Volume XXXIII, Number 1
February 2008




        Fifteen years ago William H. Riker introduced a collection of essays on Agenda Formation with the observation that “agendas foreshadow outcomes: the shape of an agenda influences the choices made from it.” The appreciation of the importance of agendas in legislatures goes back more than 100 years, prompted by the increasing volume and complexity of issues and by the partisan organization of legislative chambers. The development of social choice theory sharpened and continues to sharpen our understanding of the influence of agenda control. The first four articles in this issue of the Quarterly deal with several aspects of this important subject, the first in the setting of the Brazilian Congress, the next three in the setting of the U.S. Congress.

While agenda control is substantially in the hands of the legislature in the United States, in many countries it is in executive hands, either through executive leadership of the dominant parties—as in many parliamentary systems, or through constitutional powers granted to the executive—as in many presidential systems having multiparty ­legislatures. Politically fragmented legislatures widely delegate legislative authority to issue decrees with the force of law to the executive. This effectively gives the executive control over the legislative agenda. As in many presidential systems in Latin America, that is the case in Brazil. Carlos Pereira, Timothy J. Power, and Lucio R. Rennó examine efforts to restrict the President’s decree-making power in Brazil, analyzing the pattern of presidential initiatives in the decade after 1995 during which a much heralded reform occurred. Before the reform, presidential decrees having the force of law expired after 30 days but were infinitely renewable. To restrict that power, decrees were henceforth renewable only once and were valid for only 120 days. Furthermore, Congress was obliged to vote on each decree after 45 days and could transact no other business until it had done that. The unintended consequence was that presidents issued a greater volume of decrees and were able to compel Congress to vote them up or down, in effect preempting the ability of Congress to consider normal legislation. The authors conclude that limited reforms can alter the pattern of bargaining between legislature and executive but cannot easily restrict the executive’s agenda-setting authority where that authority derives from a tradition of strong executives and from the existence of fragmented legislatures.

        While issues of delegation and the power to issue decrees also exist in the United States, many aspects of congressional procedure and the organization of the two parties in Congress effectively locate agenda setting in each of the two houses. A distinctive aspect of the procedure of the U.S. House of Representatives is that most controversial bills are considered under a special rule setting the terms of debate for that bill. This arrangement gives control of the agenda either to the Rules Committee or to a party leadership capable of controlling the decisions of that committee. Each rule can itself be controversial, and an analysis of controversy over these rules affords insight into agenda control. Charles J. Finocchiaro and David W. Rohde have undertaken such an analysis. They examine roll-call votes on special rules and on motions to order the previous question in the half century between 1953 and 2002—from a period of internal party division to a period of party cohesion. They present evidence that the power of the majority party to block bills on the floor of the House is unconditional, but the power to advance bills—positive agenda power—depends on the homogeneity of the majority party on policy and on the difference between its positions and the positions of the minority. As they analyze the interrelationship between negative and positive agenda control, they show how increasing party homogeneity in the House of Representatives over the last half century has given the majority party increasing control over the agenda.

        In the U.S. Senate, agenda control is far more dispersed but it is not immune to party control. Chris Den Hartog and Nathan W. Monroe illustrate the difference that party control can make by examining the shift from Republican to Democratic majority control in the Senate in 2001 after Jim Jeffords’s change of party affiliation. This was a unique change of party control without an election and therefore offers an exceptional opportunity to examine the effect of party control in ­isolation from other factors. The authors use an unusual measure of effect: the stock exchange prices of energy firms that would profit alternatively from Republican or Democratic control of legislation. Influence on the agenda in the Senate is dispersed—it is frequently the result of bargaining between the parties. Reviewing all of the subtle ways in which the rules of the Senate give some implicit advantages to the majority party, even in the face of the threat of a filibuster by the minority, the authors show how the widely shared proposal and veto power among Senators gives each of them an incentive to reach an agreement. That incentive favors the majority, because the majority has the first proposal power both in committee and in floor scheduling. The authors demonstrate that when the Jeffords’s switch reached the markets, the prices of stocks in the energy industries that expected to be favored by Democratic control of legislation rose significantly. The stocks that expected to be favored by Republican control declined. The authors therefore conclude that party agenda control in the Senate makes a measurable difference.

        Another form of agenda control derives from the issue ­jurisdiction of each of the specialized committees of the House, which gives them considerable control over a policy area. E. Scott Adler and John D. Wilkerson investigate how committees acquire their jurisdiction, offering a case study of the consequences of the systematic reform of committee jurisdictions undertaken in 1975. Examining bill referral to committees after the reform, they show that where new committee jurisdictions were created they tended merely to codify existing practices. But where the reform redefined existing jurisdictions, subject matter fragmentation among committees was reduced and policy coordination was improved. The authors find clear evidence that the reform achieved its intended result of unifying control over related issues. It did not merely reflect members’ specialized interests or codify existing practices.

        The final two articles in this issue deal with exogenous influences on legislatures. Eric McGhee offers a new explanation of the incumbency advantage that has increasingly reduced turnover in the membership of the U.S. House of Representatives. Departing from the frequently analyzed organizational advantages that incumbents enjoy in their reelection campaigns, McGhee examines the differences among five different age cohorts in the electorate in their responses to House members running for reelection. He finds that the oldest age cohorts—those entering the electorate before the New Deal and those entering it before 1964—were far less inclined to cross party lines to support incumbents than those in the younger age cohorts. They exhibited a party loyalty not shared by younger voters, even after controlling for party identification. McGhee has identified an “incumbency effect” in the electorate that appears to have grown over time and he suggests that this is a previously unexamined effect of changing voter orientations to political parties.

        It is conventional wisdom that third parties in the two-party system of the United States have often influenced the policy positions of the major parties and the views of presidential candidates. But the evidence for this view is hard to pin down. Shigeo Hirano suggests that the evidence may be clearer at the congressional level, where it is possible to examine multiple policy decisions in the form of roll-call votes and to compare third-party influence not only over time but across voting constituencies. Hirano examines the case of the Populist Party which emerged at the end of the nineteenth century to express a rising agrarian discontent. He finds that the votes of members of Congress on populist issues were not influenced by the level of electoral success of Populist Party candidates in their constituencies. However, members’ votes were influenced by the educational and mobilization efforts of the Populist Party and by the threat of the entry of Populist candidates in their constituencies. He concludes that the influence of a third party on Congressional decisions is comparable to the influence of interest groups but with the addition of the threat of electoral competition.

                                                                                             —Gerhard Loewenberg,                                          
Comparative Legislative Research Center

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