Sunday, March 26, 2006


In 1940 Sam Rayburn of Texas became the speaker of the House. He served for 20 years as Speaker, leaving a legacy unmatched by any successor to his job. The 2 decades under his leadership, the House went through some of its most conservative years. Democratic majorities in the House all translated into a stronger majority between southern democrats and conservative republicans. As I mentioned in the previous post, these 2 groups formed the “Conservative Coalition”. The CC was formed in 1937 over opposition to one of FDR’s New Deal pieces of legislation; the Fair Labor Standards Act.
1937 to 1958 were by far some of the most successful years for the CC. the alliance emerged over one fifth of all votes and registered a success rate of over 8o percent.
In the other hand, the seniority system shut all the doors to any progressive challengers, most of whom young freshman members of congress. Harold Cooley of North Carolina the chairman of the Agricultural committees told the new comers that they were “walking dead men, zombies” and “new members of both parties must be quiet and listen fro some time”. Such attitudes allowed no real opportunities for progressive minded new comers to challenge the old rule.
Even during those years, northern democrats proved to be the worst possible choice for Presidential races. JFK managed to win 27 million votes, defeating Richard Nixon in a difficult battle while democratic members of congress were pulling over 35 million votes. JFK remains the last non Southern Democratic president up to this day.
Progressive Democrats however formed two institutions to strengthen their forces while under constant attacks by the CC. the fist Institution was the Democratic Caucus that allowed all party members regardless of their seniority to speak up on different issues. The second institution was the Democratic Study Group (DSG);a loosely organized information –exchange group operated by Northern and moderate democrats.
The death of Sam Rayburn and the Speakership of John McCormack of Massachusetts gave liberal democrats new hopes. But real change did not come until 1974 and the election of many freshman democrats to the 94th congress. In the 94th congress the newly elected block of freshman democrats challenged the seniority system in a way that lead to the resignation of 3 committee chairmen. They asked committee chairmen to appear before them and answer their questions. If they failed to do so, the class of the 94th, would not vote in favor of the same chairmen which would result in their removal from their posts. The 1970’s, due to the fallout from the Watergate scandal gave some room for maneuver to the Liberals. These years, in my opinion, were their most fruitful years. They managed to pack the courts with their judges and pass some of the most liberal pieces of legislation ever in American congressional history. But these sweet days did not last for long. The disastrous presidency of Jimmy Carter and the charismatic leadership of Ronald Reagan weakened the liberals in congress once again. The democrats managed to keep their majority in the House until 1994. but the conservative revolution that started during President Reagan and continued under the leadership of Newt Gingrich ended the perceived majority of Democrats .

The picture above is of Sam Rayburn (1882-1961)
-Arash Aramesh

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