Great Theatre: The American Congress in the 1990s

Roll Call Votes 101st Congress-2nd session (1990)
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These two definitions are virtually identical.

Both emphasize the actor the "who" who serves as agent , the action the "what" that constitutes that act and the means the "how" that pro- Great Theatre vides the agency for the act. The main difference between these schemes is that Lasswell focused on the time frame - the when - whereas Burke emphasized the purpose - the why - and the setting of the scene, the "where. Congress as Theatre The term theatre has several meanings.

A Movement Perspective

Theatre is variously defined as drama, the theatrical world, theatrical technique, a playhouse the auditorium in which plays are performed , or, more generally, the place where events take place e. At "an evening at a theatre," said longtime New Republic drama critic Stark Young, "the dramatist's share takes its place with the other elements that go to make up the art. Along with the acting, the decor and the directing goes the drama itself - all make up. Congress can be viewed as theatre in all of these senses. It is a playhouse in which drama occurs.

Like the august chambers of the U. Supreme Court or the impressiveness of the White House's Oval Office, the halls of Congress confer all of the dignity, authority, and independence that their public architecture can muster see Goodsell Such massive, ornate, imposing public spaces, which are the stages for political discourse and decision making, help to mold and shape the behavior of political actors and potentially influence the citizenry, who provide the audience for government see Edelman Accordingly, "people are taught to see legislative halls, courtrooms, executive mansions, and even administrative offices as symbols of government by the people and equality before the law" Edelman Again, Congress can be viewed in the light of the social, political, cultural, or economic conflicts that are taken there to be resolved.

It is viewed, thereby, as the battlefield on which important events take place, as "combat on the legislative terrain" Gross But more than anything else, Congress is theatre in the sense of providing drama. Of course, televised congressional hearings can provide drama.

Congressional debates can also provide drama, though most watchers of Congress on television's C-SPAN probably also find them to be a good substitute for sleeping pills. Similarly, congressional debates in the s Congress in Action were well covered by newspapers, when many of the main issues of the day were fought out in floor debates.

Account Options

But Congress is not only theatre when it holds hearings or debates. Congress is always theatre and, as Jefferson maintained, it is great theatre. Congress provides the arena in which political issues can be fought out, and it provides the battlefield on which the leading political personalities of the day can make their marks and attract public attention. While we are arguing that Congress is always theatre, during the th Congress, it was certainly great theatre, and the participants understood that they were playing to an audience.

The Republicans gained control of the House largely through the strategizing of their new leader, Newt Gingrich.


None of your libraries hold this item. Aller, F. Kozak, Primoz - The legend of Saint Che. Major bills passed included restructuring the savings and loans deposit insurance system, repealing a catastrophic health insurance law, and changing the way Medicare pays its doctors. While the discrepancy between white Democrats and white Republicans is expected, there is also about a 17 point average difference between white Democrats and black Democrats in the rd Congress, and the mean difference is about 14 percentage points in the th.

From the time he was first elected to the House in , Gingrich consciously took steps to make the Republicansfightto become the majority party. Having succeeded, he wanted his majority to enact a series of laws that would change the course of government policy and would lead to a new conservative era in the United States. This required showing the nation that the new Republican majority in the House could make a difference, but that it had to be accompanied by a Republican president in order for its program to triumph.

Thus, winning control of Congress was only to be the first step of gaining conservative ascendancy. Accomplishing this agenda required playing successfully to the watching public see Gimpel Theatre as a Metaphor for Studying Congress The term "theatre" is originally derived from the Greek word theatron, "a seeing place" , emphasizing that theatre is something that is seen in a special location. In viewing Congress as theatre, then, our attention is subtly shifted from viewing the actions as real and important in their own right to viewing them as occurring for the viewing of others.

The biggest difference between theatre and Congress may seem to be that in the theatre, the playwright usually gives the actors a full script in advance, whereas there is usually no literal script in Congress. Of Great Theatre course, there is also "improvisational" theatre, in which actors are not given scripts but are just told the basic scene and are expected to work out the script as they proceed.

In a real sense, that is very similar to Congress - the legislators know the situation when a new session of Congress begins, but after that, all must be improvised.

