Each political leader, including those who are leaders in the U.S. Congress, has a style of leadership. This style expresses his or her approach to dealing with colleagues in the effort to produce legislation and conduct the work of Congress.
What follows are statements by former House Republican Leader Robert
H. Michel describing his approach to congressional leadership.
They serve as the basis for comparing his approach with that
of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and
current Speaker Dennis Hastert. The
press often reported on the difference between Michel’s
and Gingrich’s approaches to leadership, and recent
media coverage suggests that Hastert will more closely mirror
Michel’s approach. Statements by Everett
McKinley Dirksen, Senate Minority Leader in the 1960s,
provide insight into the thinking of a Senate leader at an
earlier time in our history.
Robert H. Michel on Leading Congress
Bob Michel, the son of a French immigrant, was born in Peoria, IL on March 2, 1923. He was first elected in 1956 to the 85th Congress from the 18th congressional district in Illinois from his election in 1956 until his retirement in 1994. He was Minority Whip from the 94th Congress through the 96th. He served as Minority Leader, though he preferred the title Republican Leader, from the 97th through the 103rd Congress.
Accepting Re-election as Republican Leader by the Republican Conference, 12/6/82
Now let me say just a word or two about the role we’re destined to play in the 98th Congress, outnumbered as we’ll be 269 to 166. We read a lot about the alleged need for Republicans in the House to “compromise.” Do I believe in compromise? Sure I do. I’m a notoriously good-natured fellow. But just as I don’t believe in unilateral disarmament in national security, I don’t believe in unilateral compromise in politics. . . .
There may even be times in the new Congress when Tip [O’Neill] and his whopping Democratic majority will get their act together and actually propose something of substance on their own. When that time comes, we’ve got to be ready for it either with alternatives or initiatives of our own.
Sometimes I’ve been criticized for being too much of a
pragmatist, too ready to get things done, to work things out.
Let me tell you something: political principles without effective
action are mere dreams. Principles with effective action become
policies. And I’m here to lead a party that wants to put
policies into action and not dream its life away.
Accepting Re-election as Republican Leader by the Republican Conference, 12/3/84
Furthermore, we can’t afford to become locked into one strategy or one approach. It’s not a question of compromise or confrontation. It’s a question of which to pursue in any given circumstance to be effective. The key word here is “effectiveness.” Sometimes we will confront. Other times we will seek to find out how far the other side is willing to bend.
Accepting Re-election as Republican Leader by the Republican Conference, 12/8/86
Do we seek to be coalition-builders of past Congresses? Are we the front line for the President’s policies and programs? Or are we the loyal opposition to the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate? Do we hold their feet to the fire and force them to finally fulfill their responsibility to help us govern after six years of partisanship? In short – do we initiate policy or react to it?
As has been the case in the past, being in the minority yet
having our President in the White House, we will have to do some
of each. . . . The numbers are not on our side. Our success means
all of us hanging together, or as Ben Franklin said, “assuredly
we shall all hang separately.” When we stand together,
we can persuade thinking Democrats to join us. When we stand
apart, there will be no reason to join us.
Remarks at The Dirksen Congressional Center, 9/1/89
[After describing the leaders with whom he had served] It is hard to say that one was a better leader than the other . That is like saying that on the basis of a won-and-lost record alone, one baseball manager is better than another. If you don’t know the kind of team he had to manage, the injuries to key players, the ways in which specific games were won and lost, you can’t judge a baseball manager’s value. You have to know the climate in which he had to operate.
The same principle applies to judging House leadership. It does
not lend itself to generalities and easy rules. You have to know
the specific facts, the details, – or, as an author once
put it, "how the weather was.”
Below is an image of a portion of the document excerpted here. The handwriting is Michel's.
. . . House leadership means selecting, under constraints of time and political pressure, not necessarily the very best in all fields but an amalgam or combination of qualities of leadership the caucus of party members feel are appropriate for the time.
House leadership means learning to deal with the various divisions in the House – and the Democrat-Republican isn’t the most difficult one to handle.
More important at times are liberal-conservative differences, regional differences, differences among states, factions within parties, fights between committees over “turf,” and, of course, the 435 different personalities, ambitions, dreams and character flaws.
And don’t forget differences between the House and the White House – whether your party controls the presidency or not. Tip O’Neill had almost as many problems with Jimmy Carter as he did with Ronald Reagan. But there are always problems between Congress and the White House.
I haven’t even mentioned House relationships with the Senate, not always the best. A House leader is expected to be able to deal with all of these – simultaneously. Each of these groups interacts with the others in a constantly shifting, volatile mixture of emotions and ambition and ideals. A personal grudge, a secret ambition, a hidden motive, on a given issue, an unspoken agreement, can all mean more, on a given issue, than partisan differences. A House leader has to know these things. . . .
For today, let me conclude by saying that after more than 40 years in Washington, I am convinced that House leadership is one of the least understood but most important facets of our federal system of government. I say this because members of the House are closest to the people. We are elected every two years. We are sensitive – some would say hyper-sensitive – to the social and economic changes in the nation. We don’t have four years like a president or six years like a Senator to hide our mistakes. We serve as a kind of instant-early-warning system for democracy. We are ever aware of new problems and also aware of the clumsy legislative means at our disposal to deal with those problems. . . . A House leader has to contend with all of this – and , like all his colleagues, he has to get re-elected every two years, and then elected by his other peers to be their Leader. . . .
