Fight Club Politics and How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives

Image of Book


In Fight Club Politics, Juliet Eilperin reviews the major factors that seem to be creating an atmosphere of incivility in the United States House of Representatives. She begins by discussing how many Republicans were frustrated, if not downright enraged, by the way the Democratic party controlled Congress during the 1980s. When the Republicans took control over Congress in 1994, they sought to redress their grievances and pass their ambitious agenda while marginalizing Democrats. Since then, there has been a cycle of sniping where each party has become increasingly polarized and hostile toward the opposition party. Importantly, Eilperin notes that both parties are guilty of creating this problem and that both are responsible for cleaning up Congress.

Eilperin reviews how little-discussed private House rules can shutdown debate, prevent the minority party from contributing to the development of legislation, and sometimes prevent the minority party from even reading the legislative documents before being asked to vote on them. Further, she demonstrates how efforts to re-draw congressional districts every 10 years have led to districts that are increasingly extreme and more tolerant of extremist candidates than more moderate ones. In closing, Eilperin discusses different strategies for ways to improve the many problems in Congress that she views as stemming primarily from re-districting and party power structures. The problems are incredibly complex and there are no clear, simple solutions in sight. There are, however, case studies in states across the country where citizens have risen up and demanded reform. How these state-level solutions would generalize for a national solution is not entirely clear. However, whatever solution is eventually pursued is likely to be some combination of the approaches being developed at the state level today.

Application to Civil Politics

Over the past couple of decades, the major political parties have gained considerable strength in demanding support for the party line and threatening to remove financial support and powerful committee chairmanships for any iconoclasts. With the more ideologically-extreme congressional districts, politicians are less accountable to the American people than they are to their party’s leadership who contributes to the drawing of their districts every 10 years. This partisan re-districting effort makes it so that is easier for more ideologically-extreme candidates to get elected to office and, once there, further the partisan divide in Congress. This hyperpartisanship may take the focus away from policy and place it onto strategic victories by one party over another.


Detailed Chapter Summaries

Introduction: Revolution and Redistricting

Following the Republican Revolution in 1994, newly-elected Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich welcomed new Republican congress-people with a speech that would set the stage (or perhaps, the battlefield) for at least the next two decades. He told them the story of how the Duke of Wellington defeated the vastly more powerful French in the early 1800s. Gingrich portrayed the Republican landslide in similar fashion—a party that had relatively less political muscle than the long-term majority Democrats had won through the use of excellent strategizing. Shortly after taking the post as Speaker of the House, Gingrich sent a number of his Republican colleagues to a military training facility where they could learn more about war operations that they could later apply to achieving their policy goals in Congress.

Part of this revolution involved creating increasingly politically-safe and ideologically-tilted congressional districts (for more on how congressional districts have changed over time, see Lauren Howe's report on Bill Bishop's The Big Sort). This redistricting process brought about greater polarization because the voters in a given district were more heavily Democratic or Republican and voted for increasingly extreme ideologues from both parties. Eilperin quips that “this is the story of how the House of Representative became the House of Unrepresentatives.” It is important to note that this has not been a unilateral event. Rather, both parties have engaged in many of the same tactics to reinforce this hyperpartisan divide. This approach may have made the congress a more efficient machine in that it passes legislation, but also more dysfunctional as the minority party is increasingly not considered in the crafting of legislation. This exclusion leads the minority party to spend much of their time issuing press releases, complaining about being excluding, and writing policies that will likely never even be voted on, let alone become law.
Chapter 1: Revamping the House of Representatives

The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for decades and became increasingly dictatorial under the Speakership of Tip O’Neill (D-MA) and then Jim Wright (D-TX). In doing so, they became much more aggressive toward the Republican minority. The minority party was excluded from much debate, excluded from the writing of much policy, and publicly mocked. The frustration built to a point where the Republican minority stood in virtual unanimous opposition the Democrats and any bills they advocated. Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) was quoted saying, “Hello gentlemen! What are we against today?” One of his colleagues responded, “We don’t know yet sir, but we’re going to make damn sure it doesn’t happen!”

