John Lovett

Aug 5, 2021

The Politics of Herding Cats

When Congressional Leaders Fail

University of Michigan Press 2021

In considering how legislation moves forward in the American political system, we often think about elected representatives sitting in committee hearings or Senators speaking from the floor of the Senate to make a particular point. Woven into all of these ideas, which are not misguided, is the role (often behind the scenes) that congressional leaders play in trying to wrangle their caucuses to vote for or against legislation. 

In The Politics of Herding Cats: When Congressional Leaders Fail (U Michigan Press, 2021), Political Scientist John Lovett leads us into these processes and assumptions and unpacks the ways that congressional leaders are far less able to exert control over their caucuses because of the ways that individual members are able to pursue attention through the changing media landscape. While Lovett provides a coda at the end of the book indicating that social media, especially Twitter, has an outsized role in the ways that individual members can capture attention, the focus of the book is to look more closely at heritage media, especially The Washington Post, and trace the ways that members are able to work outside and around party and congressional leaders. By accessing media attention on their own, individual members can exercise power and have the capacity to essentially ignore the demands and requests of the party leadership within Congress.

Lovett examines three different policy areas to understand the ways in which media coverage contributed to the capacity of individual members to become high profile political actors. The three case studies examine three different policy areas that receive different levels of attention, especially but not exclusively media attention. The first policy examined is Agriculture policy, which is a low coverage issue and one where congressional leaders have been able to, more often than not, essentially win the battles around agriculture bills. The next subject, immigration, is a policy area that has changed in how it is perceived by the public, and thus also the kind and amount of media coverage it has received. Because of this change, or switch, the way that leaders were able to work together, behind closed doors, to come to consensus has shifted, and the immigration as a policy issue has become a lightning rod for media attention and for members of Congress, especially those with aspirations for higher office. Thus, according to Lovett’s research, the leadership’s capacity to steer the direction of this policy drops out as it becomes more public in focus. The final issue area, healthcare, has been in the national spotlight for decades, and it therefore provides a keen contrast to the other issue areas. Members found that they had access to reporters around healthcare issues because there is a strong interest in covering the stories and developments in this issue area. This is particularly the case in terms of the coverage by The Washington Post, which is both the local media for Washington, D.C. and also a national newspaper. Members who are interviewed around a high-profile issue area, like healthcare, are not only explaining their positions and indicating that position to their constituents, they are also signaling to other members, to other interested stakeholders, and to the party and institutional leadership what their priorities are and what they may or may not be willing to accept in terms of policy compromise. The Politics of Herding Cats: When Congressional Leaders Fail will be of interest to anyone who is curious about Congress, partisan leadership, and how policy does, and often doesn’t, get made in Washington, D.C.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at lgoren@carrollu.edu or tweet to @gorenlj.

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Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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