Behind the Scenes: How Congress Elects Leaders

All right class, if you will please take your seats, we will start today’s lesson. Today in Congress 101 we are studying about leadership races. This is a subject your old professor knows something about personally, having run two leadership races in the U.S. House himself -- one successfully and one unsuccessfully.

As we all now know, there currently is a race in the Republican Conference in the U.S. House for the position of Majority Leader. There are two active candidates -- Roy Blunt of Missouri and John Boehner of Ohio. The election is scheduled for Feb. 2 and others could enter the contest between now and then. The voting will be by secret ballot and will continue until one candidate has a majority of votes cast.

As a Democrat, your professor has no preference on which candidate the Republicans select but does wish to make some observations about the process.

Let’s start with my own experience. I was elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus (third ranking leadership position on the Democratic side of the aisle) in December of 1998, defeating my opponent by 11 votes out of more than 200 ballots cast. It was a tight race and involved months of campaigning, talking to all my then-Democratic colleagues.

Four years later, I ran for minority leader (the comparable position to Majority Leader) for House Democrats. After months of campaigning, I realized I didn’t have the votes to win and withdrew before an actual election was held. This was the election that elevated Nancy Pelosi to the minority leader’s job, a position she holds to this day.

Campaigning for a leadership position in your own party conference or caucus (they are the same entity but with different names), is highly personal. The only people who can vote are your Congressional colleagues.

Your colleagues have several reasons for deciding whom to support. First and foremost is that the person elected with be thrust into the national spotlight as a spokesman for his or her party. As a member of the Republican Conference or the Democratic Caucus, each Congressman must decide who is the right voice and right face for his party. They must decide who will make their own re-elections back home easier and who will help them retain or gain majority status.

And then there are personal considerations. Which candidate will help further the voter’s personal ambitions for key committee appointments or for projects for his particular district? Also, each Congressman voting in the election must decide whether or not a particular candidate for a leadership position would be a plus should they come into that Congressman’s district to help with his or her re-election campaign.

Additionally, one of the candidates for the leadership position may have already earned a particular Congressman’s vote by things done for him or her in the past -- money raised for re-election or past support for a particular legislative project.

Finally, some times history enters into the equation. When, Nancy Pelosi was elected party whip and then minority leader, she became the first woman to hold a high leadership position in the House. When I was elected Caucus chairman, I became the first Jewish congressman ever to win an elected leadership race in either party. Viriginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor will become the second Jewish congressman to win an elected leadership position if he is chosen majority whip in February, should that position become vacant. Factors like that could influence some votes.

One thing to look for in the coming weeks is the bluff. Some leadership candidates try to bluff an opponent out of a race by publicly claiming enough pledges to win. Bob Menendez in 2002 publicly claimed enough pledges to win the election as Democratic Caucus chair. Rosa DeLauro, the other candidate in that race, called Menendez’s bluff and he wound up winning by only one vote.

Another factor in leadership races is the double count. Since the ballot is secret, some members of Congress have been known to pledge to both sides. Thus, the total number of pledges claimed by the candidates may actually exceed the number of ballots to be cast. This phenomenon led former Rep. Mo Udall to make the now famous observation about his colleagues after losing a leadership race: “The only difference between a cactus and a caucus is that with a cactus the pricks are on the outside.”

Many leadership races turn out to be very close. In 1976, Jim Wright defeated Phil Burton by one vote for House majority leader. A few years before the Republicans took control of the House, Newt Gingrich was elected minority whip by only two votes. Tom Daschle was elected Senate majority leader over Chris Dodd by only one vote. And as mentioned above, Bob Menendez was elected Democratic Caucus chair by only one vote.

The election process may be secret, but the stakes for a political party are enormous. It will be interesting to see how things turn out.

Class dismissed.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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