Volume XXXI, Number 3
August 2006

 

Introduction

           This issue opens with a unique cross-national analysis of the degree of centralization of procedures in legislative chambers. Existing research, done largely on procedural change in U.S. legislatures over time, proceeds from the hypothesis that the choice of procedures is determined by the changing policy preferences of members. Departing from that approach, Andrew J. Taylor uses data on 55 legislative chambers at one point in time to test the influence of factors external to legislatures on their procedures. It is the kind of comparative analysis that Gerald Gamm and John Huber called for in their assessment of the state of legislative research (2002). Taylor arrays legislative procedures from those that exhibit centralized control by leaders to those that allow rank-and-file members extensive rights. As indicators, he uses members’ rights to introduce bills, to move amendments, and to speak without limitation. The exogenous factors he considers are the size of the legislature, the power of the legislature over the executive, and the extent to which the electoral system allows for a personal vote. Taylor finds that smaller legislatures have more decentralized procedures than larger ones and that this is also true of more powerful (and unicameral) legislatures. He also finds that, in some instances, the existence of a personal vote provides an incentive for procedural decentralization. The author recognizes that he has used very simple measures of his key variables, and that better data and data over time will be needed to examine this subject further. In the meantime, however, his analysis demonstrates the advantages of comparative research on the differences that exist in procedural centralization among the world’s legislatures.

    Research on U.S. legislatures has long been concerned with the effect of membership turnover on legislative institutionalization and on legislative policymaking. Congressional turnover is extremely low by worldwide standards, and turnover in U.S. state legislatures has been declining (although it varies from state to state). Low turnover has prompted term limits on the assumption that low turnover causes legislators to be unresponsive to their constituents. Two articles in this issue raise questions about this assumption. Gerard Padró i Miquel and James M. Snyder, Jr. explore the effect of length of tenure on the “effectiveness” of legislators, using an unusual set of data that exists for members of the North Carolina House of Representatives. The measure of “effectiveness” is a rating based on a survey of members, lobbyists, and journalists. The authors find that the effectiveness of legislators increases over time as a result of “learning by doing.” In addition, they find that members of the majority are more effective than members of the minority, that effective legislators move into leadership positions, and that effectiveness improves members’ reelection chances. These conclusions indicate that long tenure has desirable consequences and that ineffective legislators are likely to lose out even without term limits.

    Michael C. Herron and Kenneth W. Shotts take an entirely different approach to the study of the effect of legislative tenure on policymaking. They model the effect of term limits on legislative spending over two terms, assuming that voters will prefer legislators who provide benefits to their districts but spread the costs to other districts. If that is the case, term limits may hinder voters from choosing legislators known to provide benefits, thus reducing spending. However, term limits may actually promote wasteful spending—spending that incurs long-term costs for a district but benefits other districts. For example, legislators who know they cannot win reelection have a reduced incentive to limit future spending. This counter-intuitive conclusion is another reason to be skeptical of term limits and to see the value of longer legislative tenure.

    All observers know that the equal representation of the states in the U.S. Senate results in the overrepresentation of citizens living in states with small populations. However, another inequality of representation results from the unequal distribution—across the states—of politically relevant groups like racial and ethnic minorities. That is the subject of the article by John D. Griffin. He analyzes the interaction between the malapportionment of seats in the Senate and the distribution across the states of attitudes on political issues, of racial and ethnic minorities, and of the voting preferences of both Senators and their constituents. Griffin shows that equal representation of states in the Senate—regardless of their population—coupled with the distribution of racial, ethnic, and political groups across the states, tends to diminish the influence of liberals, Democrats, African Americans, and Latinos. That is because states with less voting weight—states with above average populations—tend to be composed of racial and ethnic minorities, voters with liberal attitudes, and voters with Democratic party identifications. Griffin finds that this malapportionment has increased in the last two decades of the 20th century due to population movements. Although it has not affected Senate votes on most ideological issues, it has affected votes on issues of most concern to minorities. Thus, the residential patterns of certain historically disadvantaged groups further weaken their political influence.

    Religion plays a larger role in U.S. politics than it does in most advanced industrialized countries. By a close analysis of its influence in the Wisconsin legislature, David Yamane and Elizabeth A. Oldmixon illuminate its effect on issues that are important in the U.S. states—issues such as social welfare, health, capital punishment, and abortion. The authors develop a refined measure of religion that considers, not only the religious affiliation of legislators, but also the salience of religion to each member. The extent of contact between each legislator and religious advocacy groups is also considered in their measure. Using structural equation models to test the influence of these indicators of religion on general voting and voting on issues known to be related to religion (e.g., that of abortion), the authors find that religion affects legislative decisions indirectly through partisan affiliation and through education—even on the issue of abortion. Interest groups reinforce, rather than shape, legislators’ votes. Religious salience has the most direct influence on voting. Conservative Protestant identification is related to policy conservatism through Republican party affiliation. Their findings help explain why the Republican party frames issues in a manner that attracts conservative Protestants. 

                                                                                                                           —Gerhard Loewenberg,                                          
                        
                                                                                                              Director, Comparative Legislative Research Center

     REFERENCE

Gamm, Gerald, and John Huber. 2002. “Legislatures as Political Institutions: Beyond the Contemporary Congress.” In Political Science: The State of the Discipline, ed. Ira Katznelson and Helen V. Milner. New York : W.W. Norton. 


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