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About Parties and Leadership | Historical Overview

In the 1790s and early 1800s, senators divided into rival parties based on support of and opposition to the policies of presidents George Washington and John Adams, especially regarding foreign relations with Great Britain and France and the role of the federal government. Party labels were very fluid at this time, but for the most part supporters of Washington and Adams adopted the label Federalists, while the opposition, led by Thomas Jefferson, became known as Democratic Republicans (many preferred the one-word label, Republicans). The Federalists largely represented New England and Mid-Atlantic states, while the Democratic Republicans were dominant in the South. Although senators tended to vote along these party lines, they did not establish formal party organizations in the Senate. The most visible role of parties in Congress at this time came in presidential election years, when party members from both the House of Representatives and the Senate gathered to nominate presidential candidates. After the elections of 1800, which put Thomas Jefferson in the presidency, Democratic Republicans gained the majority in the Senate, with Federalists holding only a small number of seats.

Beginning in the 1820s, Democratic Republicans in Congress divided over questions about the powers of the federal government, which set the stage for two new political parties. Republicans who favored a national bank as well as federal funding of internal improvements—roads, canals, and bridges—became known as National Republicans. So called Old Republicans continued to support states’ rights and a smaller federal government. After the controversial presidential election of 1824—in which the contest was decided in favor of John Quincy Adams by the House of Representatives—Democratic Republicans split over whether to support or oppose the defeated candidate Andrew Jackson in the 1828 election. When Jackson won the presidency in 1828, he was backed by a new coalition party with national reach and a popular base of state and local support—the Democratic Party. In the Senate, Kentucky’s Henry Clay led a coalition of anti-Jackson forces who called themselves Whigs. The Democratic and Whig Parties soon became competitive in states throughout the country.

The Democrats and Whigs gradually adopted the first party-based customs in the Senate. In the 1830s, for example, members of the two parties began sitting on opposite sides of the Senate Chamber, with the Democrats gathering to the right of the presiding officer and the Whigs to the left. The party in the majority controlled the chairmanships and a majority of seats on most, if not all, of the standing committees. In the 1840s, each party began determining committee assignments of their members and submitted lists of assignments to be approved by the full Senate. Throughout this time, senators representing the two parties clashed over a number of issues such as the Bank of the United States, import tariffs, and federal funding of infrastructure.

Until the 1850s, even as parties became more organized, senators of the two parties did not meet regularly during sessions to coordinate policy agendas, and members were still frequently divided along sectional or other lines. The Senate of this era was dominated by a powerful triumvirate of senators—Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina—who represented the regional interests of the northeast, south, and west. Chief among those issues was the institution of slavery.

When the Whig Party dissolved over the issue of slavery in the 1850s, it was replaced by a new Republican Party, a coalition dedicated to blocking the spread of slavery into the nation’s western territories. The Democratic Party also split over the issue of slavery in the years leading to the Civil War, with some Northern Democrats adopting anti-slavery (“free soil”) positions that differed from pro-slavery Southern Democrats, who ultimately opted to leave the Senate in support of secession. By the time the Southern Democrats returned to the Senate during Reconstruction, the modern two-party system was firmly in place.

The Senate of the late 19th century often was closely divided between the Democratic and Republican Parties, and each party took steps to strengthen party cohesion and empower leadership. When Republicans were first elected to the Senate in large numbers in the late 1850s, they organized a party conference and elected New Hampshire senator John P. Hale as chair. When Democrats increased their numbers in the Senate in the 1870s, they also formed a party conference and elected John W. Stevenson of Kentucky as their first conference chair. The chair presided over conference meetings, which typically took place at the start of each Congress to discuss the legislative agenda, but the chair lacked the power to manage Senate floor business or set policy priorities. Over the next several decades, the conference chair would gain that power as the position gradually evolved into that of modern floor leader.

In the 1890s, each conference established steering committees to coordinate legislative action, and these quickly became an effective tool of party power. Democrat Arthur Pue Gorman of Maryland was elected chair of the Democratic Conference in 1890, and beginning in 1892, he also served as chair of the party’s steering committee, whose members he appointed. In 1893 Iowa’s William B. Allison chaired the Republican steering committee to which he assigned key allies, including Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island. In 1897 Republicans elected Allison to serve as conference chair as well. Allison and his allies also led major committees—Allison chaired Appropriations, for example, while Aldrich led the Finance Committee—and exercised enormous power over the Senate’s legislative agenda. Working closely with fellow Republicans John Spooner of Wisconsin and Orville Platt of Connecticut, they became known as the Senate Four. Soon, Aldrich was largely acknowledged as the unofficial leader of the Republicans.

