Party Messaging in the U.S. House of Representatives

AuthorTyler Hughes,Gregory Koger
Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211029712
On July 28, 2009, the Speaker of the House opened a
period of one-minute speeches without the customary
limit on the number of speeches each party could give.
For hours, 146 members of both parties took turns hailing
or criticizing the health care legislation that would even-
tually become the Patient Protection and Affordable Care
Act (ACA) as spectators cheered from a raucous House
gallery. Members chose whether to participate in this
debate, but each party sought to rally members to make
its best case because the stakes were extraordinary: fram-
ing the public debate over health care reform could affect
whether any bill became law and whether Democrats felt
confident enough to make bold reforms.
This episode was a single clash in an ongoing messag-
ing war in the U.S. House of Representatives. Both politi-
cal parties seek to promote their collective reputation, or
“brand,” to win elections. This goal influences both the
legislative agenda and the legislators’ efforts to commu-
nicate with the media and the broader public. Recent
research finds Congressional parties devote increasing
resources to public relations in the hope of generating a
“wave” for the next election (Green 2015; Lee 2016).
This article takes the next step and explains the strategy
of messaging: when do parties go on message, and on
which policy issues do parties focus?
We analyze party message strategy using a unique
dataset of 50,195 one-minute speeches delivered on the
floor of the House of Representatives from 1989 to 2016.1
Speechmaking is just one part of the larger party messag-
ing apparatus, which includes press conferences/releases,
media interviews, and other legislative debates on specific
bills (Green 2015; Groeling 2010; Lee 2016; Sellers
2009). One-minute speeches are ideal for analyzing party
messaging, because these speeches provide a consistent
measure of party messaging over this period. While regu-
lar House debate must be germane to the measure or issue
under consideration, members of Congress (MCs) are free
to discuss any topic during the one-minute debate period.
Legislators may use this opportunity to advocate for their
personal policy priorities or speak about non-policy issues.
However, party caucuses often organize multiple speakers
to advance their party’s message by coordinating a series
of speeches on a single, pre-arranged topic (Harris 2005).
These “messaging” efforts are the focus of this article. We
analyze why parties go on message on some days but not
others and which issues they choose to speak about. Based
on prior research, there are several potential explanations
of party message strategy: messaging may be tied to the
legislative agenda, parties may emphasize issues not given
1029712PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211029712Political Research QuarterlyHughes and Koger
1California State University, Northridge, USA
2University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Tyler Hughes, California State University, Northridge, 210 Sierra Hall,
18111 Nordhoff Street, Northridge, CA 913301-8254, USA.
Party Messaging in the U.S. House
of Representatives
Tyler Hughes1 and Gregory Koger2
Both Congressional parties compete to promote their own reputations while damaging the opposition party’s brand.
This behavior affects both policy-making agendas and the party members’ communications with the media and
constituents. While there has been ample study of partisan influence on legislative agenda-setting and roll call voting
behavior, much less is known about the parties’ efforts to shape the public debate. This paper analyzes two strategic
decisions of parties: the timing of collective efforts to influence the public policy debate and the substantive content
of these “party messaging” events. These dynamics are analyzed using a unique dataset of 50,195 one-minute speeches
delivered on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1989 to 2016. We find a pattern of strategic
matching—both parties are more likely to engage in concurrent messaging efforts, often on the same issue.
congress, political parties, legislative speech, agenda setting, machine learning
2022, Vol. 75(3) 829–845
830 Political Research Quarterly 75(3)
attention by the opposition, or each party may attempt to
match the message strategy of the opposition. We find a
pattern of strategic matching: both parties are more likely
to engage in messaging efforts when the opposing party
does so, often on the same issues.
Party Brands and Congressional
The contemporary Congress is a forum for partisan com-
petition as much as it is a lawmaking organization.
Democrats and Republicans compete to maximize their
brand reputations while damaging their opponent’s repu-
tation. This competition is manifest in parliamentary
speeches on the House floor, which we leverage to study
the dynamics of partisan messaging.
