Make Way for the Party: The Rise and Fall of the Senate National Security Committees, 1947–2006

Linda L. Fowler and R. Brian Law

in Why Not Parties?

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print October 2008 | ISBN: 9780226534879
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226534947 | DOI:
Make Way for the Party: The Rise and Fall of the Senate National Security Committees, 1947–2006

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Committees have traditionally been the linchpin of the institutional power and policy expertise of Congress. However, surprisingly little discussion of the changing status of Senate committees has arisen in the current literature. The neglect is understandable, because changes regarding the prerogatives of Senate committees have been episodic, seemingly modest, and often informal. The consequences have been substantial, however: first, by adding to the collective-action problems in the Senate that powerful committee barons once handled; and second, by diminishing the incentives for committees to protect their turf from party leaders. The implication for U.S. foreign and defense policy is a potential de-emphasis of the informational role of committee experts in favor of the political calculations of party leaders. This chapter develops a logic of unintended consequences regarding the flattening of the committee hierarchy. It develops a new measure of committee attractiveness—the seniority ratio, based on the distribution of senior senators—to illuminate the evolution of committee rankings over time. Comparisons of the seniority ratio for all Senate committees provide a context for the more detailed descriptions of patterns for Foreign Relations and Armed Services. The analysis then shifts to an examination of the relative importance of internal influences, such as the mean number of committee assignments and the polarization of the parties, compared to exogenous disturbances, such as public opinion, war casualties, budget priorities, and the end of the Cold War. The conclusion considers the implications of the results for the role of committees and parties in shaping U.S. foreign and defense policy.

Keywords: Senate committees; collective action; incentives; foreign policy; defense policy; party leaders

Chapter.  7373 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: US Politics

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