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Why do Senate Democrats as well as Republicans in both chambers call their party organizations conferences, while House Democrats call themselves a caucus? The explanation is rooted in the evolving role of parties in Congress and the relative mix of powers that Members have delegated to their elected leaders, committee chairmen and party organizations at different points in time.

[IMGCAP(1)]This issue resurfaced recently when the conservative Republican Study Committee called on the GOP leadership to put its legislative strategy decisions to a vote by all members of the Republican Conference.

Back in the last era of hyper-partisanship in Congress at the turn of the 20th century, Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon (R-Ill.) “deliberately confused the distinction between a party conference, an informal meeting, and a caucus, which had binding power over the members,” historian Scott William Rager writes. “Putting this tactic into practice, the Speaker might call a conference meeting, only later to declare that it was in fact a caucus.”

Such tactics infuriated a band of 30 progressive Republicans, who joined with Democrats in 1910 to depose Cannon as chairman of the Rules Committee. The Republicans lost control of Congress in the ensuing elections. When they returned as a minority party in 1911, they deliberately renamed their party organization the House Republican Conference.

The new Democratic majority, on the other hand, turned to its own Caucus as a policy-making antidote to “Cannonism” (or “Czar Speaker”), using binding instructions on committee members by majority vote and on Members’ House floor votes by a two-thirds Caucus vote. (The Senate Democratic Caucus had adopted the two-thirds binding floor vote rule in 1903, with House Democrats following suit in 1909.) The caucus system of binding votes turned out to be a key to the success of President Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom legislation in 1913-1914. However, Republicans protested vehemently about the autocratic reign of “King Caucus.” It fell into disuse in Wilson’s second term, and Congress reverted to a system of “committee government” for the next half-century.

It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in Congress began to push for a revival of party governance to advance its progressive agenda. The liberals’ power troika would combine the best features of Czar Speaker, King Caucus and “committee barons” under unified party leadership. For a period in the mid-1970s, when Democratic leaders were reluctant to play their expected role in the new power-sharing arrangement, King Caucus reigned once again. The Democratic Caucus began voting on party policy positions and even instructing committees (though not binding Members’ floor votes).

This time it was the conservative Democrats who rebelled by threatening to bring up their own issues for Caucus votes (e.g., school busing) and by refusing to provide a quorum at party meetings when liberal issues were scheduled. The liberal and conservative factions within the Caucus effectively neutralized each other (and neutered King Caucus), paving the way for elected party leaders to step in and provide leadership in developing party positions.

For the better part of three decades now, the House Democratic Caucus has reverted to the Republicans’ more conference-like approach in which leaders and rank-and-file members thrash out the merits of policy options and their political consequences. Although House Democrats repealed their binding floor vote rule in 1975, they retain the committee instruction rule (but have held it in abeyance). Both parties still have a rule that 50 Members can petition to put an item on the agenda of a party meeting.

It was that rule the Republican Study Committee used in early June to initiate a petition drive to put a one-year, unilateral Republican earmark moratorium to a vote in Conference. Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) temporarily defused the move when he rolled out a party economic agenda that included some of the RSC priorities.

Nevertheless, the frustration and impatience of many Republican Members over the recent loss of GOP seats in three special elections and the continued devaluation of the Bush administration’s currency among the electorate have increased pressures for a change in leadership styles and themes in Congress (but not yet a change in leaders). This month’s high-profile publicity drive to demand a vote on the GOP energy plan has re-energized and reunified the Conference, pushing the earmark moratorium showdown further into the background.

It is a natural tendency among like-minded conservative Members to want bolder actions sooner to offset the precipitous decline in party fortunes as November’s elections draw near. At the same time, there are moderate Members who can least afford to be saddled with policy positions that might hurt them in their own re-election bids. This is the political minefield elected leaders must navigate in holding the party together and enhancing its chances for success this fall (or at least in avoiding a disastrous rout).

The Republican Study Committee’s desire to use the petition rule to force GOP Conference votes on policy positions, while an understandable effort to revitalize and redefine the party, flies in the face of history’s lessons about the wisdom and likely consequences of such actions. If party conferences are to remain frank and free-flowing exchanges of diverse viewpoints, they cannot be used simultaneously to pin down Members with votes on divisive policy issues. That will only encourage some Members to stay off the record by staying away, leaving the rest of the choir to sing to itself in one-part harmony.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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