Volume XXVII, Number 1
February 2002

Editor’s Introduction



         The role of the legislature in presidential systems outside the United States is a subject of growing importance, as presidential systems proliferate especially in new democracies. The delegation of legislative powers to the executive to govern by decree is widespread in these newly democratic states, giving the impression of executive dominance. Gary Reich examines this impression in the case of Brazil, where the use of decrees has expanded enormously in the last decade. The author shows how the rapid turnover of membership in the Brazilian Congress and the weak committee system make delegation of legislative power to the President an attractive alternative to congressional law making. He demonstrates, however, that members of Congress retain influence over legislation by proposing amendments to decrees which are then incorporated into so-called “conversion bills.” These bills tend to escape presidential veto in high profile and politically sensitive issue areas, and their success is directly related to the number of amendments proposed by legislators. He concludes that the delegation of legislative authority to the president to issue decrees is a rational response to the inexperience of legislators and the weakness of the committee system and does not preclude congressional influence over policy.


        From the perspective of party systems outside the United States, American political parties often seem indistinguishable from each other, although in recent years within the United States they have seemed to be in sharp conflict. Taking the voting records of members of the House and Senate from 1952 to 1996, and employing a newly developed version of ADA voting scores, William R. Lowry and Charles R. Shipan trace the changing relationship of the congressional parties to each other. They show that the parties tended to converge in the 1950s and again late in the decade of the 1960s, while they diverged early in the 1960s and again beginning in the 1970s. In the 1990s Republicans and Democrats diverged in their voting behavior in ­Congress more sharply than at any other time in the second half of the 20th century. The authors explain these changing relationships. They attribute the recently growing divergence between the parties to the increasingly homogeneous composition of each of their congressional delegations, to the narrowing gap in seats between them leading them to try to obstruct each other, and to a growing economic polarization in the electorate. In their analysis they find confirmation of the proposition derived from the work of Cox and McCubbins and others in the last decade, that congressional parties behave rationally as collective units in the way they respond to changes within Congress and outside.


        Formal work on the U.S. Congress has produced a renewed interest in the effect of restrictive rules on legislative decisions. A great deal of this work has focused on the special rules issued by the Rules Committee of the House of Representatives, which structure legislative decisions in that chamber. Research findings have produced conflicting interpretations of the function of restrictive rules, from those based on Krehbiel’s work that regard them as saving information costs, to those associated with Weingast and Marshall that see them as facilitating bargaining and gains from exchange, to those ascribing to the Rules Committee the power to impose its own noncentrist policy outcomes, and finally to those that regard special rules as the partisan instrument of the majority party. Bryan W. Marshall tests these explanations with evidence from four recent Congresses in the 1980s and 1990s. He collected 532 rules issued by the Rules Committee over 20 years, distinguishing those that were “open” from those that were “restrictive.” To establish the factors associated with whether or not a bill would be considered under a restrictive rule, he measured the extent to which a bill was highly specialized, had “distributive” pork-barrel characteristics, distinctively reflected the views of the Rules Committee, or had a partisan origin. On the basis of his analysis, he rejects three of the current explanations of the function of restrictive rules, and finds evidence only for the proposition that the Rules Committee acts as an agent of the majority party.


        Are party leaders in the U.S. Congress typical of their followers, as the median voter theorem would suggest, or do they hold more extreme ideological positions, responsive principally to their party’s most militant members, as the comparative politics literature suggests? Building on their previous research on this subject, Bernard Grofman, William Koetzle, and Anthony J. McCann examine the ideological positions of party leaders and members in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965 to 1996. They employ the familiar ADA and ACU measures of ideology and find that Democratic party leaders stand to the left and Republican party leaders stand to the right of the median position of their followers. The evidence confirms their hypothesis that in both parties the leaders are chosen from that part of the ideological spectrum occupied by the greatest concentration of their followers, the modal rather than the median position. They explain their finding as the consequence of the skewed distribution of members across the ideological spectrum, the pattern of factions within the parties, and the method of successive balloting by which the leaders are chosen.


        Among the reasons that the U.S. political system is such an ­attractive setting for legislative research is the variety of legislative systems that exist within its boundaries. The obstacle to comparative state legislative research is that data at the state level are much less available than comparable data for Congress. But it is readily possible to compare national findings with findings in a subset of states or in a single state. The final articles in this issue of the Quarterly deal with legislative politics at the subnational level, testing propositions that have been previously explored at the national level. Thad E. Hall writes about the changing pattern of legislative support for the Governor during one term in one state, adding a time dimension to previous cross-sectional work on this subject. Using votes on bills sponsored by Georgia Governor Zell Miller’s floor leaders during his first term in the early 1990s, Hall finds confirmation of hypotheses derived from studies of legislative support for the President’s program in Congress. His conclusion is that support is partisan, that it varies by the subject of legislation and by party factions, and that the proximity of elections accentuates party differences.


        Although the influence of congressional committees on ­federal regulatory agencies has been a perennial subject of study, very little is known about this relationship at the state level. Carol S. Weissert and Susan Silberman focus on state medical boards, which have gone beyond licensing, disciplining, and otherwise prescribing guidelines for medical practice, to formulating policy for Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) and other aspects of medical care. Theirs is a comparative study across all states. With data from a mail questionnaire, the authors explore the influence of the legislature on policy activism by the boards. They find confirmation at the state level of the pattern of legislative-agency relationships at the federal level that attribute regulatory board activity to legislative initiatives. By comparison, governors and medical societies are less important.

 —Gerhard Loewenberg

  Return to February 2002 Titles

  Return to LSQ home page