Party Brands
A growing body of research finds that political parties have
durable reputations or “brands” (Box-Steffensmeier and
Smith 1996, 1998; Campbell et al. 1960; Erikson,
MacKuen, and Stimson 2002). These brands include major
policy positions, legislative accomplishments, well-known
members (such as presidents), and past policy performance
(Egan 2013; Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002; Green
2015; Groeling 2010; Grynaviski 2010; Lee 2016; Pope
and Woon 2009; Snyder and Ting 2002; Woon and Pope
2008). Parties also have issue-specific advantages (Pope
and Woon 2009), and the parties emphasize their relative
strengths when attempting to set legislative agendas (Cox
and McCubbins 1993, 2005; Egan 2013; Lee 2009) or
choose campaign themes (Petrocik 1996). A party has
good reason to care about its relative status: congressional
elections often feature national partisan swings that reward
one party over the other for having a superior reputation
(Cox and McCubbins 1993; Green 2015, 72; see also
Butler and Powell 2014).
Because the electoral stakes are high, congressional par-
ties are deeply involved in framing news coverage and polit-
ical discussion on key issues (Groeling 2010; Lee 2016,
112–41). Party leaders even distribute talking points to their
members to coordinate their public message. Legislators
then decide if they are going to repeat the party message or
not (Groeling 2010; Sellers 2009). These actions help voters
to evaluate parties (Egan 2013; Woon and Pope 2008). The
misuse of congressional rhetoric can even lower citizens’
overall evaluation of Congress (Morris and Eisenstein
2001). In addition, party messaging can help a party to shape
the public framing of policy debates and foster camaraderie
among party members (Green 2015, 72–73).
The next step in research on party messaging is to
understand the messaging choices parties make. How do
parties, in Schattschneider’s (1960) formulation, expand
the scope of conflict on specific issues? Which issues
does each party emphasize, and when? Do parties empha-
size their own issues, discuss issues on the legislative
agenda, or respond to the opposition? These strategic
decisions underlie the public side of Congressional polar-
ization. To answer them, we need a consistent, long-term
dataset of party messaging. For this purpose, we use one-
minute speeches from the U.S. House of Representatives.
One-Minute Speeches
House one-minute speeches take place at the beginning of
each legislative day when the Speaker designates a number
of speeches to be delivered from each side of the aisle—
usually ten or fifteen for each party. These morning-hour
speeches represent rare opportunities for unconstrained
access to the floor. MCs—regardless of seniority—are free
to address the floor on a first come, first served basis until
each side reaches their allotted number of speeches. Speech
topics may range from the intricacies of the federal budget
to honoring a Girl Scouts troop in rural Indiana. House
members understand most voters will not witness these
speeches on C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs
Network) or read the transcript of the Congressional
Record, so speeches are rebroadcast through members’
newsletters, websites, and YouTube channels.
Congressional leaders began using one-minute speeches
to publicize party messages in the 1980s (Evans 2001;
Green 2015, 75–78; Harris 2005). This effort became more
formal and common after Newt Gingrich and Dick
Gephardt ascended to their respective House leadership
roles in the 1980s. Today, the two parties’ communication
teams work to highlight and reinforce the parties’ policy
stances through one-minute speeches. In fact, caucus lead-
ership sends weekly emails asking members to highlight
specific issues in their speeches (Congressional Staff
Interviews L, April 24, 2014).2 According to several staff
members, the parties often engage one another during the
debate period to contest policy frames (Congressional
Staff Interviews I, April 17, 2014).
The House session of November 6, 2007, is an example
of how these messaging efforts can be interactive. On this
day, Republicans gave twenty-seven speeches and
Democrats gave sixteen speeches on a bill providing funds
for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services,
and Veterans Affairs. The overarching message within
those speeches offered contrasting messages: Republicans
argued against the “wasteful” spending bill, and Democrats
expressed the need to fund the nation’s veterans.
One-minute speeches provide a consistent measure of
legislative rhetoric that scholars can use to understand
patterns of Congressional debate.3 Several studies ana-
lyzed which legislators are more likely to make one-min-
ute speeches (Maltzman and Sigelman 1996; Morris

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT