Subverting the Organizational Cartel: Explaining Cross-Party Leadership Selection in U.S. State Houses

Date01 July 2020
Published date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(4) 475 –483
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X19892002
One of the cornerstones of a legislative majority party’s ple-
nary authority is its prerogative to select the top leadership of
its chamber. In the U.S. House of Representatives, this facet
of the majority party’s “organizational cartel” power is espe-
cially significant, because the Speaker of the House may
possess substantial influence over electoral resources, the
policy agenda, and lawmakers’ opportunities for advance-
ment within the legislature (Green, 2010; Jenkins & Stewart,
2013; Jones, 1968; Pearson, 2015). It is thus unsurprising
that majority parties in the House guard their organizational
cartel power jealously. Since the late 19th century, for
instance, the House has always selected the governing par-
ty’s nominee for Speaker and party defections on floor votes
to select the Speaker have been strongly discouraged (Green
& Bee, 2016; Jenkins & Stewart, 2013).
One should expect the same stability in the selection of
the top leader in state houses, especially because many
state chambers grant their leaders formal powers that the
Speaker of the U.S. House lacks (Squire & Hamm, 2005,
p. 103). But oddly, every so often a faction of the majority
party in a state legislative chamber joins forces with the
minority party to select a leader who is opposed by a
majority of the majority party. In fact, 40 elections for the
top leadership post in a state house or senate over the past
four decades were decided by a cross-party organizational
coalition that outvoted the governing party. Some of these
circumventions of the majority’s organizational cartel
power have had important, even profound, political conse-
quences. For instance, the powerful and long-serving
California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D), who
described himself as the “Ayatollah of the Assembly”
and whose tenure fueled the successful effort to impose
term limits on state lawmakers, was first elected to the
speakership by a cross-party coalition (Richardson,
1996; Rosenthal, 2008; Squire & Moncrief, 2015, p. 106).
The selection of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (R) via a
cross-party coalition eventually led some disgruntled con-
servatives to form the Texas House Freedom Caucus, a
group which successfully killed scores of bills in the legis-
lature, and open opposition from other conservatives con-
tributed to Straus’ decision to retire (Garrett & Mekelburg,
2017; Ward, 2017). When minority party Republicans
managed to elect their preferred candidates as top leaders
of the Washington State Senate in 2013, they were awarded
chairmanships of most Senate committees, the chamber
892002APRXXX10.1177/1532673X19892002American Politics ResearchGreen
1The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Matthew N. Green, The Catholic University of America, 620 Michigan
Avenue NE, Washington, DC, 20064, USA.
Subverting the Organizational Cartel:
Explaining Cross-Party Leadership
Selection in U.S. State Houses
Matthew N. Green1
In the U.S. House of Representatives, the majority party constitutes an organizational cartel that monopolizes the
selection of chamber leaders. But in state legislatures, that cartel power is sometimes circumvented by a bipartisan
bloc that outvotes the leadership preferences of a majority of the majority party. Drawing from an original data set of
instances of cross-party organizational coalitions at the state level, I use statistical analysis to test various hypotheses
for when these coalitions are more likely to form. The analysis reveals that party ideology does not adequately
explain the violation of these cartels; rather, violations depend on the costs associated with keeping the party unified
and the benefits that come from selecting the chamber’s top leadership post. This finding underscores the potential
vulnerability of organizational cartels and suggests that governing parties are strategic when deciding how fiercely to
defend their cartel power.
organizational cartel, state legislature, legislative party, party leadership

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