The power of legislative studies as a science is demonstrated by the articles in this issue of the Quarterly. In several instances, widely accepted understandings of how things work are challenged. These articles do not overthrow conventional wisdom, but they do offer important refinements. And they do so by examining a range of legislative institutions and by employing a variety of methodological approaches.
The Rules Committee is a defining feature of the U.S. House of Representatives, and as such it has long been the focus of scholarly examination. Thus, the actions and impact of the modern Rules Committee are well understood. By comparison, the historical development of the Rules Committee has gained much less attention. Jason M. Roberts addresses this gap by analyzing the emergence of a powerful Rules Committee between 1881 and 1937. Combining thorough historical reporting with rigorous empirical analysis, he finds that majority party members promoted a powerful Rules Committee to enhance legislative efficiency—this at a time when the majority party enjoyed a consensus on policy and differed with the minority party on policy preferences. Both informational theory and partisan theories of rules choice receive some support from the data analysis. Roberts’s effort goes a long way to explaining why the Rules Committee developed into the institution that exists today.
The question of whether committees are composed of preference outliers has been of considerable interest to scholars of U.S. legislatures for the last two decades. Much of this research has been driven by the assumption that self-selection to committees explains evidence of non-chamber median preferences held by committee members. In a provocative analysis of committee members in Danish municipal assemblies, Martin Baekgaard posits socialization or adaptation as an alternative explanation for preference outlier committees. The idea is that the longer a legislator serves on a committee, the more he or she comes to appreciate or support the programs under that committee’s jurisdiction. Baekgaard tests this hypothesis dynamically, using surveys of Danish municipal assembly members in 2000, 2004, and 2008 that asked questions about spending preferences on a number of issues over which the municipal assemblies exerted considerable control. Ordered logistic regressions reveal that members who served on committees dealing with a specific issue for two consecutive time periods (2000 to 2004 or 2004 to 2008) increased their support for additional spending on that issue more often than their colleagues who worked with that issue in only one period. This leads Baekgaard to conclude that, separate from any contribution that self-selection might make to committees as preference outliers, socialization (or, more likely, adaptation) produces a substantial independent contribution. Among the implications of this finding is that a legislature where committee membership is treated as a property right may find it necessary to limit the time a member serves on a particular committee in order to bring committees back in line with chamber preferences.
Conventional wisdom has generally held that leaders in the U.S. House and Senate are drawn from the moderate ranks of their respective caucuses. Consequently, leaders are thought to be broadly representative of their parties. In recent years, however, some studies have challenged this wisdom, finding instead that congressional leaders are now apt to be drawn from the more ideologically extreme wings of their parties. In a clever analysis, Stephen Jessee and Neil Malhotra reconcile these conflicting findings. Using Monte Carlo simulations to test various null hypotheses, they find that leaders are more likely to be drawn from close to their party’s median than chance would predict. But they also find clear and convincing evidence that party leaders consistently fall toward the more extreme wing of their party median, meaning Democratic leaders are somewhat more liberal and Republican leaders somewhat more conservative than their caucus colleagues. The analysis they offer is attractive because it avoids some of the methodological pitfalls suffered by earlier studies, and because it expands the cases examined by including losing leadership candidates rather than just the winners.
As this introduction is being written, the Senate Judiciary Committee has embarked on the Elena Kagan confirmation hearings. Over the last generation many, if not most, nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court have become pitched partisan battles. Studies that try to explain the confirmation process have focused on either the ideological distance between a senator and the nominee or on the nominee’s potential impact on the Court’s median as explanatory variables. A new twist on this line of analysis is offered by L J Zigerell. Examining nominations from 1968 (Fortas) to 2006 (Alito), Zigerell adds to the explanatory mix the ideological distance between the nominee and the justice he or she is replacing. He finds that this variable augments the explanatory power contributed by the more traditional independent variables. Provocatively, there is a counter-intuitive finding that flows from this analysis: under certain circumstances, replacing, say, an extreme liberal with an extreme conservative will be better received by more senators than if the replacement were a moderate.
The final article by Boris Shor, Christopher Berry, and Nolan McCarty offers
legislative scholars a new tool to gain additional leverage on a number of
important questions. The authors exploit the existence of three sorts of bridge
actors: lawmakers who serve for several terms in one state legislative chamber,
state lawmakers who move from one state legislative chamber to the other state
legislative chamber, and state lawmakers who move to Congress. The fact that a
meaningful number of lawmakers move from state legislatures to Congress allows
for the estimation of ideal points for state legislators based on congressional
votes. Although voting data exist allowing for the estimation of ideal points
within a particular state legislature, the use of state
legislative/Congressional bridge actors allows for the estimation of ideal
points that can be compared across state legislatures. In this article, the
authors develop scores for 11 states and demonstrate the utility of the numbers
they estimate by examining questions about party polarization and the provision
of welfare benefits.
— Peverill Squire
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