Joe Cannon and the Minority Party: Tyranny or Bipartisanship?

Published date01 November 2005
Date01 November 2005
479Joe Cannon and the Minority Party
Stanford University
The Ohio State University
Joe Cannon and the Minority Party:
Tyranny or Bipartisanship?
The minority party is rarely featured in empirical research on parties in legis-
latures, and recent theories of parties in legislatures are rarely neutral and balanced in
their treatment of the minority and majority parties. This article makes a case for
redressing this imbalance. We identified four characteristics of bipartisanship and
evaluated their descriptive merits in a purposely hostile testing ground: during the rise
and fall of Speaker Joseph G. Cannon, “the Tyrant from Illinois.” Drawing on century-
old recently discovered records now available in the National Archives, we found that
Cannon was anything but a majority-party tyrant during the important committee-
assignment phase of legislative organization. Our findings underscore the need for
future, more explicitly theoretical research on parties-in-legislatures.
The minority party is the crazy uncle of American politics, showing
up at most major events, semiregularly causing a ruckus, yet stead-
fastly failing to command attention and reflection. In light of the large
quantity of new research on political parties, the academic
marginalization of the minority party is ironic and unfortunate. It appears
we have an abundance of theoretical and empirical arguments about
parties in legislatures, but the reality is that we have only slightly more
than half of that. The preponderance of our theories are about a single,
strong party in the legislature: the majority party.
A rare exception to the majority-centric rule is the work of Charles
Jones, who, decades ago, lamented that “few scholars have made an
effort to define these differences [between majority and minority parties]
in any but the most superficial manner” (1970, 3). A book ensued, but,
since then, congressional research has almost invariably treated the
minority party in one of two ways. Either it has perfunctorily accepted
the minority party’s fundamental inferiority to the majority in terms of
numbers, range of functions, and, ultimately, impact. Or, it has treated
the minority party like a crazy uncle, one who must be acknowledged
out of courtesy but may then be safely ignored.
480 Keith Krehbiel and Alan E. Wiseman
Peabody, for instance, argued emphatically that “the minority party
is inherently disadvantaged as compared with the majority party in almost
every conceivable resource . . . the major resource which a minority
party lacks is, of course, votes [and it] is also disadvantaged in terms of
staff, space, and control over investigatory funds” (1976, 47). Soon
thereafter, in his groundbreaking study of the politics of House committee
assignments, Shepsle summarily dismissed the minority party because
“journalistic and scholarly attention to committee assignment practices
. . . heavily weighed in favor of the Democrats [hence] the empirical
foundation upon which to construct a behavioral theory . . . [was]
virtually absent for Republicans” (1978, 7). Indeed, even those scholars
with a rare analysis of the minority have been careful to qualify their
assessments. For example, when discussing the ability of party leaders
to sanction members for voting against the party line, Jones argued that
“although [minority party leaders] too have sanctions—e.g., committee
assignments, special favors—their range is more restricted than that of
majority party leaders” (1970, 27).
Contemporary scholarship remains true to now-well-established
form. In the first sentence of a pathbreaking study of minority rights,
Binder embraces majority-party dominance as a “plainly evident” axiom
of congressional life: “the majority rules—with the minority seldom
granted a substantive chance to influence the making of national policy”
(1997, xi). Fleisher and Bond seem to concur when they claim,
“Members of Congress expect their party leaders to perform several
important functions . . . these expectations hold for both the majority
and minority party leaders, although minority leaders’ influence over
running the chamber is limited” (2000, 162). Aldrich and Rohde are
similarly, albeit more tepidly, dismissive of the minority, writing “one
way the majority party may have a disproportionate impact on out-
comes is that it may exert more influence on members’ choices than
the minority party” (2000, 52).
The purpose of this article is to inquire if a more-balanced approach
to the study of parties in legislatures might be fruitful. We contrast
majority party and bipartisan theories and their hypotheses, illustrate
some important inferential problems, and, ultimately, conduct discrimi-
nating tests using a unique dataset on committee assignments during
Joseph Cannon’s last two Congresses as Speaker.
1. Theories and Hypotheses
The strong tendency of existing research to discount or disregard
the minority party has striking implications for expectations about

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