After the Republicans gained the majority in 1994, Speaker Newt Gingrich implemented House rules changes giving Republicans about 2/3 of the House’s committee seats despite the House GOP only carrying 52.4% of the vote. This allowed first-term, freshly-elected congress-people to be assigned to powerful committees despite their lack of seniority, which angered many of the more senior members from the new minority party. Next, House Republicans also changed the orientation process that all new congress-people underwent following their election. Previously, all congress-people attended a bipartisan orientation at Harvard University and several other joint sessions in Washington, D. C. However, the GOP House leadership shifted to partisan orientations where all of the incoming Republican officials went to the Heritage Foundation for their orientation. The 1994 election gave Republicans a small majority in Congress, so in order to ensure their party’s likelihood of success, they centralized power with the House leaders’ and each party’s campaign committees demanded financial dues to solidify each party’s coffers. The two parties were supported by increasingly ideologically-divided PACs which demanded 100% agreement on their important issues. Between these two institutional shifts, breaking ranks and voting for a policy that one’s own party did not support could very well mean losing important committee positions and campaign funding. In sum, despite the Republicans’ frustration with the Democratic majority from previous decades, they adopted many of the same frustrating approaches marginalizing the minority.

Chapter 2: Tearing Washington’s Social Fabric Apart

Over time, congress-people have been spending less and less time in Washington, D. C. and exhibiting nearly an 80% decrease in the number of elected officials with residences in the district. This institutional change allowed for less inter-party contact making it easier to demonize members of the other party. Rep. David Obey (D-WI) stated, “It’s harder than hell to kick somebody on a personal basis when you think you’re going to see their wife and kids later in the week. Today that’s all gone.”

Chapter 3: Legislating Without a Partnership

Republicans and Democrats often point the finger at each other for the lack of minority influence on policy. The solution seems to be something of a chicken and the egg problem. On the one hand, Democrats claim that Republicans deliberately shut them out of policy discussions once the Republicans became the majority. On the other hand, Republicans claim that Democrats were unwilling and uninterested in compromising across party lines. Regardless of the origin of this schism, there is a clear decrease in cross-party communication in crafting legislation. Former Majority Whip Roy Blunt’s (R-MO) director of floor operations, Amy Steinmann said that “for my purposes, they [Democrats] are irrelevant.”

Another institutional change that seems to inhibit the cross-party partnerships is that the rules mandating 48 hours to review all proposals are now routinely waived. There are cases where bills are printed, sent to the congress-people’s offices, and voted on within a matter of minutes or hours. For example, in 2005, the Democrats were given 1 hour to review a 3,000 page, $1 trillion spending bill before having to cast their vote. In this unrealistic window to review the contents of proposals, party members tend to side with each other and do not have time to even attempt to broker cross-party alliances.

Chapter 4: House Centrists Disappear

Both parties aspire to create more cohesive voting blocs and are able to leverage their financial resources to “encourage” their members to support the party line. Gone are the days when conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans could splinter off and form their own voting blocs. In fact, according to research by Poole and Rosenthal, congressional Democrats and Republicans are more sorted and more polarized than ever. Their measurement involves rank ordering all of the members of congress along a spectrum from extremely liberal to extremely conservative based. During the 91st Congress (during Nixon’s presidency), the Democrats fell into all of the possible categories ranging from extremely liberal to extremely conservative; the Republicans fell in all of the categories except for the extremely liberal one. In the 105th Congress (during Clinton’s 5th and 6th years as president), the Democrats fell in the four most liberal categories and the Republicans fell in the four most conservative categories, with no members of either party falling on the other end of the spectrum. This is one piece of evidence further suggesting elite polarization. The party leadership for both the Democrats and Republicans encourage this polarization because it helps them homogenize their voting bloc and enhances their party’s ability to promote or stall legislation, particularly when they are in the majority.

