Volume XXVIII, Number 3
August 2003

Editor’s Introduction

        What causes the organization of a legislature to change? What causes a legislature to have a particular institutional structure in the first place? There is a literature that explains the stability of legislatures, under the heading of legislative institutionalization. There is also a body of work that relates the structure of a particular legislature to the goals of its members, inspired by David Mayhew’s book, Congress: The Electoral Connection. But systematic attention to the sources and consequences of institutional change and to variance in institutional structures is relatively sparse and relatively recent. The first two articles in this issue deal with structural change and structural variance respectively. The first is the broadest empirical analysis yet of the sources of support for the reform of the U.S. Congress in the 1970s, the second is an attempt to explain variations in legislative structures by modeling how legislators choose among alternative organizational patterns.

        Eric Schickler, Eric McGhee, and John Sides bring an unprecedented range of data to bear to identify the sources of support for the notable reforms of Congress that took place three decades ago. The authors focus on the moves to curb the influence of seniority, to open congressional processes to greater public scrutiny, and to reorganize committees. They draw on 20 indicators of support that have never before been systematically employed and they present the evidence in detail. They find that seniority and ideology were the principal contributors to congressional reform: junior members wanting to limit the influence of seniority, liberals wanting to gain influence over conservatives. The supporters of reform came not only from among Democrats, as conventional wisdom holds, but from newly elected Republicans as well. The article raises the question of whether reform was the result of generational conflict due to the influx of new members with new ambitions or whether it was the consequence of changes in the external environment of Congress that rewarded individual activism. The article also deals with some of the principal consequences of these reforms, showing that they both decentralized power in Congress and contributed to a renewal of party leadership. The authors conclude that the results of the reform in the 1970s are full of tensions and contradictions.

        By contrast to this detailed empirical analysis of a particular set of institutional changes, James Coleman Battista attempts to develop an abstract model that links ambition theory to choices among alternative legislative structures in general. His aim is to explain structural variation across legislatures by the pattern of ambition of those who compose them. He notes that legislative structures are not externally imposed on their members; to a considerable extent a legislature can choose its own organization. Battista therefore assumes that members make structural choices by anticipating their effect on their own electoral and policy goals. He suggests that structural choices are self-reinforcing as the choices made by a particular set of members will contribute to their electoral and policy success thereby maintaining a membership with consistent goals. He explicates how legislators’ individual preferences sort themselves out into the collective choices of legislatures. From his model, Battista predicts that legislative structures fall into distinct types whose elements are consistent with each other, and that they tend to maintain themselves. While the author finds supporting evidence in the body of research on the U.S. Congress and on U.S. state legislatures, the principal purpose of his model is to derive hypotheses for testing. Among these are the hypotheses that legislative structures are coherent and are unlikely to change except as a result of external shocks consisting, for example, of the influx of an uncommonly large number of new members with different ambitions.

        The three remaining articles in this issue deal with aspects of the behavior of members of the U.S. House of Representatives that are of perennial interest: what enables members to succeed in the passage of legislation, how does the electronic voting procedure in the House affect the outcome of votes, and how do members’ attitudes toward Congress expressed to their constituents affect their reelection prospects.

        Introducing legislation in Congress is easy but institutional barriers to the passage of legislation are high. What determines the “legislative effectiveness” of members has long been an interesting question. William D. Anderson, Janet M. Box-Steffensmeier, and Valeria Sinclair-Chapman explore the interaction between the activity of the members and the institutional barriers to the passage of legislation in the 103d Congress, 1993–94. Over 5000 bills were introduced in that Congress, but only one-tenth of them were passed, a normal proportion. To what extent did the activity of members affect their ability to get their bills passed and to what extent was their success dependent on the institutional context? The authors employ an unusually rich set of data related to the sponsorship of all public bills in that Congress: the record of members in sponsoring bills, the importance and breadth of their bills, their number of floor speeches, their position on legislative committees, their electoral margin in their districts, and the fate of their bills at the various stages of the legislative process. The authors discuss the shortcomings of statistical models used in the past to analyze such data, and instead employ a negative binomial regression model with the number of bills each member passed as the dependent variable. Their general conclusion is that members’ success in getting their legislation passed depends on their ability to size up the informal norms of the House, to sponsor bills but not too many, to speak on the floor but not too often. Members belonging to the majority are more successful in getting their bills enacted than minority party members, a finding that is surprising only to those who doubt the importance of party in the U.S. Congress. The activities of members are more clearly related to their success at the committee stage than at the enactment stage of legislation, an indication that institutional factors become increasingly important as a bill goes through the later stages of the legislative process.

        The voting procedures of legislatures—down to their technical details—are well known to affect their decisions. In the U.S. House where electronic voting takes place, the vote stays open for 15 to 20 minutes during which members can change their vote. This enables members to cast their vote contingent on how other members are voting. It gives leaders a chance to exercise “vote options,” promises that members make to support their leaders if their votes are needed to win. David C. King and Richard J. Zeckhauser present an informal model by which they demonstrate that the “cost” to a leader of buying “votes” is greater than the “cost” of buying “vote options,” that is, votes promised on an “if needed” basis. They examine 417 key votes cast in the House between 1975 and 2001 to detect whether such a vote-options pattern exists. They compare vote outcomes when neither the President nor the Speaker took positions with those when the President did take a position and his party controlled Congress. The authors show that under these circumstances presidential wins tended to be narrow compared to presidential losses, which they take to be an indication of the existence of the exercise of vote options. The article concludes that the use of vote options is the optimal, lowest cost strategy for leaders attempting to win legislative decisions.

        In the final article in this issue, Daniel L. Lipinski, William T. Bianco, and Ryan Work reexamine Richard F. Fenno’s finding in the 1970s that members “run for Congress by running against Congress.” In the 1990s a substantial number of incumbents ran campaigns with positive statements about the institution. The authors analyze congressional newsletters sent by members to their constituents for indications of what they call “institutional loyalty.” They compare the 1994 campaign, in which the Democrats lost control of Congress, with the 1998 campaign, in which Republicans retained control. They find that in the 1994 election, majority party members who faced disaffected voters suffered for expressions of institutional loyalty. In the 1998 election, in which public criticism of Congress was less evident, expressions of institutional loyalty did not matter. The general conclusion suggests that in the 1990s more members took collective responsibility for the work of Congress than in the 1970s. If they belonged to the majority party in an election in which public disapproval of Congress was widespread, expressions of institutional loyalty cost them electoral support.

 —Gerhard Loewenberg


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