Volume XXXVII, Number 1
February 2012

 

Introduction

As always, the studies presented in this issue of the Quarterly represent the best and most advanced work in the field. But what may be the most interesting aspect about this collection is their cleverness in tackling questions of interest and the considerable variation in their methodological approaches.

Sociological studies of the U.S. Congress fell out of fashion several decades ago. Since then scholars have occasionally concerned themselves with a member's race, ethnicity, or sex, but not with other social or economic characteristics. In this issue of the Quarterly, Nicholas Carnes resurrects this neglected line of research with an analysis of how members' social class backgrounds are related to their legislative voting behavior. Exploiting biographical data, Carnes codes a U.S. House member's occupational background into one of seven categories: farm owners, businesspeople, private sector professionals such as doctors and architects, lawyers, politicians, service-based professionals such as teachers, and workers. Interestingly, Carnes finds that the proportion of members from each group changed remarkably little over the course of the twentieth century. He hypothesizes that members drawn from the ranks of workers will be the most liberal House members on economic issues while those from "profit-oriented" occupations will be more conservative. Carnes tests these notions using both first-dimension DW-NOMINATE scores (for the years 1901 to 1996), and AFL-CIO scores (for the years 1973 to 1992). Overall, the results demonstrate that social class as represented by occupation exerts a strong independent effect on roll-call voting in the House in the expected direction, with important implications for concerns about democratic representation for poorer Americans. But it is important to note that the study also makes a strong case for reintroducing sociological orientations into legislative studies.

The concept of representation is central to the study of legislative institutions, and in recent years there has been considerable work on the question of how well women are represented in Congress. In a sophisticated study, John D. Griffin, Brian Newman, and Christina Wolbrecht advance our understanding of fundamental relationships in this regard. Exploiting the large number of cases available in the 2000 and 2004 National Annenberg Election Surveys, they explore how well women constituents are represented by their member of the U.S. House of Representatives on a series of issues on which men and women express significantly different opinions. Calculating both win ratios (how often the constituent and his or her member are in agreement on the member's relevant floor votes) and ideological proximity (how closely a constituent's ideological preferences mirror those of his or her representative), they report two important findings. First, women constituents are advantaged relative to men constituents when their member of Congress is a Democrat. Second, when copartisanship is controlled, women constituents are neither advantaged nor disadvantaged when they are represented by a female member of Congress. For women, even the parliamentary advantages of having the Democrats in control of the House pale in comparison to the power of the simple representational benefit of having a Democrat representing them.

Analyses of roll-call votes have consumed legislative scholars for many years. Surprisingly, little attention has been given to the question of which voting procedure a legislature chooses to use. The decision of which voting mechanism to employ is examined by Brian F. Crisp and Amanda Driscoll, using data on the lower houses in Argentina and Mexico. They argue that when lawmakers have the option to vote either using a means that records their individual preferences or a means that only indicates the institution's collective decision, they will choose the former when they wish to signal their policy preferences to external observers, such as voters or organized interests. Among the notable relationships they report are that initiatives promoted by presidents and measures that engendered lengthy debates were more likely to be voted on using roll calls. But perhaps the most significant contribution of the study may be its important reminder that the process leading to a final floor vote, particularly the way that vote is structured, may reveal as much or more about the preferences of lawmakers than does the vote itself.

It is generally thought that voters are unenthused about professional legislatures, with studies consistently showing a negative relationship between legislative professionalization level and public approval scores. This finding is reexamined and greatly refined by Lilliard E. Richardson, Jr., David M. Konisky, and Jeffrey Milyo. Analyzing the views of more than 36,000 respondents in the 2007 and 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, they find that personal ideology conditions the negative relationship found between legislative professionalization and approval of the legislature. They report that it is conservatives who harbor the harshest views on more professional legislatures. In contrast, moderates express somewhat less hostile attitudes, and there appears to be no relationship between liberal views and approval of the legislature. One question to be answered by future studies is whether these intriguing findings are a product of the political environment at the time of the survey or if these relationships hold at other points in time when political attitudes might be less polarized.

Depending on one's perspective, the decennial redistricting process in the United States brings out either lawmakers' creativity or deviousness. Evidence in support of either characterization is presented by Jason Kelly, who demonstrates how majority parties strategically incorporate prisons into districts in such a way as to advance their party's political opportunities. In almost every American state—Maine and Vermont are the exceptions—prisoners are not allowed to vote. But the census counts them as living where they are incarcerated, and in the last redistricting they constituted as much as 12% of the residents in one legislative district. Kelly examines how state senate district lines were drawn in 46 states following the 2000 Census. He finds that majority parties take advantage of the opportunity to import nonvoting prisoners into districts their party controls, allowing them in turn to export other voters who are likely to back their party into more competitive neighboring districts. This is a largely unknown and underappreciated form of partisan gerrymandering, one that fosters malapportionment because districts that house large populations of nonvoting prisoners exaggerate the electoral power of the districts' other voting residents.

—Peverill Squire
   Senior Editor

 


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