How Parties Work, Hill Staff Edition

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JONATHAN COHN NOVEMBER 24, 2010

How Parties Work, Hill Staff Edition

I could call Dave Weigel's story about incoming GOP members of the House hiring lobbyists as their Chiefs of Staff a "Catch of the Day," and it is that. Great catch!

But I'm really interested in parties, and how they work. And what's interesting about all these new House Chiefs of Staff isn't, to me, that they were lobbyists; it's that they are part of the GOP party network.

Just as people elect a presidency, and not a president; just as elections are about candidacies, and not candidates; the careers of members of Congress are shaped in part by the people that they hire. Those people are generally party professionals. They move from Hill jobs, to White House and agency jobs, to think tanks, to lobbying (often for party-aligned interest groups), perhaps even to jobs with formal party organizations, and back. They know how Republicans (or, on the other side, Democrats) think. They know which information sources Republicans rely on, what positions on issues of public policy Republicans take, who the various important groups within the party network are, and what those groups care about.

That's what a new member of Congress gets when he or she hires someone from the party network, and in turn it places that member deeper within the party. Of course, there are plenty of limits to this -- members are constrained by the particular interests and political context of their districts, by whatever personal ideology or beliefs they may have, and by promises (about issues or about behavior) they made in the campaign. But the influence of party, as exercised in part simply by who helps a member exercise his duties, is strong.

I'd say one other thing. Party network scholars have begun to trace out how all of this works. What we're just beginning to document (and eventually understand) is the role of intraparty factions and groups. I strongly suspect that choices in staff for incoming members are, among other things, choices among factions -- and that potential staff know how to signal members about which factions or groups they represent. Does hiring a particular chief of staff mean a commitment on abortion and other social issues? On Tea Party friendliness? On support for the Speaker and the party leadership? Again, I suspect there's some of that going on, but I don't really know. I do hope Weigel does some follow-up reporting (and others join in). Playing gotcha with this stuff is good fun, but I do think there's a fair amount one can tell about where individual members and the House Republican conference as a whole are headed by the personnel choices they make.

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posted in: jonathan cohn, congress, house, republican party, dave weigel

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