The Agency of Leaders in the Politics of the U.S. House
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007, 238 p.
Hardcover. ISBN 978-0801886904. $49.95 / Paperback. ISBN 978-0801886911. $26.95
Reviewed by Bernard Genton
Université de Strasbourg
Even when applied to the specific world of Congress, the question, clearly posed from the beginning and consistently addressed throughout Randall Strahan’s intriguing study, is a fairly old one: do individuals in positions of leadership matter in the shaping of policy? While recent scholarship has generally tended to minimize their importance “to focus on more general causes to explain leadership policies”, Randall Strahan aims to demonstrate that “individual leaders matter in congressional politics”. This he does by examining Newt Gingrich’s example, “alongside that of two of his most interesting predecessors in the speaker’s chair: Henry Clay and Thomas Reed” .
The author develops his argument within a strictly defined conceptual construction, targeting the “principal-agent theory”, which argues that political leaders are only vehicles to whom “authority is delegated to oversee tasks that advance their followers’ or ‘principals’ ’ goals”. For Strahan, this “contextual approach” fails to take the full measure of the independent agency sometimes exerted by strong leaders who, at their best moments, are more than the mere receptacles of delegated authority: they do not necessarily limit themselves to carrying out the tasks expected of them. Strahan hardly calls for a return to the “great men” theories of, say, Carlyle, or to the celebration of “heroic modes of leadership”. The “central question” addressed here is “how characteristics of leaders matter along with contextual factors”, and the “central thesis” is that “major policy and institutional changes in Congress can occur as a consequence of actions taken by leaders who take political risks to advance goals about which they care deeply” . This comforting view enables the author to establish his “conditional agency approach”, which provides the framework for the entire endeavor.
After these definitions of terms, concepts and methods, Strahan moves on to the second chapter to explain congressional leadership, discussing the theoretical limitations of the contextual approach and quickly examining the empirical evidence available to support his thesis that individuals do matter. In the same chapter, Randall Strahan also specifies that Henry Clay (1811-1814, 1815-1820, 1823-1825), Thomas Reed (1889-1891, 1895-1899) and Newt Gingrich (1995-1998) were obvious choices because they “provide an opportunity to examine the politics of leadership during a period when a figure reputed to be a strong congressional leader occupied the speaker’s chair” . The three case studies provide ample opportunity to confront and compare the two competing approaches briefly defined in the first chapter. For the contextualists, strong leadership in the House occurs when three conditions are met: 1) party followers are in fundamental agreement on the “institutional or policy issue” at hand; 2) the leader acts only after close consultation of his followers; 3) in situations where the followers’ preferences are unclear, the leader “shuns aggressive use” of his position “prior to the emergence of consensus among their followers”. For the believer in the conditional agency framework, the main point of difference is that congressional leadership can also occur under slightly different circumstances, especially when 1) there are strong indications that the leader in question has “intensely held goals beyond holding the office of speaker”; 2) the followers have unclear or even “heterogeneous” preferences; 3) the leader perceives elements of risk in his course of action; 4) the leader uses “the prerogatives of his leadership to advance the alternative he personally prefers” [41-42].
The next three chapters form the core of the book: “Henry Clay: The Unionist as Speaker”, “Thomas Reed: The Responsible Partisan” and “Newt Gingrich: The Transformative Leader as Speaker”. Strahan knows his political history and he has a flair for significant quotes. The books starts with an interesting indication that Clay himself may have been keenly aware of the problems inherent in institutional leadership positions. On his election to the speakership in 1811, he remarked in his first speech: “Gentlemen. In coming to the station which you have done me the honor to assign me… I obey rather your commands than my own inclinations”. This profession of modesty and subservience—an unwitting nod to the latter-day principal-agent theory, perhaps—did not keep him from affirming quite the opposite ten years later, in a private statement to John Quincy Adams: “Looking at Congress, they were a collection of materials, and how much good and how much evil might be done with them, accordingly as they should be well or ill-directed”, as though he was now making the case for the “conditional agency approach” . To characterize Thomas Reed’s considerable “power of sarcasm or sardonic wit”, Strahan has him responding to a lesser House colleague who had imprudently used the famous Henry Clay line “I would rather be right than be President”. Reed quipped in retaliation: “The gentleman need not worry. He will never be either” . In the Gingrich chapter, one finds a rather entertaining quote from a 1996 interview of the temporary strongman and would-be Gaullist from Georgia:
History is the only academic discipline dense and confusing enough to reflect real life… Anything that can draw lines, any so-called social science, by self-definition is wrong. I was a political science major at Emory University when I dropped out of college for a year to run a congressional campaign in north Georgia … We lost, but I learned at the end of that race that everything the political scientist told me was silly, and everything I learned from history was useful [136-137].
