Volume XXXI, Number 4
November 2006

 

Introduction

        The U.S. congressional elections of 2006 once again focused attention on the advantages that incumbents enjoy in the United States , making it difficult, though not impossible, for changes in public opinion to affect the composition of Congress. To what extent is the incumbency advantage, which has many sources, strengthened by incumbents’ advantages in the media? Stephen Ansolabehere, Eric C. Snowberg, and James M. Snyder, Jr. contribute to the line of analysis that has explored the effect of the structure of television media markets on statewide election outcomes. They consider both senatorial and gubernatorial elections with a research design that improves previous measures of television exposure. The authors compare incumbents’ vote margins in those states whose television markets are entirely within their state with those where markets are centered outside the state. The authors use data on paid media, on news coverage, and on public perceptions of coverage. They find no evidence that incumbency advantage is higher in states whose media markets are entirely within their states than in those whose markets are out of state, even though incumbents are bound to get more coverage from within-state media than from those centered outside their states.

        While there may be no evidence that television ads and TV news coverage contribute to incumbency advantage, what about coverage in other media? Brian Schaffner compares television coverage with newspaper coverage in congressional districts during 1999. His data consist of counts of newspaper stories and television newscasts, and survey data from the National Election Studies. He finds that coverage varies widely, depending on the congruence of district boundaries and media markets. Coverage tends to favor incumbents, more so in newspapers than on television, because newspaper stories reflect members’ efforts to report what they have done for their district. Schaffner shows that local newspaper coverage contributes to voters’ perception of whether their representatives are keeping in touch with their constituency while television coverage has no such effect. The author concludes that newspaper coverage contributes to support for incumbents even among voters of the opposite party. His findings are consistent with those reported by Ansolabehere, Snowberg, and Snyder, and indeed supplement their article.

        Legislatures, like other political institutions, have a status quo bias. Those who design them intend them to be difficult to change—to bind their successors by creating a system of rules that are not easily altered. Yet legislative institutions usually control their own rules and a considerable literature exists explaining the determinants and the consequences of rules changes. Sarah Binder tests two competing explanations that exist in theories of the development of procedure in the U.S. House of Representatives. One theory posits that change is controlled by the majority party in its partisan interests. The other proposes that it is controlled by the House median and is therefore responsive to the ideological balance among members. Her data covers nearly the entire history of the U.S. Congress, from its beginning in 1789 to the 100th Congress in 1990. She derives her independent variables from existing partisan and nonpartisan theories, notably that of Eric Schickler and that drawn from her own study of the suppression of minority rights. Her conclusion is nuanced. She finds that in its first century, the House developed a core regime that gradually gave the majority party the power to set the agenda without minority influence. But ironically, once the rules changes associated with Speaker Thomas Reed established majority control over the agenda in the 1890s, shifts in the floor median could incrementally reallocate some power to the minority. For a time toward the end of the 20th century this gave agenda control to a cohesive, liberal majority. But Binder notes that the important relationship between procedural change and policy outcomes has yet to be explored.

        The policy preferences of Congress may have surprisingly indirect effects, not only through the enactment of legislation but through its judicial interpretation. There has been a long line of research to determine whether the political preferences of the U.S. Congress influence the constitutional decisions of the presumably independent U.S. Supreme Court. The much-quoted observation of a fictional Mr. Dooley, that “the Soopreme Court follows the illiction returns,” expresses the skeptical view that the Court is not really independent of political influences. But research has never conclusively determined whether these influences result from the Court’s sensitivity to congressional preferences. Anna Harvey and Barry Friedman believe that previous research has been inconclusive because scholars have studied only those cases that have been accepted for review by the Court. Instead, Harvey and Friedman have taken as their sample all laws enacted by the U.S. Congress between 1987 and 2000, a total of 3,725 statutes whose fate they examined over a 14-year period. The Court declared 22 of these laws unconstitutional during this period, 18 of them enacted by Democratic Congresses before 1994, four of them after the election of that year that gave the Republicans control of Congress. The authors derived measures of congressional ideology from roll-call votes and comparable measures of judicial ideology. They take account of the possibility that the longer a law survives the less likely it is that the Court will strike it down. With this statute-centered, rather than case-centered analysis, they find strong evidence that the Supreme Court takes account of congressional preferences in its constitutional interpretations. Further, they show that changes in those preferences resulting from congressional elections produce changes in the Court’s propensity to strike congressional laws. Their conclusion is relevant not only to the existing literature on Congress-Supreme Court relations, but also to the ­growing body of research on the relationship between parliaments and the relatively new constitutional courts that have been established in European countries in the last half century.

        The last two articles in this issue deal with the professionalization of legislatures. They exemplify the value of comparative research across the large number of legislative chambers in the states of the United States . Neil Malhotra builds on theories of institutional development derived from studies of the U.S. Congress. Those theories posit that professionalism occurs in response to increases in government spending for social services to enable legislators to influence the growing executive bureaucracy on behalf of their constituents. He tests whether causality may not work the other way, namely that professionalism is not prompted by increases in government spending but causes that increase while being itself caused by other factors. Malhotra uses the Squire index of professionalism, spending data from the budgets produced by all U.S. state legislatures (except Alaska ), and measures that predict spending but are unrelated to professionalism. He finds strong evidence that legislatures have professionalized in response to increases in spending so that members can better fulfill their duties. The analysis is based on observations of 49 state legislatures taken at four points in time over a period of 40 years. It confirms the finding from congressional research that legislative professionalization is a deliberate institutional response to the growth of government. Malhotra’s article contributes to our ­general understanding of the development of legislatures.

        In a further exploration of legislative professionalization, Neal D. Woods and Michael Baranowski investigate whether professionalization really increases legislative control of the bureaucracy. The authors distinguish between the increases in institutional resources that professionalization brings and the increasing careerism to which it also contributes. Their data derive from a mail survey of 991 agency directors in a diverse sample of 15 states in the summer of 2000, asking respondents to compare the influence of legislators with that of governors, interest groups, state courts, and other agencies. They used separate measures of legislative resources, distinguishing those like staff and session length, which would increase the influence of the legislatures over government agencies, from those like salary, which would contribute to careerism and motivate members to concentrate on reelection. The authors conclude that institutional resources that legislatures acquire through professionalization provide an opportunity for greater influence over the bureaucracy. However, to the extent that these resources encourage careerism, they distract members from ­legislative oversight. This finding has implications for the continuing debate over term limits. Insofar as term limits reduce careerism among legislators, they may increase legislative oversight, but they also reduce the ability of members to gain expertise through experience. Disentangling the two components of legislative professionalization is therefore an important undertaking.

                                                                                                                           —Gerhard Loewenberg,                                          
                        
                                                                                                              Director, Comparative Legislative Research Center

  


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