The messy, often chaotic reality of the House with 435 individual, just doesn’t lend itself to the theoretical abstractions of ideologues. Ideological activists believe they know the truth and they don’t want to negotiate or compromise, or even talk about compromise. But in the House, the ability to strike a wise compromise is an essential part of leadership. Ideological activists don’t understand that in the House, as on the battlefield, maneuver can often lead to eventual success where a frontal assault might fail.
In the House, as on the battlefield, troops will follow a leader
into danger if they believe he is picking his fights shrewdly.
But they will immediately withdraw their trust if they think
for the sake of abstract theories you are sending them again
and again into unwinnable battles.
Accepting Re-election as Republican Leader by the Republican Conference, 12/3/90
Let me give you two paradigms of how we ought to operate in the 102nd Congress. The first paradigm is that of guerilla warfare. This model sees the House as the place to lob grenades, disrupt communications, lay in ambushes, and steal marches on the opposition. Contrary to what some of you might think, I’m not against that way of acting. A little guerilla warfare can be a good thing, now and then, particularly when we feel we’re being run over rough-shod by an autocratic majority.
But it can’t substitute for the second and major paradigm, which is working constructively to enact our legislative program, and when we’re up against the odds, exercising our Presidential leverage as a means of creating real victories out of possible defeats. You know, that as we Republicans begin every single working day we are 101 votes behind. But every single day we are also one big vote ahead – armed as we are with the President’s veto power [referring to then-President George Bush, a Republican]. . . .
This job of Leader isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes I have to make some really painful, agonizing decisions that affect you members personally, our party, and the image that is projected to the American people about this great institution in which we serve. I’m always mindful of the awesome responsibility you’ve entrusted to me to be your Leader.
Speech to Washington Research Group, 11/11/94[Excerpts]
The second model I follow fairly rigorously is a leadership model, that’s four words that are a process, that is there’s not a hierarchy, there’s a sequence that matters. It’s a very direct sequence: listen, learn, help, and lead. You listen to the American people, you learn from the American people, you help the American people, and in a rational society, if people know you have listened to them, learned from them and helped the, they want you to lead them.
So the job of a leader is first of all to think about things, develop a vision and strategies and project and tactics, and then go back our and listen to the people and find out whether or not in fact they are on the same wavelength. And if not, to assume that there is at least a better than even chance the it is the people and not the elites who are right. It is a very specific model, you may disagree with it or not like it, but it is a very specific model and if you want to understand what the next Speaker of the House is going to function like, it is a model that will in fact be fairly predictive. . . .
I am very prepared to cooperate with the Clinton administration.
I am not prepared to compromise. The two words are very different.
On everything on which we can find agreement, I will cooperate.
On those things that are at the core of our Contract [for America],
on those things which are at the core of our philosophy, and
on those things where we believe that we represent the vast majority
of Americans, there will be no compromise.
Denny Hastert on Leading Congress
Congress Elects Common Sense Speaker for House, Press Release, 1/6/99
[Excerpts]Solutions to problems cannot be found in a pool of bitterness. They can be found in an environment in which we trust one another’s word; where we generate heat and passion, but where we recognize that each member is equally important to our overall mission of improving the life of the American people. In short, I believe all of us – regardless of party – can respect one another, even as we fiercely disagree on particular issues. . . .
[To Democrats] I will meet you half way – maybe more so on occasion – but cooperation is a two-way street, and I expect you to meet me half-way too. The president and a number of Democrats here in the House have been saying it is time to address several issues head-on. I’ll buy that, but I think we should agree that stalemate is not an option; solutions are. . . .
These are not Democratic or Republican issues. They are American
issues. We should be able to reach agreement quickly on the goals.
Yes, we will argue about the means, but if we are in earnest
about our responsibilities, we will find common ground and get
the job done. In the process, we will build the people’s
faith in the United States Congress.
Everett Dirksen on Leading the Senate
Find out more about Everett Dirksen by visiting The Dirksen Congressional Center's Web site: http://www.dirksencenter.org
“The 87th Congress and the Party Leaders,” Washington Reports to the People, an AFL-CIO Public Service Program, January 13, 1961
Q: What can we expect from the new Congress? What will be the attitude of the Republicans toward the new Kennedy Administration?
DIRKSEN: If I were to use a single word, I would say a constructive
attitude. By that I mean this, the election is over and now it
is our responsibility, regardless of the labels we wear, to work
in the interest of the country. We shall do so without rancor,
without bitterness, and always on the constructive side, being
mindful, of course, of what the Republican tradition and the
general Republican principle is. I am quite confident that there
will be no blind opposition to a program.
Interview of Everett M. Dirksen by Joseph F. McCaffrey, WMAL-ABC, February 7, 1965
DIRKSEN: “The gift of patience . . . is a highly desired attribute because you are dealing with people, they have fixations, they have convictions about any number of controversial matters. You have to hear them out. You have to be careful not to be too precipitous or capricious in point out what you think the weakness in the other fellows’ case may be . . . . So that requires, I think, gentle discussion and a very gentle oil can art as I call it, so that the bearings never get hot.. You don’t develop frictions that suddenly blow into pieces and if you can keep it on the quiet side and have every aspect of the matter explored without anybody becoming fractious at any time you’re most likely to get results. What was it that Lincoln said, 'We shall sooner have the chicken by hatching the egg than by breaking it.'”
Everett M. Dirksen [Quoted in Schapsmeier and Schapsmeier, Dirksen of Illinois, p. 151]
“The Senate is a public institution; it must work; it’s a two-way street; and that requires the effort of both parties. One party cannot do it on its own because if the opposition, or minority party, wanted to be completely obstructionist, you could tie up the Senate in a minute, even with a handful of people.”
The following undated document was distributed by the Dirksen Senate office in response to questions about the duties of the floor leaders.