Who’s the Worst President? Evaluating the Quinnipiac Poll

Quinnipiac University’s “worst president” poll got a lot of press. Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, Fox, and virtually every other news outlet have carried the headline, “Obama is the Worst President since WWII.” This particular survey question is press-chum. The survey’s designers likely knew it would get the press’s attention and included it for that purpose. Mission accomplished. The problem is it tells us practically nothing.

For one, this question lacks consistent measurement. Without consistent measures it is difficult to trust the “marginals” (raw percentages of agree/disagree, approve/disapprove, etc). The reason is that any single survey is subject to a variety of errors and biases. The sample can be biased. The survey’s respondents may not represent the actual population. Question wording can bias results. For example, research by Tom Smith (1987) shows questions using the words “welfare” rather than “poor” elicit more negative responses on surveys.

Similarly, question ordering can bias results. For example, offering respondents a question about unrest in the Middle East followed later by a question asking the respondent to judge the president on foreign affairs can bias responses. In this case, the surveyor has primed respondents with hostility and violence overseas. This can lead to more negative responses than if the survey leads with questions about foreign policy successes. (I haven’t looked through the rest of the poll, but the “worst president” is question 36 in this survey.) This can make interpreting the marginals without a track-record difficult for researchers or, in this case, the public.

However, the real crux is the nature of the question itself. The question effectively asks respondents to compare current events to past events. This flies in the face of what we know about survey response. John Zaller, often in collaboration with Stanley Feldman, illustrated that respondents answer questions based on what is at the “top-of-their-head.” Recent stimuli affect the attitudes respondents use to answer a question. For example, if you ask somebody today about their thoughts on politics, you are likely to receive an opinion on issues most recently in the news cycle, like unaccompanied children crossing the border into the US. If you asked the same question a month ago, the individual likely talked about another issue entirely, one that was popular at that time. And if you ask it five months from now, these issues may not register at all.

This makes retrospective questions like the one in the Quinnipiac poll biased against sitting presidents. Obama’s rank as the “worst president since WWII” is currently plagued by lost emails at the IRS, House Republicans’ accusations of executive overreach, and a sluggish economy, among other things. Previous presidents are free from current events. Bush’s approval is no longer burdened by the Iraq War, which helped lower his approval to 25% at one point. Harry Truman’s faults in office have evidently been forgiven. He tops the list as the least-worst president despite having the lowest recorded job approval in Gallup history (22%). Reagan’s legacy is no longer burdened by the early-1980s recession, which dragged his approval into the mid-30s. Nixon’s memory has evidently escaped Watergate. He fairs better than Obama and Bush II despite leaving office with only 24% approval. Clinton’s memory has certainly escaped his improprieties in the Oval Office.

It’s unsurprising that the two times this question has been asked (in 2014 and 2006) the sitting president has been recorded as “the worst president.” This isn’t to say it will always be the case. However, our memory of previous presidents fairs much better than their actual job approval during their presidencies. The events dragging down their job approval are long over.

Ultimately, this question wasn’t necessary and it is a prime example of when not to trust the marginals. Simple job approval/disapproval ratings are far more accurate at capturing presidential disapproval. And further, they are far less misleading.

Originally posted to reviseandextend.com.

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Why the Logic of “Throwing the Bums Out” is Wrong

1104_oped_JeffParker (1)As the election season ramps up, Americans offer dozens of claims about the “problems” facing our country and their purported “solutions.”  But while many of these claims are amenable to empirical scrutiny, few are ever studied.

Spoiler alert: Americans are lousy empiricists!

Last week’s post examined whether “career politicians” are “out of touch” which their constituents.  According to a simple regression analysis, the answer is a resounding “no.” When we look at the data, veteran lawmakers represent their constituents in much the same way as “new” lawmakers.

In today’s post, we’re going to examine what is perhaps the most cited claim about how Americans can “fix” Congress: All we need are new lawmakers!  According to this hypothesis, if we simply “throw the bums out,” the federal government will run better.

But while “throwing the bums out” is intuitive, there are good reasons why electing a large volume of new lawmakers is actually bad for Congress.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

How can we examine this hypothesis?  First, we need to define Congress’s “problems.” While it probably depends on who you ask, we can measure legislative performance using three intuitive constructs: (1) the number of laws enacted, (2) the size of the federal deficit, (3) Congress’s approval rating.

For laws passed, we can measure legislative accomplishment two ways.  On the one hand, we may want to isolate “major” legislation.  For this we can use data collected by David Mayhew (# landmark laws passed) and Joshusa Clinton and Josh Lapinski (# significant bills passed).  On the other hand, we may want to know about the fate of “all” bills.  For this we can use data collected by Scott Adler and John Wilkerson (# bills passed).  For budget deficits, the charts below use the total budget deficit or surplus divided by GDP.  And for congressional approval, I’m using data from the ANES on Americans’ level of “trust in government.”