Strahan proceeds with caution and never fails to give full consideration to the various historical contexts and the considerable differences between them. When Clay took his office, he knew that whatever he was going to do would be vested with the dignity of precedent. Thomas Reed became speaker in a period of relatively weak presidents, whereas Gingrich was elected to the position as a consequence of the 1994 mid-term elections, in the complicated context of Bill Clinton’s first term. The issues at hand varied widely, and so did the goals of the three leaders: war with Britain, recognition of newly independent states in South America, internal improvements, territorial expansion, the peculiar institution and most important of all, the preservation of the Union defined both the landscape and the horizon of U.S. politics during Clay’s tenure; corruption, government reform, tariffs, the gold standard and the beginnings of American imperialism were the important issues when Reed had his turn; the “Contract with America”, i.e. tax reform, balancing the budget and more broadly speaking, the substitution of a “conservative opportunity society” for the “liberal welfare state” were the things that mattered most to Gingrich. All three speakers were intent on addressing the issues of their day and to further their respective goals, all three took whatever steps were available to them to strengthen their position in terms of authority and efficiency. Under Clay, there were no formal or spectacular institutional modifications, but the manner in which he performed his function to the fullest extent possible was change enough from the methods of his predecessors. Reed effected far more visible transformations: the adoption of the Reed Rules in 1890, “without question one of the most significant events in the institutional development of the Congress” [79 ], “eliminated the most potent means of minority obstruction” in the House [107 ]. Gingrich’s major breakthrough was the fusion of party and committee leadership, also a rupture of congressional traditions: under his influence, the leadership positions in Congress were awarded “based on ability and willingness” of candidates to “advance the party’s legislative goals rather than seniority” [148 ].
After much careful consideration given to actions taken, personal idiosyncrasies (Clay was a dedicated gambler and card player, therefore a risk taker), methods of intervention, political battles, larger goals envisaged by the three notable parliamentary leaders, Strahan comes to the reassuring if not entirely novel conclusion that no matter how powerful in and outside of Congress, a speaker of the House is just that, one of the leading actors in “a separate system of legitimate, coequal and completing institutions” (Charles O. Jones, 1999, quoted 181), not to mention the institutional and psychological makeup of Congress, which tolerates strong leadership only to a certain extent. But it is a story well worth the telling, and the angle of leadership studies chosen here gives it a special kind of intellectual tension. The reader is happy to find in the end that there is ample evidence to support the validity of Strahan’s conditional agency approach, certainly a satisfactory outcome for all those who know the price of empirical confirmation.
Randall Strahan’s book offers a fascinating insight into the rigorous methods of political science, carefully and rationally constructing an object before analyzing it as thoroughly as possible. The dryness of the demonstration is relieved at opportune moments, when Randall remembers that history is not a structural model, but a series of actions, emotions, and conflicts, often translated into words and phrases which disappear quickly into oblivion. The reader is all the more thankful to be reminded of such atmospheric elements: when Reed was speaker of the House, “one wit defined a lighthouse as a tall building on the seashore in which the government maintains a lamp and the friend of a politician”  and much closer to us, Newt Gingrich’s 104th Congress voted “the American Dream Restoration Act”—at the time believed to be a decisive step in bringing back the “American Dream”, whatever that may have been. Half a century ago, Edmund Wilson called it a “sickening propaganda phrase”. Of course, a fussy historian might object that Henry Clay, whose political career spanned half-a-century, looms much larger in American history than Thomas Reed—a talented, principled politician in an era which had so few of them, or Newt Gingrich for that matter. The fact is: the “conservative firebrand from Georgia”  cuts the weakest figure in the trio. Is it because he is still too close for academic comfort, or because his meteoric appearance on the stage of national politics did not seem to have much of a future even then, in 1998, when he was firmly dismissed by his Republican colleagues?
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