Volume XXVII, Number 3
August 2002

Editorís Introduction

        This issue of the Quarterly exemplifies the variety of legislatures that are the subject of legislative research today. The first two articles explore aspects of legislative institutions in central and eastern Europe, the next four deal with the U.S. Congress, which is still by far the most studied legislature in the world, and the last two focus on U.S. state legislatures and U.S. city councils. As legislatures are studied in a growing number of diverse settings, the prospects of gaining general knowledge of the institution improves.

        After a decade of experience with competitively elected ≠parliaments in central Europe, what evidence is there of the institutionalization of these newly democratic assemblies? Has a cadre of career politicians emerged, providing continuity of membership, experience, and commitment to the parliamentary institution? Goldie Shabad and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski analyze data on all parliamentary elections that have taken place in Poland and the Czech Republic to both houses of their parliaments from the last election before the fall of communism to the end of the 1990s. The enormous data set they have developed permits them to track all candidates across consecutive elections to determine the rate at which incumbents seek election, the rate of carryover from one election to another, and the number of times that candidates at the last election in the 1990s had competed in previous elections. They find that there was a sharp discontinuity between the membership of the last communist parliaments and the newly democratic ones, despite the success of post-communist parties. But although there have been high rates of electoral volatility and weak party systems in these countries, parliamentary carryover rates have risen. An increasing proportion of incumbents seek reelection and prior experience improves their prospects of success. There is considerable variance across parties and across countries and the process has been slower than in other countries at comparable stages of their democratization, yet the authors provide unmistakable evidence of stabilization in the parliamentary recruitment process in these two important central European states. As the experienced members play the most active role in these parliaments, continuity of membership appears to contribute to the professionalization of these newly democratic legislatures.

        Experimentation with electoral systems in central and eastern Europe has given us an opportunity to examine the impact of electoral systems on legislative behavior. Mixed member systems that combine proportional representation with single-member districts appear to provide a means to compare the effect of these two systems within the same country. However, as Eric S. Herron points out in his article on parliamentary elections in Ukraine, dual candidacy, which was allowed in Ukraine and which is often permitted in mixed-member systems, as well as party influence on nomination in both the constituencies and the party lists, make it difficult to distinguish the effect of these two elements of a mixed member system on legislative behavior. Herron distinguishes instead between candidates elected from either safe constituencies or safe party list positions, and candidates elected from more competitive positions. He tests the effect of seat safety in the 1998 parliamentary election on the propensity of members subsequently to vote with their party faction on the floor of the House. His conclusion is that legislative behavior is not influenced by whether a member is elected from a party list or from a single-member constituency, but that the deciding factor is whether a candidate is from a safe position in either type of constituency. Judging by this case study, mixed-member systems, which have been widely adopted in newly democratic parliaments, may not have had the intended effect of creating two distinct classes of legislators, those sensitive to local interests and those to national party interests.

        Four articles in this issue present new research on perennial questions related to the U.S. Congress. The first two deal with elections to the House. Brian Newman and Charles Ostrom, Jr. note that the outcomes of congressional elections in the 1990s do not seem to fit previous explanations adequately. They find that while presidential approval and major political events continue to explain congressional election results, district level factors have gained in importance. Critical among these is the distribution of open seats between those that the presidentís party must defend and those that must be defended by the opposition. Midterm congressional elections are and continue to be referenda on the presidentís performance but the quality of candidates in the most competitive districts is a newly influential factor.

        Martin P. Wattenberg and Craig Leonard Brians investigate the bias that results from differential turnout, challenging the conventional wisdom that there is little difference between the party preferences of voters and non-voters. That conclusion had been based on highly visible, relatively high turnout presidential elections. Wattenberg and Brians examine midterm congressional elections between 1978 and 1998, in which turnout is relatively low, and distinguish between the party preferences of voters and registered non-voters. They note that in both the 1994 and 1998 congressional elections, registered non-voters were disproportionately Democratic party identifiers. They conclude that when turnout falls below 40% of registered voters, as it has in recent congressional elections, representation at the polls is biased.

        One of the most important changes in the behavior of the U.S. House of Representatives in the last 25 years has been the increasing polarization between the parties. This has usually been explained by the demise of the conservative southern wing of the Democratic party in the House, and its replacement by a contingent of conservative ≠Republicans. The article by Mark D. Brewer, Mack D. Mariani, and Jeffrey M. Stonecash supplements this explanation with an analysis of the increasing proportion of seats won by Democrats in the north. In this region of the country the party has been especially successful in less affluent, urban, minority areas. Spatial segregation between classes in these areas, income differentiation across districts, and the growth of districts in which a considerable proportion of the population is non-white has given the Democratic party a core of ideologically liberal constituencies. These socio-demographic sources of party differentiation in the House are of fairly recent origin, and are likely to become even stronger in the future.

        The continuity of membership in the U.S. House is uncommonly great in comparative perspective. A small proportion of members do retire after each session, and Samuel H. Fisher III and Rebekah Herrick seek to explain these retirements. They apply a new, direct measure of membersí job satisfaction with data form a mail survey of representatives elected after 1970 who have since retired. They conclude that satisfaction with the job of being a member of Congress is strongly related to career length in the case of those who retired voluntarily but not for those who lost their reelection bid. While this is itself not surprising, the authors are able to specify some of the elements of job satisfaction, among which the most important is the perception that the work is meaningful. Whatever the general public may think, financial rewards are unimportant in keeping members in office.

        The last two articles in this issue deal with subnational legislatures in the United States. The movement to limit the number of terms that state legislators may serve reached a peak in the 1990s and seems to be declining. The conventional explanation is that term limits appealed principally to Republicans both for ideological reasons and because their party was out of power in Congress and in many state legislatures. That conventional explanation would predict a decline in support for term limits after the Republican return to power at the national level and in many sates. However, using data from the 1994 National Election Study and from their own telephone survey conducted in 1998, the authors find that conventional explanations of support for term limits do not hold up. Support comes instead from voters whose representative in the legislature belongs to a different party than their own. That would suggest that support for term limits does not have a general ideological basis in distrust of government, does not extend to all governmental offices, and may not be a passing fancy.

        The final article in this issue deals with racial polarization in U.S. city councils. Rory Allan Austin studied this subject in six city councils, three in the North and three in the South, whose electoral systems varied between district elections, at-large elections, and a mixture of the two. He examined all non-unanimous council votes in the period between 1987 and 1996, testing the hypothesis that African-American council members tend to be on the losing side of votes both because of polarization in the electorate and on issues within the councils. His surprising finding in the six city councils he studied is that racial polarization is far less evident than the conventional hypotheses predict, and that when it occurs it does not appear to be generally correlated with the electoral system except in specific policy areas, notably housing and police affairs.

 óGerhard Loewenberg


  Return to August 2002 Titles

  Return to LSQ home page