A political mind

Congressional scholar Steven S. Smith is 'Mr. Senate'

Steven S. Smith, Ph.D., one of the nation’s premier congressional scholars, got his foot in the door of the U.S. Senate by holding it open — literally.

Smith, the Kate M. Gregg Professor of Social Sciences in Arts & Sciences, got his first taste of the Senate in the early 1970s while working as a doorman for the Senate chambers, a job that came his way as part of a college internship with Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn.

Steven S. Smith, Ph.D., conducts one of his classes on the U.S. Senate.
Steven S. Smith, Ph.D., conducts one of his classes on the U.S. Senate. “He’s definitely ‘Mr. Senate,'” says Gary Miller, Ph.D., professor of political science in Arts & Sciences, who also studies Congress. “He really knows everything there is to know about the U.S. Senate, and he’s made a point of familiarizing himself with all of its rules and protocols.”

“Senators were given a couple patronage positions to hand out and Mondale always gave the jobs to his interns,” Smith recalls. “That was the spring of the D.C. Watergate hearings and I spent most of my free time at the hearings, usually sitting somewhere just behind Daniel Ellsberg.”

Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers — and the resulting scandals — would touch off sweeping governmental reforms and instigate landmark institutional changes in the rules, regulations and protocols that control how Congress conducts business.

Smith, the awe-struck college kid looking over Ellsberg’s shoulder, would go on to become a pioneer in a branch of political science focusing on the role congressional institutions play in the political process. He would be among the first to trace the development of highly restrictive House rules, to uncover their political motivations and to show that even subtle rule changes could have substantial long-term implications. Once largely overlooked by scholars, these “special rules” are now an especially hot topic in congressional research.

In the Senate, the current battle over the use of filibusters to block judicial nominations has resulted in widely differing interpretations of Senate rules and regulations.

“We’re hearing a lot of self-righteous speeches about the filibuster and tradition and constitutional principles, when in fact, its just partisan or narrow self-interest that’s driving the positions on these procedural matters,” Smith says.

“Hardly anybody is consistent over time in real-life politics when it comes to procedural matters. It’s all about the underlying issues. It’s the group’s that are pushing them and their interests that are driving the process, and their attitudes about procedure are all a byproduct of those underlying interests.

“This has been the history of the Senate. It’s been the history of most political institutions, and my job in all this has been to point this out, to rise above the partisan rhetoric and show that many current arguments — on all sides — tend to be arguments of convenience.”

Described as one of the most important and influential students of legislative politics of his generation, his research explores the causes and consequences of institutional change.

“He’s definitely ‘Mr. Senate,'” says Gary Miller, Ph.D., professor of political science in Arts & Sciences, who also studies Congress. “He really knows everything there is to know about the U.S. Senate, and he’s made a point of familiarizing himself with all of its rules and protocols.”

Since joining the political science faculty in 2001, Smith also has served as director of the Murray Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy, formerly known as the Center for the Study of American Business. His arrival marks a transition in which the center has refocused its mission on supporting social science research around campus.

“The center is making lots of small grants available to support research at the University,” Miller says. “When you’re an assistant professor or a doctoral student, a little bit of money can go a long way toward helping establish a research agenda. I consider this some of the best-spent money at the University.”

Smith’s own research has been widely published. He is the author of seven books on congressional politics, and currently has three more in the works, including books on the development of party organization and leadership in the U.S. Senate and on the influence of institutional arrangements on policy choices in the U.S. Congress. He’s a co-editor of Legislative Studies Quarterly and has served on the editorial boards of American Journal of Political Science and Journal of Politics.

When it comes to his own politics, Smith draws a sharp line.

“I no longer engage in partisan politics because it’s critical for me to have access to both sides of the spectrum. I need both sides to appreciate that I value my professional principles very highly and that these principles lead me to be very skeptical of claims made by either side.”

While his early research focused primarily on the modern U.S. Congress, it has evolved over the years to include more historical studies of Congress and parliaments around the world, including the emerging Russian democracy. He became interested in Russia as post-Soviet democratic institutions began to emerge, providing the perfect laboratory for Smith’s research.

“The Russian parliament offers research opportunities that can no longer be found in the United States and most other Western parliaments,” he explains. “The reason is that many of these key institutional choices being made by the Russians are being made right now while we can observe them and actually speak to people making the choices. Since I specialize in the development of legislative institutions, it’s a natural match.”

His latest book, The Politics of Institutional Choice: The Development of the Russian State Duma, explores whether competing theories of parliamentary evolution adequately explain Russia’s recent choice of systems for political committees, parties, elections and agenda-setting mechanisms.

Smith’s interest in politics began much closer to home. Growing up in Long Prairie, Minn., Smith had what he describes as a “more than an average” interest in politics.

When he was in sixth grade, his family moved to the “big city” of St. Cloud, where his political interests blossomed amid the unsettled days of the early 1960s.

He followed the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 1964 Goldwater-Johnson presidential race, Martin Luther King speeches and the Watts race riots. By high school, he was working as a volunteer in local election campaigns.

Steven S. Smith

Hometown: St. Cloud, Minn.

Degrees: Bachelor’s degree, political science, St. Cloud State University, 1975

Doctorate, political science, University of Minnesota, 1980

Family: Son, Tyler, 16; daughter, Shannon, 13

As a sophomore at St. Cloud State University, Smith worked as an intern with a newly elected, first-term Democratic state legislator, a mass media professor with whom Smith had studied at St. Cloud State.

“Working side-by-side with a legislator gave me an appreciation for the challenges elected officials face,” Smith says. “I saw the unavoidable cross pressures that come with public office, the issues that test your principles against realities of the political world. I didn’t care for the lifestyle, for the lack of privacy. I realized that elected office was not for me.”

Smith no longer dreamed of becoming a politician, but his interest in studying them remained strong. He earned two degrees in political science, a bachelor’s from St. Cloud State in 1975 and a doctorate from the University of Minnesota in 1980.

As a congressional fellow, Smith spent a year working with Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr., D-Mass., when O’Neill was Speaker of the House.

He began teaching at George Washington University in 1979, moved to Northwestern University in 1984 and became a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in 1985. He returned to the University of Minnesota in 1987 and was named Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science in 1996 and the Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Political Science in 1998.

At Minnesota, Smith earned a reputation for innovative teaching. He led a reform of the freshman-level course on American government, introduced new information technologies into his classes and developed prototype software for social science research methods instruction in a virtual laboratory environment, a project funded by the National Science Foundation.

Smith also has influenced the field through his doctoral students, many of whom are making important contributions to congressional research. Among alumni of the “Smith School of Politics” are stars Sarah Binder and Forrest Maltzman, both of whom are now professors of political science at George Washington University.

Binder is known for important work on minority rights in the House. Maltzman has made noteworthy contributions on the politics of committee assignments. Both carry on Smith’s trademark interest in how partisan political calculations interact with congressional rules and procedures.

Among his students, Smith is legendary for the time he spends discussing nuances of their current research. Unknown to him, his students keep a light-hearted tally of the length of Smith’s marathon advising sessions, with three hours being the norm and record-holders running as long as eight hours.

In his advising, Smith emphasizes the need to temper abstract political theories and technical arguments with a “nuts and bolts” understanding of how issues play out in the real world. He implores students to get under the hood, to see how the legislative machine works in action.

“I could not imagine having a better adviser,” says Jason Roberts, a 2005 graduate of Washington University’s political science doctoral program and now an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.

“Steve doesn’t treat you like you’re just another student. He makes you feel like you’re one of his close research colleagues, like you’re just another scholar in the field. It’s personal with him — like you’re part of the family.”