape contemporary partisan and legislative politics. 

As chairman of the liberal Democratic Study Group (DSG) from 1969 to 1971, Fraser oversaw the development and implementation of the group’s reform agenda. His leadership of reform was rooted in strategic negotiation with party leaders, compromise with rank and file Democrats and Republicans, and careful research. This approach not only made him personally vulnerable to punishments from southern conservatives – such as autocratic District Committee Chairman John McMillan (D-SC) who striped Fraser of a subcommittee chairmanship – but also backlash from more activist members who believed he was moving too slowly and risking their only opportunity for change. 

Most remarkable, Fraser strenuously avoided using the fruits of reform to fulfill his own professional ambitions – especially striking in an era in which junior liberals like himself were unable to access most leadership positions. Instead, he used his position in DSG to create new leadership opportunities for junior members through policy task forces and steering committees, and mandated leadership term limits in DSG’s bylaws. This unselfish approach undoubtedly increased trust about his motives among his colleagues – but it also means Fraser’s leadership is often forgotten. 

As members of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress and a new generation of activist members work to increase legislative transparency and capacity, they have much to learn from Fraser’s leadership.

Like many reformers, Fraser was keenly aware that major legislative change is rarely – if ever – achieved overnight. Instead, he sought small, seemingly minor changes that created the capacity for major reforms in the future.  

In 1969, he pushed for the introduction of regular, monthly meetings of the Democratic Caucus while Congress is in session – a reform that made the other committee and leadership reforms of the 1970s possible. After all, if Democrats only met once every two years to organize, they hardly had any time to cast votes on potential rules reforms – let alone persuade and mobilize supporters. Fraser leveraged a promise that liberals would not challenge Rep. William Colmer’s (D-MS) chairmanship of the Rules Committee in order to gain then-Speaker John McCormack’s (D-MA) support for regular Caucus meetings – a critical reform that persists in the contemporary era and comprised the linchpin of the later reforms. Likewise, Fraser pushed for the creation of a Democratic Steering & Policy Committee, which ultimately became not only the Democratic committee-on-committees, but also a venue for members to influence party policy development.

Fraser also understood the strategic necessity of pursuing party and leadership reforms separately from legislative process reforms. In other words, neither the prerogative of the majority party – nor of the House itself – should be sacrificed in the name of “reform.” This two-track strategy became especially important as the House began consideration of the first reorganization bill in decades. 

Indeed, Fraser led DSG’s year-long campaign to amend the 1970 Legislative Reorganization Act (LRA) as a major legislative reform vehicle, including personally drafting an amendment to provide for the recording of teller votes on amendments, which at the time were conducted anonymously. Fraser’s amendment was ultimately introduced by Rep. Tip O’Neill (D-CA) – a strategic move to suppress potential opposition. This reform increased legislative transparency and accountability, and, for better or worse, strengthened the linkage between campaigning and governing in Congress. The Select Committee’s recently unveiled package of transparency reforms, including standardizing access to committee voting records, builds directly on the changes sought by Fraser (and others) in 1970. 

And while many Democrats and Republicans wanted the 1970 LRA to address seniority, Fraser employed the new monthly meetings of the Democratic Caucus to push for reforms to the seniority system. 

He oversaw the development of a DSG report on the vote records of conservative committee chairs, which provided concrete evidence of their limited support for Democratic party priorities – an unknown phenomenon to many fellow Democrats. And he drafted a resolution providing for a Caucus study of the selection of committee chairmen. Once again, Fraser abdicated public credit for his efforts; instead, he negotiated with then-Majority Leader Carl Albert (D-OK) to introduce a resolution to study and review the “custom of seniority.” The resulting Hansen Committee – named for its chairwoman, Rep. Julia Butler Hansen (D-CO) – led to the passage of a rules change providing for a separate Caucus vote on nominated committee chairs. This historic reform made committee chairs accountable for their leadership and vote record, and increased the power of rank and file members.

An institutionalist at heart, Fraser cared deeply about the capacity of the legislative branch to address pressing national policy problems. He was careful not to force his own reform agenda on his colleagues or the leadership, but instead sought and developed their support at every step. And despite frequent criticism of his slow, steady approach to reform, his strategic approach made it possible for liberals to leverage each success in pursuit of another. Reformers today would be wise to learn from Fraser’s measured, but historic pursuit of party and institutional change.

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Topics: Reform Efforts