With these data in hand, the rest is straightforward: Calculate the percentage of new lawmakers in a given Congress and examine the bivariate relationship with each measure of legislative performance.  For laws enacted and trust in government, we are expecting a positively slopped line (increases in new members correlates with more legislation passed and higher overall trust) while for budget deficits we are expecting a negatively slopped line (increases in new members correlates with lower spending).

Here are the results (click for a larger image).  Each chart is for the 80th to the 112th Congresses (1947-2012).

Mayhew Clinton Adler Deficit

Trust

When we examine “major” enactments, we see a distinct negative relationship in the top two charts. While the relationship isn’t significant because of the limited sample size, the effect is substantively large.  According to the data, a 10% increase in the percentage of new lawmakers decreases the number of landmark laws enacted by 3 and decreases the number of significant bills passed by 20.  When we examine the total number of laws, however, the relationship is almost exactly zero.  We see the same null relationship with budget deficits: large changes in the percentage of new lawmakers has virtually no effect on the overall budget.  Finally, there is a small negative relationship with trust in government.  As the number of new lawmakers increases, there is a minor decrease in the number of Americans saying they trust the federal government.

So in summary, not only is there no improvement in Congress’s job performance when a large volume of new lawmakers are voted into office, but, if anything, there is a modest negative relationship. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, therefore, it would seem that “throwing the bums out” negatively impacts Congress’s job performance.

What explains this negative effect?  While not directly examined here, there are good reasons to suspect that political polarization is at fault.  As we documented in this post, polarization is caused in large part by the replacement of old members with new members.  In fact, according to political scientist Sean Theraiult’s excellent book, about 2/3rds of the increase in Congress’s polarization is due to new members. 

As an example, imagine Chris McDaniel defeated Thad Cochran is Mississippi’s contentious GOP primary.  Would McDaniel have “fixed” Congress, or contributed to it’s further polarization and gridlock?  While this is just one race, it represents the larger trend over the past 30 years.

In sum, when you “throw the bums out” you actually increase Congress’s polarization which, in turn, has negative consequences for the institution’s overall performance.

Finally, let me just clarify that wanting to throw the bums out is not misplaced.  Arguably, Congress deserves it’s negative rating.  Nonetheless, flooding the institution with new members wont solve the underlying problem.  It’s important to keep our eye on what matters.

Posted in Elections, Legislative Politics, Polarization, Political Parties | 1 Comment

Obama, a Republican Congress, and Impeachment

Some Republicans are eager to impeach the President. Some are so eager that they go on the record saying that impeachment would probably pass the House of Representatives. Barletta (R-LA), Farenthold (R-TX) and Senator Cruz (R-TX) say the only obstacle is the Democratic Senate, which would not convict the President. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart took this a step further and argued Republican control of the Senate could result in President Obama’s impeachment.

Regardless of who controls the Senate, the rationale presented by Cruz, Barletta, and Farenthold makes no sense. In no immediate future will Republicans control enough votes – two-thirds of the Senate – to remove the president from office. In order to reach the 66 vote threshold, Republicans need to win every single Senate election in November. Democrats may lose the Senate majority. However, no one believes Democrats will lose every single Senate race. More reasonable forecasts suggest Republicans will gain 5-6 seats. That is enough for a majority but not close to the amount necessary to remove Obama from office. In sum, there is no situation in which “not having the votes” is the reason impeachment has not been pursued.

However, a Republican Senate majority may embolden impeachment supporters for a different reason. With the majority Republicans could force a vote in the Senate. On the Senate floor, the majority leader has the right of first recognition. This precedent is critical because it is the sole right allowing the majority to control the Senate agenda. It gives the majority the ability to schedule votes, debate, and other aspects of day-to-day operation in the Senate. If Republicans gained the majority, their majority leader (McConnell, assuming he is reelected) could force the Senate to vote on impeachment even if they knew it would fail. However, as I mentioned before, there is virtually no scenario where Republicans pick up the 15-16 votes necessary to remove President Obama from office.

So after this whirlwind of options we end up back where we started. The impeachment decision boils down to one political question: would impeaching the President help or hurt the party in the next election? Would a symbolic vote, which would not result in removal from office, pay electoral dividends or alienate moderate voters?

There is a reasonable argument that the Republican Party, with a House majority insulated from electoral pain through a combination of safe districts packed with conservative constituents, would not hesitate to impeach Obama. He has been enemy number one since he stepped into office.

However, that begs the question: why haven’t they already impeached Obama? The House could impeach the President now and get the same result that they would get after the 2014 Elections regardless of Senate control.

