Volume XXX, Number 4
November 2005

Editor’s Introduction


In cross-national perspective, it is one of the anomalies of the political system of the United States that it has only two political parties in the legislature. Research on the role of the two parties in organizing Congress has focused on the majority party to the neglect of the minority, in part because data on the process of allocating committee assignments between the parties is unavailable. In the lead article in this issue, Keith Krehbiel and Alan E. Wiseman test the conventional wisdom that the majority party dominates the organization of Congress. They investigate committee assignments early in the 20th century when Joseph G. Cannon, “the tyrant from Illinois,” ruled as Speaker of the House. It was a historical period generally regarded as the high point of majority party control. What makes their investigation possible is an unusual set of recently discovered data including a ledger that Cannon kept containing committee requests and assignments. The authors are able to show that the Speaker, whose authoritarian control has often been asserted, in fact deferred substantially to the minority party’s recommendations in the assignment of positions on committees. This evidence of remarkable minority party influence even at a time when a powerful Speaker seemed to rule the House suggests that bipartisanship rather than majority rule governed and presumably still governs the organization of Congress. If this conclusion holds, then the two parties in the U.S. House of Representatives play an organizational role similar to that of the multiplicity of parties that exist in most other legislatures, reinforcing the general understanding that the running of legislative assemblies requires inter-party consensus.

Representation is a defining characteristic of parliaments and legislatures, but it is a protean concept that is difficult to pin down. Giving it empirical referents has always been a challenge. As a relationship between voters and legislators, the dominant conceptualization has been the one developed by John Wahlke, Heinz Eulau, and their associates in their influential but neglected book, The Legislative System (1962). They distinguished among members as “delegates,” “trustees,” and “politicos.” Rudy B. Andeweg and Jacques J.A. Thomassen propose an alternative typology making use of the principal-agent framework derived from microeconomics and increasingly applied to political relationships. It has the advantage of taking account of both ex ante and ex post control. They combine that distinction with the distinction between legislators initiating actions, for which they are held accountable, and constituents imposing demands, which require legislators’ responsiveness. Andeweg and Thomassen demonstrate the utility of the resulting four-fold typology by using it to analyze data from a study of Dutch voters and MPs. They conclude that the modes of representation that they have identified can be operationalized to study representative relationships across political systems and can overcome the problems long associated with the Wahlke-Eulau typology.

Research on coalition formation has focused on the relationship between cabinets and the lower house of bicameral parliaments, on the valid ground that upper chambers lack the constitutional power to overthrow governments. But upper chambers do have varying influence in the legislative process and may therefore affect the success or failure of cabinets. James N. Druckman, Lanny W. Martin, and Michael F. Thies investigate eight European bicameral systems in the post World War II period and show that coalitions are more likely to form when they have a majority in the upper as well as the lower chamber of parliament. Their data include conceivable coalitions as well as those actually formed. Control of the upper house matters in the formation of governing coalitions because the influence of upper houses on policy matters in spite of their exclusion from the constitutional process of appointing the cabinet. Interestingly, it matters regardless of the extent of upper-house power in policy making. This is consistent with theories of bicameralism, which have shown that even a mere delaying-power of an upper house can be influential.

The three remaining articles in this issue of the Quarterly deal with campaign finance and with gender-specific aspects of careers of members of the U.S. House of Representatives. In financing elections in the United States , the timing of campaign contributions is important because it affects perceptions of how close a contest will be and therefore it affects whether or not challengers enter a primary. It also affects the standing of candidates among their colleagues since early contributions can be redistributed by the recipient, as a later article in this issue shows. Timing therefore has a strong effect on election outcomes. So candidates understandably want their money early. Janet M. Box-Steffensmeier, Peter M. Radcliffe, and Brandon L. Bartels formulate a model that estimates the effect of candidate and contributor characteristics on both the incidence and the timing of contributions. With Federal Election Commission data on the 1993–94 election cycle, they show that a candidate’s influence in Congress, candidate ideology, and candidate need all influence the incidence of campaign contributions but not their timing. Timing is principally affected by the location of the contributing organization and its level of resources. The authors find clear differences between the factors that influence contributions from labor and from corporate contributors. Their article is both methodologically and substantively innovative, enabling the authors to identify the complex interaction among the determinants of campaign contributions and their effectiveness.

We know a good deal about the factors influencing retirement from the U.S. House of Representatives. The importance of voluntary exit has risen because as the advantage of incumbency has grown, retirement has become the principal source of membership turnover. However, there has not been research on gender-specific factors influencing voluntary retirement because of the relatively small number of women in the House until recently. Yet we know that women have substantially shorter careers than men and this has implications for their effectiveness in an institution favoring seniority. Jennifer L. Lawless and Sean M. Theriault analyze data on voluntary retirement over two decades, from 1983 to 2002, and find that among other factors, reaching a ceiling in a member’s congressional career is a significant influence on retirement. They show that the impact of this factor is much stronger for women than for men. Their explanation is that women are more policy-oriented than men. When they sense that their policy-effectiveness has reached a limit, their propensity to retire is stronger than it is for their male colleagues.

One of the characteristics of congressional campaign finance is that members can contribute to each other’s campaigns themselves or through “leadership” political action committees. Doing so increases a member’s influence in the House. Eric S. Heberlig and Bruce A. Larson investigate which members are most likely to contribute to the campaigns of others, analyzing data on incumbent members of the House during the 1990s. They note a dramatic increase in these contributions over the decade, apparently in response to the Republican takeover in 1994. The article concludes that at a time of narrow majorities and polarized parties, members of Congress became increasingly willing to support their colleagues in an effort to gain or preserve their party’s majority and the leadership positions that majority status confers.

Gerhard Loewenberg

  Return to November 2005 Titles

  Return to LSQ home page