"organizing for reform: the democratic study group & the role of party factions in driving institutional change in the house of representatives"

This project examines how party factions develop the capacity to pursue procedural, policy and leadership change in Congress through an extensive analysis of the Democratic Study Group (DSG).  DSG was the official organization of liberal Democrats in the House of Representatives from 1959-1994, leader of the 1970s “reform era,” and the first organized member group in the modern Congress.  While most political scientists assume that the committee and leadership reforms adopted in the 1970s are an inevitable consequence of rising ideological homogeneity and the realignment of groups, I argue that reform emerges through the strategic development of organizational capacity by new party factions. Evolving policy attitudes and new party coalitions are a necessary condition for institutional change, but alone they are insufficient to overcome the significant hurdles to change. The development of strong organizational capacity enables factions representing members with limited formal power or resources in Congress to overcome rules and norms limiting their ability to move into leadership positions, to change House and party rules and procedure to secure votes and build legislative coalitions around legislation responsive to their constituents’ interests.  My research incorporates extensive archival research on the DSG and House Democratic Caucus papers at the Library of Congress, interviews with former congressional staffers and members of Congress, and statistical analyses.  These methods and data allow me to analyze processes of change, or the activities and efforts initiated by liberals long before specific rule or policy changes came to a vote, as well as to evaluate the relationship between group organization and observed outcomes in the House.  I find that the significant leadership, procedural, and policy, changes observed in the House of Representatives in the mid- to late-twentieth century are as much a product of group organization as they are a reflection of the growing number of liberals in the House Democratic Caucus.  Ultimately, I conclude that the capacity of likeminded members to serve as “agents of institutional change” is moderated by the extent to which they develop organizational resources and tools to work together and challenge the status quo in Congress.