The conservative coalition was an unofficial Congressional coalition bringing together a conservative majority of the Republican Party and the conservative (mostly Southern) wing of the Democratic Party. According to James T. Patterson: "By and large the congressional conservatives agreed in opposing the spread of federal power and bureaucracy, in denouncing deficit spending, in criticizing industrial labor unions, and in excoriating most welfare programs. They sought to "conserve" an America which they believed to have existed before 1933."
The coalition was dominant in Congress from 1937 to 1963 and remained a political force until the mid-1990s when few conservative Democrats remained in Congress. The conservative Democrats formed the Blue Dog Coalition, after the Republican Revolution in 1994. In terms of Congressional roll call votes, it primarily appeared on votes affecting labor unions.
The conservative coalition did not cooperate on civil rights bills in unison, requiring a partnership between member Everett Dirksen and President Johnson to unite sufficient numbers of northern Republicans to ally with northern liberal Democrats to push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to cloture. However, the coalition did have the power to prevent unwanted bills from even coming to a vote. The coalition included many committee chairmen from the South who blocked bills by not reporting them from their committees. Furthermore, Howard W. Smith, chairman of the House Rules Committee, often could kill a bill simply by not reporting it out with a favorable rule; he lost some of that power in 1961. The conservative coalition was not concerned with foreign policy, as most of the southern Democrats were internationalists, a position opposed by most Republicans before the 1950s.
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had won a second term in a landslide, sweeping all but two states over his Republican opponent, Alf Landon. For the 1937 session of Congress, the Republicans would have only 17 Senators (out of a total of 96) and 89 congressmen (out of a total of 431). Given his party's overwhelming majorities, FDR decided he could overcome opposition to his liberal New Deal policies by the conservative justices of the Supreme Court, which had struck down many New Deal agencies as unconstitutional. Roosevelt proposed to expand the size of the court from nine to fifteen justices; if the proposal met with success, he would be able to "pack" the court with six new justices who would support his policies.
However, the Southern Democrats controlled the entire South with only token Republican opposition, and thus had both liberal and conservative factions. While the South had many New Deal supporters it also had many conservatives opposed to the expansion of federal power. Among their leaders were Senators Harry Byrd and Carter Glass of Virginia and Vice President John Nance Garner of Texas. U.S. Senator Josiah Bailey (D-NC) released a "Conservative Manifesto" in December 1937, which included several statements of conservative philosophical tenets, including the line "Give enterprise a chance, and I will give you the guarantees of a happy and prosperous America." The document called for a balanced federal budget, state's rights, and an end to labor union violence and coercion. Over 100,000 copies were distributed and it marked a turning point in terms of congressional support for New Deal legislation.
Coalition opposition to Roosevelt's "court packing" Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937 was first led by House coalition Democrat and House Judiciary Committee chairman Hatton W. Sumners. Sumners refused to endorse the bill, actively chopping it up within his committee in order to block the bill's chief effect of Supreme Court expansion. Finding such stiff opposition within the House, the administration arranged for the bill to be taken up in the Senate. Congressional Republicans decided to remain silent on the matter, denying pro-bill congressional Democrats the opportunity to use them as a unifying force. Republicans then watched from the sidelines as their Democratic coalition allies split the Democratic party vote in the Senate, defeating the bill.
In the hard-fought 1938 congressional elections, the Republicans scored major gains in both houses, picking up six Senate seats and 80 House seats. Thereafter the conservative Democrats and Republicans in both Houses of Congress would often vote together on major economic issues, thus defeating many proposals by liberal Democrats. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was the last major New Deal legislation that Roosevelt succeeded in enacting into law. A confidential British Foreign Office analysis of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1943 stated that although the committee had 15 Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent, because of the Republican-conservative Democratic alliance only 12 of the 23 members supported Roosevelt's policies. A handful of liberal measures, notably the minimum wage laws, did pass when the Conservative Coalition split.
Some infrastructure bills received conservative support, and funding for more highways was approved under both FDR and President Dwight D. Eisenhower; Eisenhower also expanded public housing. While such liberal successes did happen, they often required negotiations between factions controlling different House committees. With conservatives heavily influencing the House agenda through the House Rules Committee and the threat of possible filibusters in the Senate (which then required a 2/3 majority to break) several liberal initiatives such as a health insurance program were stopped. Truman's Fair Deal in 1949–1951 was entirely defeated, except for one public housing provision when conservatives split.
In its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, the coalition's most important Republican leader was Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio; the leading Democrats in the coalition were Senator Richard Russell, Jr. of Georgia and Congressmen Howard W. Smith of Virginia and Carl Vinson of Georgia. Although the coalition usually voted together on urban and labor issues, they were divided on other economic issues, such as farm and Western issues (such as water). Conservative Southern Democrats generally favored high government spending on rural issues, and in this urban and liberal Democrats supported them while Republicans were opposed. For this reason, Democratic caucuses of 230 to 260 seats were enough to pass Democratic farm programs, whereas on labor issues even Houses with in excess of 280 Democratic Members could not pass labor priorities. Foreign policy goals also presented a contrast. Prior to World War II most, though not all, conservative Republicans were non-interventionists who wanted to stay out of the war at all costs, while most, though not all, Southern conservatives were interventionists who favored helping the British defeat Nazi Germany. After the war, a minority of conservative Republicans (led by Taft) opposed military alliances with other nations, especially NATO, while most Southern Democrats favored such alliances.
During the post-war period, Republican presidents often owed their legislative victories to ad hoc coalitions between conservative Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party (elected mainly from Northern cities), on the other hand, tended to combine with Republicans from the west and the north to put their own legislation through.
Under President Lyndon Johnson, who had an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of Congress, liberal Democrats, together with Conservative and Liberal Republicans led by Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, convinced all but six Republicans to vote for cloture on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This vote broke a Southern filibuster led by Senators Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Strom Thurmond (D-SC). Though a greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats (about 80% versus 60% respectively) voted for cloture and for the bill, the 1964 GOP Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), voted against cloture; before his presidential campaign Goldwater had supported civil rights legislation but opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on constitutional grounds, believing private individuals had the right to choose with whom they engaged in business. The GOP was massively defeated in 1964, but recovered its strength in the congressional elections of 1966, and elected Richard Nixon president in 1968. Throughout the 1954–1980 era the Republicans were a minority in both the House and Senate, but most of the time they cooperated with Conservative Democrats.
In 1968, Nixon and native Southerner and American Independent candidate George Wallace carried the same number of states in the South. With Nixon's reelection and sweep of the South—as well as nearly every state in the country—in 1972, the Democratic stronghold of the Solid South had fallen to the GOP at the presidential level, save for 1976, 1992, and 1996, when a Southern Democrat was the Democratic nominee. However most of the state and local elections were still dominated by Democrats until the 1990s; many of these became Republicans after that party gained a majority in 1995.
With the "Southern Strategy" of the 1970s and the "Republican Revolution" in 1994, Republicans took control of most conservative Southern districts, replacing many conservative Democratic congressmen with Republicans. A few Democratic Congressmen switched parties. Thus the Southern Democratic element of the conservative coalition gradually faded and the era of the conservative coalition ended. However, many conservative Democrats continued to serve in the Congress until 2010.