Although in the minority for all but two years between 1881 and 1913, the Democrats took a major step towards establishing formal leadership positions by pioneering the election of what became known as party leader or floor leader. When conference chairman Arthur Gorman took the lead in organizing a months-long filibuster of a Republican-sponsored elections bill in 1890, news accounts frequently identified Gorman as the “Democratic leader.” When Gorman left the Senate in 1899, the Democrats elected James K. Jones of Arkansas to chair the conference, and many observers referred to him as the “leader of the minority on the floor of the Senate.” Gorman returned to the Senate in 1903 and was reelected as conference chair, again being identified as party leader. Gorman died in office in 1906, and the Democrats unanimously elected Joseph Blackburn of Kentucky to succeed him. The conference marked Blackburn’s election with a resolution identifying him as “their chosen official leader in the great forum of the Senate.” When the Democrats retook the majority in 1913, John W. Kern of Indiana became conference chair. Kern met frequently with President Woodrow Wilson to shape the party’s legislative agenda, and was widely regarded as the “majority leader,” the first to be referred to by that title. In 1913 the Democrats also appointed the Senate’s first “party whip” to assist the leader and keep track of members’ positions on particular measures.

By 1913 the Republican old guard of the Senate Four had left office. For the first time in a generation, the party was in the minority. The Republican Conference began following the example of the Democrats and placed more power in the hands of the conference chair. The chair, who by custom was the most senior senator, was now frequently referred to as the “Republican leader” or “minority leader.” In 1913 that position fell to Jacob Gallinger of New Hampshire, who was replaced by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge in 1918. In 1925, for the first time, the Republicans elected a leader based not on seniority but on capacity for effective leadership—Charles Curtis of Kansas.

Although the label of “party leader” for conference chairs had been established by the 1920s, the leaders still struggled to bring unity to their respective conferences. In 1903 the Democrats approved a resolution introduced by Blackburn that all members of the party would be bound to vote for or against a measure if two-thirds of the conference called for it. Members bristled at the prospect of being bound by the party, however, and persuaded Blackburn to add a host of exceptions to that binding rule. Throughout the 1910s, Democrats periodically debated whether they would be bound by party conference, and many Republicans voiced similar concerns. In 1925 the Republican Conference adopted a resolution stating emphatically that its members were not bound “in any way” by action taken by the conference. The daunting task of building unity within a party conference continued to challenge every party leader that followed.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the increasing strength of party floor leaders became institutionalized through Senate procedures and traditions. Soon after becoming Democratic leader in 1919, Alabama senator Oscar Underwood moved from the back row of the Senate Chamber to the first-row seat on the center aisle—and he held onto that spot even after he resigned as leader in 1923. When Underwood retired four years later, the new Democratic leader, Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, quickly grabbed the seat, a position held by every subsequent Democratic leader. In January 1937 Republican leader Charles McNary of Oregon took the front-row desk across the aisle from Robinson, the space still occupied by the Republican leader today. Beginning in the 1930s, the presiding officer also adopted the practice of giving the two party leaders priority of recognition over all other members, thus giving the leaders the power to control the agenda of the floor.

Both parties reorganized throughout the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s to assist members in pursuing electoral and policy goals. The parties established senatorial campaign committees to share fundraising operations and support members in close electoral campaigns. Both parties hired staff assistants, including the appointment of party secretaries starting in 1929. As part of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, both parties established a policy committee to develop expertise on the problems facing the country, inform the drafting of legislation, and plan legislative agendas. The policy committees empowered the Senate to counter the executive branch’s dominance over policy development, which it had enjoyed since the 1930s. For the Democrats, the Policy Committee also was a source of power for leadership since, until 2000, the Democratic floor leader also served as Policy Committee chair.

The extent to which party leaders centralized power in their offices varied throughout the 20th century. Democratic Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas rarely called meetings of the party conference, preferring to take firm control over the party’s agenda and using tools like committee assignments, legislative logrolling, unanimous consent agreements, and his own powers of persuasion to rally support of the often-divided Democratic Conference. His successor, Mike Mansfield of Montana, believed in giving individual senators and standing committees greater authority to pursue legislative goals. Republican Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, whose party was in the minority during his tenure in the 1960s, was known for his ability to grasp the goals of his colleagues and for his pragmatism in helping them shape legislation.

Over the past few decades, party leaders have become even more important to the daily operations of the Senate. Consequently, the visibility of leaders has grown, additional leadership posts have been established, and leadership staff has expanded to include experts in various policy fields. Whereas leaders in the 20th century often struggled to unite parties that were internally divided by region and ideology, today’s leaders preside over conferences that are more cohesive and vote together far more frequently. While the majority leader is charged with determining the legislative agenda, and frequently uses unanimous consent agreements to manage daily floor business, majority and minority leaders, along with party secretaries and key leadership staff, work together to ensure the orderly operation of the Senate.

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