How to Salvage Congress

However, we would rather emphasize three similarities between theatre and Congress. First, and foremost, is the emphasis on the audience. The successful playwright knows what will sell to the audience in the theatre, while the successful member of Congress has learned what will sell to the political audience. The member of Congress plays to the public just as the actor plays to the audience.

From the earliest days of Greek theatre, drama was intended to help educate the public. Congress similarly provides enlightenment to its audience, as its debates clarify the issues underlying legislation. Third, actions may not always mean what they seem. There can be a symbolic meaning to the plot of a play just as there is usually a symbolic element to actions in a legislature.

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"In , the Republicans gave political scientists a great gift--the th Congress--and the Weisberg-Patterson collection of thoughful essays takes full. Editorial Reviews. Review. "In , the Republicans gave political scientists a great gift--the th Congress--and the Weisberg-Patterson collection of.

Another commonality between theatre and Congress involves the importance of the concept of representation. The distinction in drama is between "presentational theatre," in which the theatricality is emphasized as by making stage machinery visible so that the audience always remembers that it is watching a play, and "representational theatre," with realistic plots, characters, and scenery so that the audience is temporarily caught up in the illusion that what transpires on the stage is real.

Representation in Congress also involves one thing being considered equivalent to another - here, not the play equivalent to reality, but, in some sense, the legislator equivalent to the constituent. As we have suggested, each of the elements of theatre - the story, the audience, the director, the theatre building and stage, the actors, and the staging - is present in Congress as well. The Capitol building is the theatre building, with the Senate and House chambers providing two separate stages for action, where the rituals and symbols of politics and policy making unfold in civic space see Goodsell The legislators are the actors, playing their roles as delegates, trustees, and politicos interest-group advocates, president's men and women, and clarion callers for a cause see Davidson ; Wahlke et al.

The committee meeting rooms are the rehearsal chambers in which behind-the-scenes actions shape what will happen when bills reach center stage as described in Fenno The party leaders can serve as directors, though 2 Also, both actors and members of Congress can wear out their welcomes with their respective audiences, though no one has yet proposed term limits for actors. To describe Congress as theatre suggests that it provides drama. The idea of drama implies a story with action and human melodrama.

The action in Congress is a matter of attempting to pass legislation, while the human melodrama involves the interplay of powerful leaders and rank-and-file members in the consideration of that legislation. Thus, books on the passage of particular bills emphasize both the steps involved in passing the bills and the roles of particular members of Congress in getting them passed. Because we have characterized congressional life as much like theatre does not mean that it is drama that always receives, or always deserves, rave reviews.

Sometimes congressional theatre is bad theatre, being engaged in what Barbara Sinclair in Chapter 8 calls "governing ugly. D-TX , conducted witch hunts, whereby individuals were charged with disloyalty, with being Communist sympathizers, or with working as spies. By the same token, Congress gave off negative symbols in , when Senator Joseph R. By the end of the subcommittee hearings, the label "McCarthyism" denoted using congressional committee hearings as a platform for character assassination, sullying of reputations, baseless defamation, unsubstantiated charges of disloyalty or other offenses, and, ultimately, disgrace to the Senate itself.

The McCarthyism of the early s gave new meaning to James Fenimore Cooper's admonition, in The American Democrat, that "the true theatre of a demagogue is a democracy. By contrast, when Bertram Gross wrote his book, The Legislative Struggle using a military metaphor borrowed from Clausewitz's On War , he clearly took everything that happens in Congress at face value. Gross depicted great floor fights in Congress as the equivalent of great battles between opposing armies whose generals engaged in careful strategic thinking. On the other hand, the theatre motif 11 Great Theatre instead suggests that what happens on stage may not be very indicative of what transpires behind the scenes.

The battles shown to the public are mere theatrical devices to amuse, bemuse, or becalm the public audience. The maneuvering behind the scenes may be more significant. This leads to the important question of whether Congress has changed so much over a half-century that what used to be seen as a military engagement can now be viewed as just theatre or whether Congress has always been appropriately viewed as theatre. With due respect to alternative interpretations, we would maintain that the theatre metaphor has always provided an appropriate lens through which to understand Congress.

It was as true in Jefferson's days as Gingrich's, let alone the period that Gross described. It is just that we, as political scientists, have not looked sufficiently beyond the obvious to see that much of what transpires in Congress is a matter of playing to an audience. Note that we are not arguing that the theatre metaphor is the only way in which Congress should be viewed. Congress is a complex organization, and many different perspectives are useful in understanding it.

