As this issue of the Quarterly shows, research on the U.S. Congress continues to dominate legislative studies by American political scientists. But we can say about the study of congressional politics what Kenneth Shepsle wrote about the study of American politics generally, namely that it “has served the wider political science community by forging scientific tools and providing a laboratory in which they are tested, perfected, and prepared for export” (2002, 388). The analysis of congressional roll calls is a case in point. Roll-call analysis has a long history in American legislative research and has been continuously perfected both conceptually and methodologically, thereby becoming increasingly adaptable to research on other legislatures. The first article in this issue is an example. Jason M. Roberts explores the effect of the specific rules and strategies governing voting in each chamber of Congress on the observed voting record of members. Specifically, he shows that the composition of the voting record is affected by rules of procedure, by party control of the agenda, and by the practices of party leaders. Therefore, the inferences drawn from the roll-call record must take account of the context in which the record has been developed. Roberts cautions that “despite considerable advances in the statistical analysis of roll-call data, proper interpretation of the data remains as difficult as ever.” What is true when comparing the record in one house of Congress with the record in the other, or the record at one time with the record in another, is true in spades when research compares roll calls across the U.S. states or across legislatures in different countries.
One aspect of the exceptionalism of the U.S. Congress is the high reelection rate of incumbents. Until recently most research on this phenomenon tried to explain it by an analysis of the factors influencing constituents’ voting behavior. Instead, Scott J. Basinger and Michael J. Ensley examine the influence of the decisions of elites. Is the political experience of a challenger and the ability of that challenger to raise campaign funds an independent influence on the prospect of defeating an incumbent? Or is variance in candidate experience and fund-raising ability itself influenced by electoral tides? To sort out these influences, the authors develop a mathematical model that tests three contending theories of how challenger experience affects the outcome of congressional elections. Their data covers U.S. House elections from 1980 to 2000, with measures of the experience of challengers, challenger spending, incumbents’ spending, district partisanship, and incumbent ideology. They find that the experience of challengers does contribute to the prospect of their success but that it is the electoral vulnerability of an incumbent that attracts an experienced challenger in the first place. Therefore, challenger experience is not an influence on election outcomes independent of the national partisan tide, or an incumbent’s voting record, or a district’s partisan complexion. However, the superior campaign fund-raising ability of experienced challengers does have an independent effect on the prospect of defeating an incumbent. The article takes us a step closer to understanding the interactive influence of mass publics and political elites on congressional elections.
The U.S. Congress is also exceptional among the world’s legislatures in its presumption that since the federal bureaucracy is its creation, it should be subject to extensive congressional oversight and control. Government officialdom has never had the legitimacy in the United States that it has in the political systems of Europe. The effectiveness of Congress’s control has long been the subject of a literature using concepts derived from economics to explore how Congress as “principal” can keep control over administrators as its “agents.” Jason A. MacDonald investigates how the design of administrative agencies affects the effectiveness of its control. He deals with the problem of measuring the difference between legislative intent and policy administration by relying on interviews with members of the staffs of 15 Senate and House committees in the years 2000 and 2001. He finds that Congress’s propensity to impose structural constraints on delegated authority depends on the level of executive-legislative policy disagreement, on the level of disagreement between Congress and the relevant agency, and on the strength of interest group opposition to the policy. His article contributes new insights into the conditional influence that institutional design imposes on the administration of policy.
The study of representation is central to many aspects of legislative research. Changes in the composition of legislatures inevitably raise questions about the effect of such changes on representation. In the United States, there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of blacks and women in Congress. Two articles in this issue consider the impact of this change on legislative activity. Katrina L. Gamble looks at the committee work of African American members of the U.S. House. She gathered data on the participation of these members in three committees during the important committee sessions devoted to the markup of bills in 2001–02. She finds confirmation of her expectation that black members are more active than their white colleagues on policies that are important to black interests, even controlling for party and leadership positions. But she also finds unexpectedly that black members are more active than whites on other issues as well, perhaps because of their sense of responsibility for the interests of other minorities. Her research identifies an aspect of black representation in Congress that is not revealed by a simple roll-call analysis of the votes of black members.
There has been a good deal of attention to the consequence of the increase in the number of women in state legislatures in the United States, both for descriptive representation and for legislative activity. The article by Michelle A. Barnello and Kathleen A. Bratton offers some new data and an entirely new insight into that subject. The authors have examined bill sponsorship in 15 state legislatures in the year 2001 to compare the factors that influence male as well as female legislators to introduce bills on women’s issues. They reach a number of nuanced conclusions. Younger men, more educated men, married men with children, African American men, and men serving on committees whose jurisdiction includes women’s issues are more likely than other men to sponsor bills on such issues. Party control of the legislature and the proportion of women do not seem to have an influence although women retain the lead in sponsoring legislation specifically concerned with women’s health. The authors suggest that it is changes in society rather than within the legislature that spur legislation on women’s issues.
The nonpartisan legislature of Nebraska has always interested legislative scholars, since it provides a benchmark by which to measure the effect of partisanship on legislative behavior. Brian F. Schaffner inquires into the effect of partisanship on the representativeness of legislative committees by comparing the nonpartisan Nebraska legislature with the partisan legislatures of Iowa and Kansas. He provides evidence that the committees in Iowa and Kansas are more clearly representative of their parent chambers ideologically, measured by the roll-call voting records of members, than are the committees in Nebraska. When legislative conflict reflects partisan divisions and committees are controlled by the majority party, committees are bound to represent the chamber. Where that is not the case, committees may go their own way and focus on the interests of their particular members. Schaffner’s analysis is an example of the value of testing generalizations about legislatures by comparative research, which an exclusive emphasis on the U.S. Congress precludes.
Shepsle, Kenneth A. 2002. “Assessing Comparative
Legislative Research.” In Legislatures: Comparative Perspectives on
Representative Assemblies, ed. Gerhard Loewenberg, Peverill Squire, and D. Roderick Kiewiet. Ann Arbor: University of
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