Volume XXVII, Number 2
May 2002

Editor’s Introduction

        Comparative research on stability in parliamentary regimes has usually failed to distinguish between cabinet and legislative stability, even though tenure in office need not be the same for each partner in the executive-legislative relationship. For example, the unusual instability of Italian cabinets and the unusual stability of Italian legislatures is an accepted but surprisingly unexplored fact. Riccardo Pelizzo and Joseph Cooper distinguish between the two and examine the relationship between cabinet and parliamentary stability in Italy for the 53 cabinets and 13 legislatures that have existed since the founding of the Italian Republic in 1948. They measure parliamentary stability as the number of days between the first meeting of a parliament and the first meeting of its successor, and cabinet stability as the duration of cabinets in time and the frequency with which they change. The authors find that both parliamentary stability and the number of cabinets are affected by attributes of the party system but the duration of cabinets is not. They proceed to explore the resulting complex relationship between legislative stability and both the duration of cabinets and the frequency with which they change. Each measure of cabinet stability separately stands in a linear relationship to legislative stability but together their relationship to legislative stability is curvilinear. The stability of legislatures is not merely the result of cabinet stability, it has independent importance. The more governments there are, the more stable the legislature, until the number of governments exceeds 4 or 5; the longer the average duration of governments, the less stable the legislature until that duration reaches three-quarters of a year. The authors’ provocative conclusion is that the same ­attributes of the party system that stabilize the legislature destabilize the governments. Furthermore, cabinet stability and legislative stability influence each other. In Italy, the stability of the legislature made changing the government relatively easy. The authors conclude that the Italian case may be a benchmark from which to explore the relationship between cabinet and legislative stability in other settings.

        The next article deals with relationships within the legislature. It is an example of the formal analysis of legislatives rules, an enterprise that has proceeded with increasing momentum in the last two decades and has given us a series of important intuitions about the legislative process. Keith Krehbiel and Adam Meirowitz offer a new insight into the influence of procedures governing the sequence of agenda-setting on the relative power of majorities and minorities within legislatures. Their analysis focuses on the effect of the motion to recommit with instructions “to report forthwith,” a frequently used but not often ­studied device in the U.S. House of Representatives. This motion to recommit is usually granted to the minority and permits late-stage agenda-setting. Krehbiel and Meirowitz develop a model that highlights the relationship between the procedures that specify the order in which proposals may be made and the policy preferences of the proposers. They note that the motion to recommit with instructions is a last-proposer right of the minority under the procedures of the U.S. House, as distinguished from the well-known last-proposer right of the bill manager moving the conference committee report, which is effectively the right of the majority. The authors show that the motion to recommit gives the minority the ability to construct an amendment that can attract bipartisan support for a change in the status quo under a number of conditions, depending on the location of the status quo and the distribution of the preferences of members. Their analysis demonstrates that the interaction between formal rules and the distribution of preferences may give greater power to the minority than is often recognized.

        One of the most surprising but persistent findings from a generation of research on the United States Congress is that it is a very unpopular institution. This is for many reasons a disturbing and a paradoxical discovery. It is paradoxical, since constituents tend to view their own representative in Congress favorably. It has disturbing consequences in that it discourages able men and women from entering Congress, brings with it disrespect for the policies that Congress enacts, and in general makes the legislative process difficult. It also disturbs scholars investigating public support for legislatures in democratizing countries, who would like to measure support for democracy by support for central representative institutions. The next two articles in this issue offer different though complementary explanations for the unpopularity of Congress.

        John Hibbing and Elizabeth Thiess-Morse have previously shown that the unpopularity of Congress is due to the public’s dislike of the excessive professionalization of Congress and its cumbersome processes for reaching decisions, as well as the perception of the excessive influence of interest groups. But how could Congress be reformed to make it more acceptable to the public? John Hibbing argues that reforming Congress to give the public more direct influence over governmental decisions would ironically make it even less popular. Based on a survey of 1266 respondents and discussions in eight focus groups, Hibbing concludes that the public does not want to be more involved in the decision making process. What it does want is a Congress composed of members who are empathetic to people’s concerns and who do not serve special interests. This may be an unrealistic aim, given the complexity of issues, public indifference to understanding them, and the need for professional assistance for members. However, this finding makes questionable the assumption that Congress would be more popular if it were more open and more accountable.

        Are citizen evaluations of Congress influenced not only by their attitudes toward procedure but by also by substantive considerations? David R. Jones and Monika L. McDermott investigate the effect of the distance that citizens see between their own ideological stance and the ideological position of the majority party in Congress. Using survey data from the American National Election Studies conducted between 1980 and 1998, they conclude that citizens use what they regard as the distance between their ideological position and that of the congressional majority to help form their opinion of how Congress is doing. Apparently voters in the United States do care about the ideology of those who control Congress. Taking these two articles together, the conclusion is that public perceptions of the national legislature are shaped both by the procedural and the substantive preferences of their constituents.

        When we move from public evaluations of Congress to voter evaluations of individual candidates, we turn from general orientations to the legislative institution to voting behavior in U.S. legislative elections. Research has persistently shown that economic conditions influence both presidential elections and control of Congress in those elections. The explanation is that voters hold the president accountable for the economy. But what about pure legislative elections, as measured by mid-term elections to the House of Representatives? Findings on the impact of economic conditions on mid-term elections are mixed, with the most recent research indicating no relationship since 1915. This can be explained by (1) the perception that Congress, unlike the president, does not influence macroeconomic conditions; (2) by the closeness of the parties on economic issues; and (3) by the failure of candidates for Congress to campaign on the economy. But these circumstances may describe the late 20th century more than politics in the late 19th and early 20th century. G. Patrick Lynch examines the impact of economic conditions on mid-term House elections over a 120-year history beginning in 1874. His indicators of economic conditions are change in real, per capita gross national product and prices. He tests for the effect of structural shifts in the slope coefficients of the economic variables on election outcomes. Lynch finds that economic conditions influenced U.S. House elections more strongly in the late 19th and early 20th century than they did after 1915 and explains this interesting conclusion by a shift in public perceptions of Congress’s power over the economy and changes in the issues on which candidates campaign.

        Citizens evaluate not only the legislative institution, and candidates for election, but also the effectiveness of members within the legislature. It is well known that race continues to affect public attitudes toward legislators in the United States. Previous studies have documented the importance of a member’s position within the institution and various indicators of members’ behavior on their reputation for effectiveness. Kerry Haynie extends this line of research by inquiring whether the race of the legislator affects the perceived level of effectiveness. Drawing on a substantial social literature on American race relations, he develops three potentially conflicting expectations. Using a rich database collected by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy, he measures legislators’ effectiveness as perceived by their colleagues, by lobbyists, and by journalists, for the sessions of the North Carolina legislature between 1983 and 1991. In a pooled ordinary least squares model that includes variables measuring relevant institutional positions, individual attributes, and behavioral indicators as controls, Haynie shows that race is significantly related to perceptions of effectiveness and that African-Americans are perceived to be less effective than other legislators. He also demonstrates that while race is an important influence in determining the effectiveness ratings given by colleagues and lobbyists, it is not a significant factor for journalists. Since these findings come from the observation of only one state legislature, they suggest the need for comparative studies across states and across time to examine the impact of variation in the racial diversity of legislatures on the perceived legislative effectiveness of their members.

      

 —Gerhard Loewenberg


  Return to May 2002 Titles

  Return to LSQ home page