We are arguing that theatre is a useful and insightful metaphor that has not previously been employed in the study of Congress, but we would not expect this to supplant other approaches. For instance, our use of the theatre metaphor certainly does not require a rejection of the formal models of Congress that have been developed in recent years.

We view the emphasis on the reelection goal in formal analysis as compatible with the emphasis on Congress as theatre playing to an audience. Power goals for members of Congress remind us of egoistic actors and actresses who are more concerned with their careers than with the plays in which they act. The policy goals of members of Congress parallel the ideological grounding that underlies the work of some playwrights, whose work is intended as much to proselytize as to entertain.

The newer, formal theory approach to congressional life interprets Congress from various economic perspectives, viewing congressional parties as cartels and congressional committees as information systems. These are potentially powerful perspectives, with perhaps more explanatory power than we would claim for the theatre metaphor. But we believe it is worth underscoring that formal theorists must acknowledge the theatrical element in Congress. There are multiple levels of action in Congress, just as there are multiple levels of action in a play.

To focus on one set of actions is to miss some of the underlying complexity of the congressional institution. By the same token, economic perspectives, although useful analogies for understanding Congress, have their limitations as well. The directors do not give the actors their full scripts at the beginning of each session; instead, the plot develops as the Congress proceeds. The metaphor may seem a little clumsy at this point, but it is useful to consider recent Congresses in terms of their play structure.

Consider the first three Congresses of the s. First, however, the stage must be set. The last period of unified government when the same party controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress was during the Jimmy Carter administration The election not only brought Ronald Reagan into the White House, it gave the Republicans control of the Senate for the first time since The House of Representatives remained under Democratic control, as it had been since the election.

This pattern of divided control of Congress remained in effect from through , yet much of the Reagan program was successfully enacted because the president could use his personal popularity to go over the heads of Congress and appeal directly to the American public. Democrats regained control of the Senate in the election, and the last two years of the Reagan administration were marked by partisan sparring on such issues as the Iran-contra affair. The presidency remained in Republican GOP hands when George Bush won the election, but the Democrats retained their majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Public dissatisfaction with Congress began to climb by this point, but the Democrats were again successful in the congressional elections. The nd Congress was to become known for serious scandals, particularly the House Bank scandal, in which it was revealed that several members of Congress had cashed checks from their accounts with the House Bank even though their accounts had insufficient funds to back the checks. As the scandal exploded, a record number of House members decided not to run for reelection in The presidency returned to Democratic control when Bill Clinton won the election, but Clinton received only a muted mandate.

George Bush was held to a weak 3 7 percent of the popular vote, but the presence of H. Ross Perot's independent candidacy limited Clinton to 43 percent, one of the weakest showings of any winning president over the years.

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There had been some expectation that the redistricting in the election would hurt Democratic chances for Congress, but the Democrats succeeded in maintaining control of the House as well as the Senate. The record of the rd Congress was mixed Pfiffner This was ironic given that unified government prevailed. The Republicans were strong enough in Congress to block several Clinton 13 Great Theatre initiatives, while Democratic support for Clinton-sponsored reforms was often lukewarm.

Actually, President Clinton had one of the best records in recent history in terms of the number of his legislative proposals that were enacted by Congress Thus, attempts to pass campaign reform legislation proved futile, as did the Clinton health insurance reform, which was the centerpiece of the administration's legislative program for its first two years.

At the same time, Clinton was able to get Congress to pass his deficit reduction proposal, albeit without any GOP votes. Furthermore, the Clinton administration had pushed a tax increase through Congress, despite campaign promises of a middle-class tax cut. Republican House leaders decided to try to nationalize the congressional election.

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Using polling and focus-group data, they developed a series of legislative proposals that had substantial support among the public and packaged them in a document they called the "Contract with America" see the end of this chapter. Republican candidates campaigned on the Contract, and the election turned into a one-sided result as Republicans won control of both the House and the Senate in an election that was widely described as the political equivalent of an earthquake.

The national vote totals were actually relatively close, and the Republican margin in the new House was relatively narrow. However, many Democratic incumbents were swept aside, while Republicans won the vast majority of the open seats.