Volume XXXII, Number 2
May 2007

 

Introduction

  

        The first three articles in this issue of the Quarterly—on divided government in Germany, on the quality of debate in the pre-civil war Congress, and on the electoral connection between legislators and their constituents in Ukraine—have in common that they explore aspects of the conventional wisdom about legislatures in three very different settings. Does divided government produce stalemate in the legislative process? Was there a “golden age” of legislatures in the 19th century? Are members of legislatures inevitably motivated by the desire for reelection?

        Although the consequence of divided government has been the subject of extensive research on executive-legislative relations in the United States, divided government is by no means a specifically U.S. phenomenon. Taking constitutional differences into account, it occurs in many political systems. Philip Manow and Simone Burkhart investigate its manifestation in Germany, where divided government can occur as a confrontation between the two houses of the national parliament, the Bundestag, which represents the national electorate, and the Bundesrat, which represents the state governments. Between 1970 and 2005, the governing coalition in the Bundestag confronted an opposition coalition in the Bundesrat three-quarters of the time. With data on 1,935 bills introduced in the Bundestag between 1976 and 2002, the authors examine the consequences of divided government in this sense. Taking theories of veto bargaining as their point of departure, they test hypotheses derived from a model of the anticipated reactions of government and opposition to the potential veto that one house of parliament can impose on the other. The authors find that when there are strong differences between the party composition of the two houses, conflict and stalemate in the legislative process is less likely than when the differences between the party compositions of the two houses is narrow. This supports their hypothesis that government and opposition will compromise to avoid intercameral vetoes when they are most likely to occur. Whether such self-restraint under divided government occurs in other political systems is a proposition that should be tested cross-nationally, taking into account the differences in what constitutes divided government from one country to another.

        The second article in this issue investigates a conventional belief that there was a golden age of debate in the United States Senate before the Civil War, an American version of a widespread nostalgia for a golden age of parliaments in the 19th century. David Wirls offers four case studies of debate in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, spanning the years 1819 to 1854, to assess the scope and depth of debate in each house. Wirls measures the length of debate, the educational background of the participants, and the extent of newspaper coverage. His analysis is an innovative attempt to develop empirical indicators of the quality and extent of deliberation, something rare in legislative literature. He discovers that while the antebellum House had fewer college educated members than the Senate, these representatives so dominated debate that debate by college educated members was in fact comparable in the two houses. While each of Wirls’ four cases are necessarily limited to particular legislative chambers at a particular time, the broader implication of Wirls’ research is that the quality of legislative deliberation is measurable and that nostalgia for a golden age of parliaments can be subjected to empirical tests.

        The third article in this issue tests whether the commonly assumed electoral connection exists for legislators even in a weak party system like that of the parliament of Ukraine. Frank C. Thames analyzes the extensive switching of parties among members for evidence that party turnover followed an electoral logic. Political parties are important determinants of the reelection prospects of legislators in most countries, but in new democracies like Ukraine they are relatively weak, ineffective, and ephemeral. Furthermore, in Ukraine’s mixed-member electoral system only half the members are elected from party lists. Thames traces the 527 party switches by deputies in the 19982002 session of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada for evidence that electoral considerations motivated this behavior. By means of an analysis of who switched and where they switched to, Thames finds clear evidence that members switched to parties that had high levels of electoral support and to parties closely aligned to the Ukrainian president who influenced election results by the use of his patronage. Thames suggests that this pattern of party switching, by reflecting the electoral connection, may strengthen the new party system in the long run.

        The role of anticipated reactions in the German legislative process, on which the first article in this issue turns, comes up again in the article on presidential influence in the U.S. Congress and in the final article on the influence of supreme courts in the U.S. states on the introduction of bills in the area of education policy. Bryan W. Marshall and Brandon C. Prins extend the large body of research on congressional support for the president by taking into account the president’s anticipation of congressional responses. The authors analyze all roll-call votes in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1953 and 1998 and the position taken by presidents on these issues. They use a two-stage model that considers the president’s decision to take a position in the first place as well as his success in obtaining support. The authors demonstrate that presidents take positions selectively, influenced by their anticipation of congressional support. Thus, they show that a president’s popularity influences congressional support not only directly, as the existing literature demonstrates, but indirectly, by influencing presidents’ selection of issues on which to take a stand.

        The electoral connection of members to their constituents, which is the subject of the third article in this issue on party switching in Ukraine, comes up again in the analysis of voluntary departures from Congress, the topic of this issue’s fifth article. In view of the very high reelection rate of members of the U.S. Congress, do U.S. congressional elections really hold members accountable? Jennifer Wolak addresses this question by investigating whether public preferences influence the propensity of members to retire voluntarily from Congress. She extends the body of research that has investigated the individual level factors that influence retirement. On average more members of Congress retire voluntarily than are defeated for reelection. Retirement of an incumbent strongly affects the subsequent election contest in that district, and retirements shift the distribution of seniority within the chamber. Wolak analyzes aggregate data on retirements from both houses of Congress over half a century beginning in 1954 to explore the influence not of individual factors but of electoral tides. She shows that both changes in the party preferences of the electorate and changes in party divisions in Congress influence the relative ­retirement rates of Democrats and Republicans. The article provides evidence that while incumbents are rarely defeated in the United States, movements in public opinion affect the composition of Congress by affecting the rates of voluntary retirement, an indirect effect of the electoral connection.

        The final article is a comparative study across the U.S. states examining how judicial decisions affect education policy indirectly by influencing legislators to tailor their proposed legislation to anticipated court decisions. This is a piece in the developing literature on the influence of courts on legislatures not by judicial review of legislative enactments but by legislative anticipation of court decisions. Teena Wilhelm investigates the preemptive power of the courts on legislative policy in the area of education in the 50 U.S. states between 1990 and 1999. She explains variance both in the number of education bills introduced and the number enacted by the distance between the ideological positions of the courts and the legislature in the area of education, and by the propensity of courts to be active in this area. The article demonstrates that courts do not only influence policy by judicial review of legislation once passed but also by influencing the content of bills that are introduced in the first place and, relatedly, the content of bills that are enacted. It is an example of the value of comparative analysis across the states of the United States.

        There is a tendency to despair about the isolated nature of much of legislative research, about the impression it gives of producing unrelated results that at best clarify narrow puzzles. But it is interesting to note that the six articles in this issue of the Quarterly have common themes. The first theme, the role of anticipated reactions in the relationship between houses in a bicameral legislature, between the executive and the legislature, and between legislatures and courts, is found in the articles by Manow and Burkhart, by Marshall and Prins, and by Wilhelm. These three articles contribute to our general understanding of inter-institutional relationships. The second theme, the role of the electoral connection between members of legislatures and their constituents, presumably central to an understanding of representation, is addressed in the articles by Thames and by Wolak. Research on common themes across political systems, as exemplified in this issue of the Quarterly, demonstrates that comparative research does have a shared agenda and can systematically contribute to our general understanding of the legislative institution.

 

                                                                                                —Gerhard Loewenberg,                                          
                                                                                                Director,
Comparative Legislative Research Center

  


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