Volume XXIX, Number 4
November 2004

Editor’s Introduction

       

        The existence of 50 state legislative systems in the United States provides exceptional opportunities for comparative legislative research. The first two articles in this issue provide excellent examples. Stephen Ansolabehere and James M. Snyder, Jr. use data on U.S. state legislative elections from 1994 to 2000, as well as data on other statewide elections, to reexamine the widely accepted proposition that incumbents enjoy strong electoral advantages. They ask whether this incumbency advantage is possibly overstated because it fails to take account of “strategic retirements,” that is, legislators’ decisions to retire when their prospects of reelection look bleak. They correct for this possible endogeneity of incumbency—namely, that it occurs in part because confident incumbents continue while vulnerable incumbents retire. Ansolabehere and Snyder accomplish that by making ingenious use of the existence of term limits in some states. Term limits create a group of officeholders compelled to retire, who cannot strategize about retirement. Making use of what is in effect a natural experiment, they find that the incumbency advantage is in fact not inflated by strategic retirements, that it is every bit as great as had been thought. Their article is part of a much larger study encompassing all statewide and state legislative elections since 1942.

        A second article also examines data across U.S. state legislatures, in this case to explain the propensity of members to combine legislative office with private careers. The availability of outside careers is an important difference between state legislatures, which permit them, and the U.S. Congress, which does not. H.W. Jerome Maddox examines outside career activity in 15 states and finds that, in spite of the movement toward the professionalization of state legislatures, more than  half of the members he studied had outside careers. This varies with levels of legislative salaries but also by sex, party, and educational attainment. The author concludes that members engage in outside careers as a function of the opportunity cost of legislative service, that is, members pursue outside careers the lower their legislative salary and the higher the income they can attain outside. Interestingly, length of legislative sessions, an indicator of legislative professionalization, does not seem to affect the likelihood of pursuing an outside career. This undercuts the argument that professionalization of legislatures discourages high earners from entering the legislature.

        In comparative perspective, one of the most interesting characteristics of the U.S. Congress is the uncertain role of party in explaining voting behavior. Since the influence of party is difficult to distinguish from constituency interests and members’ preferences in the United States , there has been considerable controversy about the independent effect of party. The next two articles in this issue deal with aspects of that subject. It is well known that the influence of party in Congress has varied over time. The article by Timothy P. Nokken and Keith T. Poole examines an aspect of that variance: the voting behavior of that small number of members who changed their party affiliation during their careers. The effect of such a change on voting has been taken as an indicator of the influence of party. Pursuing previous work on that subject, the authors find differences across time periods. They distinguish between the earliest period of partisanship, 1793 to 1813; the period between the break-up of the Jeffersonian Republican party and the disintegration of the Whig Party, 1824 to 1849; and the period since Reconstruction, 1877 to the present. Their purpose is to test the effect on party voting in Congress of what they regard as the three different party systems that have existed in American political history. The authors demonstrate that whether or not party switchers changed their voting behavior depended on how polarized the party system was at the time of the switch. This research adds an explanation of the changing importance of the party label by demonstrating its relationship to changes in the average distance between the parties over time.

        Barry C. Burden and Tammy M. Frisby assess the influence of party at one point in time, 1971–72, a period of relatively weak party influence. They use a previously unexamined measure of party influence. The authors compare the voting intentions expressed by members to their party Whips with their ultimate vote. The unusual data come from the archives of Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill and have the advantage of being specific to particular bills, of pertaining to a single congressional party, and of distinguishing between members’ expressed preferences and their vote. Comparing members stated intentions, which can be taken to indicate their preferences, with their ultimate votes, the authors come up with an indicator of the “conversion” of a member, presumably by party leaders. On 16 bills that the authors examined, about 10% of the members showed “conversion,” moving in two-thirds of the cases toward the leaders’ position. Though the numbers are small, they can be pivotal, as the authors demonstrate in a case study. The evidence of such party influence at a time of weak parties is interesting, as are the data that the authors bring to bear.

        The third article dealing with the U.S. Congress considers a previously neglected means by which members take positions. Rorie L. Spill Solberg and Eric S. Heberlig investigate the extent to which members of Congress cosign amicus curiae briefs filed on cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. On average one-third of the members of Congress signed an amicus brief in a session. Since there is evidence that such briefs do not influence the outcome of decisions, the authors analyze the characteristics of members who participated in the filing of 105 such briefs between 1979 and 1996 in order to infer their motives. The data reveal that the propensity to sign briefs increases with the ideological extremism of members and of the distance of their position from that of the Court. While members serving on the Judiciary Committee or on committees having jurisdiction over issues presented to the Court are more likely to participate, members with previous judicial or prosecutorial experience were less likely to cosign briefs. The authors conclude that cosigning amicus briefs is not regarded as a means of exercising policy influence but of taking a public stance on an issue. In short the authors have uncovered a new way by which members announce their positions to various audiences.

        The final article in this issue deals with the media coverage of a legislature in an unfamiliar setting, that of the Israeli Parliament. Tamir Sheafer and Gadi Wolfsfeld distinguish between the newsworthiness of a legislative actor and the news environment as influences on media coverage. The authors identify two aspects of legislators’ news-worthiness, their political standing or status within the legislature and their personal communication skills. They define the news environment in terms of the changing political context, as affected by the timetable of elections, the existence of war and peace, and, for purposes of this study, the cycle of parliamentary sessions and recesses. The data consist of radio appearances of 54 members of the Israeli Knesset during a seven-month period in 2001. The authors find that legislators’ standing and communication skills were each equally important in contributing to their salience on the radio and, not surprisingly, that radio coverage of legislators was greater when the House was in session than when it was in recess. But they also show that communication skills were more important in providing radio exposure than political standing when the House was in session. The competition for media coverage between legislatures and other political institutions, and among members within legislatures, is a subject of enduring interest. This examination of that subject in Israel may provide a benchmark for comparable studies in other settings.

                                                                             —Gerhard Loewenberg


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