Another hurdle for centrists is that congressional districts are being redrawn each decade in such a way to maximize the ideological extremity of each district. This makes sense for the parties because it helps them ensure that their preferred candidate will almost be assured victory in their district and they do not have to waste valuable campaign resources trying to convert partisans from the other side. Former Representative Heather Wilson (R-NM) stated that, “people in fewer and fewer districts have to listen to more mainstream voters… For most of my colleagues, getting elected is a formality.” Similarly, former history professor and current Representative Bob Filner (D-CA) describes the House as “a feudal institution. The only way you get anything done around here is through personal relationships, lord-vassal relationships… You kiss the ring, or kiss the rear end of your chairman. If they don’t like you, you’re finished. It’s not about the issues.” As congressional leadership is increasingly centralized and party dissent penalized, elected officials are forced into doing the bidding of what their party leadership tells them. Increasingly problematic is that now lobbying groups do not need to spend much time lobbying congress-people. Rather, they get the party leadership’s support and then simply focus their energy in lobbying Senators. One anonymous lobbyist indicated that he “used to spend a lot of time in the House… [but now] Why would [he] spend time in the House? It just does everything we want.”

Chapter 5: Reshaping America’s Political Map

Politicians have been gerrymandering districts for generations, but they are becoming more adept at it. At one point, party strategists were determining likely Democratic and Republican voters based on the types of cars in driveways, but now they have complicated computer models that can determine which neighborhood blocks voted for which parties. The laws on re-drawing congressional districts vary from state-to-state and some states have their districts re-drawn in more political ways than others. In California, the re-districting process is one of the few political arenas where Democrats and Republicans compromise. The parties trade plots of land that will help each other make the seats they control more likely to remain under their control. Following the 2002 re-districting effort, every one of California’s 153 state or federal legislative seats remained in the hands of the incumbent. At the national level, 91% of House candidates ran unopposed. House political analyst Charlie Cook viewed only 11 of the 435 seats of congress as “toss-ups” where either party had a reasonable chance to win the seat. Senior state legislator Bill Thomas (R-CA) said “that’s outrageous… You have the creation of districts that are more selected by the candidate than the constituent.”

In these safe congressional districts, the real decision-making is made in the dominant party’s primary. People who vote in primary elections tend to be the most ideologically extreme members of a party and rarely exceed 10% of the potential voting population. Thus, for candidates to win the nomination they are forced to adopt more extreme positions. American University professor James Thurber quipped, “If you’re from Berkeley you have to declare yourself a Marxist, not a socialist to get elected.” Once the dominant party has selected its candidate, it is almost guaranteed that s/he will win the general election in that district because the minority party just does not have enough votes to be a realistic challenge—assuming that the minority party is even able to field a candidate in that district.

Chapter 6: The Road to Redistricting Reform

“As a mapmaker, I can have more of an impact on an election than a campaign, than a candidate. When I, as a mapmaker, have more of an impact on an election than the voters, the system is out of whack,” said GOP consultant David Winston. To remedy this problem, states have tried many approaches. Iowa has put the re-districting efforts into the hands of a nonpartisan legislative group who draws the districts and then passes the proposal onto the state legislature who votes for or against it and is not allowed to modify it. This has led to relatively competitive seats in Iowa, but may not work for the more culturally-heterogeneous regions of the United States. In New Jersey, the state Supreme Court appointed Princeton University professor Larry Bartels to devise a fair system. His stated goal is to develop a system where states draw their districts in such a way that each party gets a number of seats commensurate with the amount of support each party got within the state. Many agree that there must be major re-districting reform, possibly at the national-level, but hopes for such reform are low as voters do not typically rank re-districting as particularly high on their list of priorities. Ultimately, though, districts need to be drawn so that our representatives encounter diverse perspectives, as that would be more representative of the nation as a whole.

Chapter 7: How To Restore Civility to the House

“The only way to get back to a more collaborative atmosphere is for the people to demand it,” said former Rep. Dick Gephardt. Bill Tauzin echoed this, suggesting that, “there is no institutional support for restoring comity and respect and order. It’s going to take some cataclysmic voter reaction.” Eilperin concludes by emphasizing that if the system is going to change it is going to change because of voter action.

Author Info

Juliet Eilperin graduated from Princeton University and has been The Washington Post’s House of Representatives reporter since 1998. In that time, she’s observed countless debates on and off the floors of Congress including Bill Clinton’s impeachment process, lobbying, and four national congressional campaigns. During her first year at the Post she was their most prolific author in writing more than 200 stories.

Matt Motyl