A “backbencher” is a junior member in the British House of Commons who occupies the back benches of Parliament, sitting behind party leaders and top government officials.
This term is most commonly used to describe legislators in parliamentary systems from England to New Zealand.
But the term has also come to refer to the rank-and-file members of the U.S. Congress who are not part of their party’s leadership.
Origin of “Backbencher”
There is some dispute about the first use of backbencher, though it generally attributed to English parliamentarians in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Merriam-Webster places the term’s first use in 1799, while the Oxford English Dictionary places the evolution of backbench into backbencher in 1910. The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP) places its origins in Canadian politics in 1897.
Backbencher is used not only to confer spatial locations in parliamentary locations but places in party hierarchies.
The backbenches of Parliament are held by rank-and-file members who are low in the political pecking order.
First-term legislators, independents, and party rebels are often found in the ranks of backbenchers. These figures are relegated to the back rows while party leaders and ministers occupy the front benches.
The DCHP places the first uses of backbenchers in American politics to the 1920s. Google’s Ngram Viewer confirms this chronology with a steady ascent in usage from 1936 to 1970.
This trend may have occurred due to the closeness of relations between England and the United States.
Backbencher doesn’t work as well in American politics due to differences in legislative seating rules.
The House of Representatives held a desk lottery each session from 1845 to 1913. This lottery was necessary because floor desks acted as legislator offices before the construction of dedicated office space. The House lottery system shifted from desks to offices and the floor desks were replaced by benches open to any member.
The Senate’s standing rules require the assignment of seats after allocation following the most recent election.
More on “Backbencher”
A lawmaker with little influence—until fairly recently, that is—on the body in which he or she serves.
“Backbencher” is derived from the British House of Commons, referring to the majority of parliamentarians that do not hold ministerial office or shadow ministerial office, the would-be government of the opposition. But it wasn’t until 1988 that the New York Times labeled an American politician as a backbencher. And for that we can thank Newt Gingrich.
The Georgia Republican congressman had just filed ethics charges against Speaker of the House Jim Wright, which would eventually lead to resignation of the Texas political titan. Gingrich was quoted in the Times as saying: “If Jim Wright were a backbench member, I probably wouldn’t have done anything. But he’s the speaker, and everything he could have done all his life as a backbencher becomes self-destructive when he becomes third in line to be president of the United States.”
The term is most often applied to House members. On the other side of the Capitol, even the most junior senators, as one of 100 in the chamber, can wield significant influence. But in the 435-member House there are really only 30 to 40 members that can really affect the fate of legislation.
Backbenchers frequently are members in the “Obscure Caucus,” an annual list compiled by the newspaper Roll Call. But “obscure” doesn’t translate to incompetent; indeed, several of its members, such as New Jersey Republican Leonard Lance and Washington Democrat Rick Larsen, are often admiringly described as grownups.
And backbenchers can drive the trains in Congress. Such was the case in 2013 when House Republicans faced off against President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats over efforts to defund Obamacare, by tying it to passing a federal budget and raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
The Times singled out freshman representative Ted Yoho, a Florida Republican and political novice who had knocked off an otherwise conservative and partisan veteran GOP lawmaker in the previous year’s primary: “Along with Mr. Yoho, a rotating cast of characters—often backbench newcomers whom few have heard of outside their districts, and who were elected on a Tea Party wave—has emerged to challenge Speaker John A. Boehner’s leadership at every turn.”
From Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes © 2014 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.
Use of “Backbencher” in a sentence
The Australian Financial Review (February 25, 2020): “The bitter debate over climate change has led backbenchers from the right and left of the Coalition to express interest in exploring nuclear power.”
The Guardian (January 9, 2019): “At the heart of it all is a group of Labour backbenchers – and a growing number of Conservatives – who have been campaigning for a second referendum for over a year, and who are described by one MP involved as ‘an executive in exile’.”
The Globe and Mail (February 11, 2013): “Since 1947, only 26 percent of backbenchers who sat on the government side for seven years without ever being given a greater role were subsequently promoted.”
BBC: “Backbenchers are also sometimes known as private members and thus a backbencher can introduce an original idea for legislation in the form of a Private Member’s Bill. Backbenchers have more freedom to speak as they are not as constrained by loyalty to the government. This can also pose problems for the party whips who try to impose party discipline.”
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.