The most likely answer is some form of, “last time we tried this it was a disaster.” Clinton’s impeachment backfired badly on Republicans in the 1998 midterms. It contributed to a loss of seats and the resignation of then Speaker Newt Gingrich. While there are likely several Members in the conference eager to impeach the president, the leaders in both chambers, who witnessed impeachment first-hand in 1998, are almost certainly opposed to it.

In either case, Senate control is almost entirely irrelevant to impeaching Obama. Regardless of the Senate majority, in neither case would Republicans “have the votes” to remove Obama from office.  The constitutional super-majority requirement prevents a majority from taking such brash action. So whether Republicans control the Senate or not does not get them any closer to removing Obama from office. It is all based on a political calculation; one that the leaders appear eager to avoid.

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Are Career Politicians “Out of Touch” with Constituents?

downloadOn Tuesday, Republican voters in South Carolina head to the polls to elect a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Lindsey Graham.  Graham, who’s held the position since 2002, is among the candidates.  If Graham wins, it will continue the national trend of establishment Republicans fending off conservative primary challengers.  Spoiler alert: Graham will probably win.

It’s no secret that conservative Republicans are less than thrilled with Graham’s job performance.  During the primary campaign, the main line of attack against Graham is the charge that, after twelve years in Washington D.C., he has morphed into a “career politician” and is therefore “out of touch” with voters in South Carolina.  One of Graham’s main challengers—businesswoman Nancy Mace—lobbied this charge in the recent GOP debate, stating “career politicians are the problem.”  Following this line of attack, in campaign ads she states that one of her goals is to “fix the mess created by career politicians.”

Let’s cut through the lofty campaign rhetoric.  Are career politicians “out of touch” with their constituents?  I feel a chart coming on…

Needless to say, this is an empirical question, one that’s easy to examine with readily available data.  First, we need data on constituents’ preferences.  Political scientists frequently use the two-party vote for president in the two most recent presidential elections.  For example, Obama got just 44% of the vote in South Carolina (it’s a “red state”).  In contrast, he got 51% in Ohio (a “purple state”) and 60% in California (a “blue state”).  Second, we need data on “career politicians.”  I use the number of two-year terms served in the Senate.  And lastly, we need data on the voting behavior of U.S. senators (the dependent variable).  DW-NOMINATE scores are the standard in political science.  Higher values indicate a conservative voting record, lower values a liberal voting record.

predprob1predprob2Figures 1 and 2 tell the story (click to enlarge the images).  Specific methodological details can be found below.

If career politicians become “out of touch” over their career, as the rhetoric suggests, we would expect to observe a steep positively sloped line.  If, on the other hand, career politicians become more responsive over time, we would expect a steep negatively sloped line.  If there’s no difference in the voting record of “career” and “new” senators, the line will be relatively flat.

Here’s what the data show: there’s absolutely no effect!  Indeed, we can see in both figures that the relationship between state partisanship, terms in the senate, and a senator’s voting behavior is very nearly flat (statistically speaking, we cannot reject the null hypotehsis of “no relationship”).  In other words, the data show that career politicians represent their constituents in exactly the same manner as “new” politicians.  Notably, Figures 1 and 2 show this to be true all the way out to twelve two-year terms (you know, when career politicians should be really out of touch).

So, the rhetoric about career politicians doesn’t match reality.  We shouldn’t be surprised by this result.  In fact, it’s easy to turn the “career politician” attack on its head.  What some might call “career politicians” others might call “faithful public servants.”  Indeed, Graham is very likely to win the Republican primary on Tuesday, and while his detractors will dismiss the underlying reasons for his victory, the simple fact is that Graham votes in a manner highly consistent with his conservative constituents.  In a previous blog post, for instance, I noted that Graham has actually become more conservative (not more liberal) during his career.  Simply put, “career politicians” exist in the first place because voters like them reward them for faithfully representing them.

In addition to the theoretical problem with the career politicians charge, there are various of studies which debunk its underlying the causal dynamics.  In political science, we call this behavior “shirking” (defined as members of Congress deviating from their constituents’ preferences).  On this topic I have a published paper (with co-blogger Josh Huder and Dan Smith) looking at one element of shirking: whether ballot measures help educate members of Congress as to the position of their constituents.  Indeed, this is exactly what we find; ballot measures induce members of Congress to align with their voters’ policy preferences.  In short, lawmakers are interested in information about what their constituents want (ballot measures are one source) and career politicians are likely to be pretty well informed in this respect.

Political scientists have also examined shirking by studying lawmakers who are retiring at the end of their term.  As a theoretical matter, these members are free to vote their personal preferences rather than their constituents’ preferences.  However, studies have shown–overwhelmingly–that even exiting members vote in line with their constituents (see for example this study by Carson et al.).  In sum, even under the extreme condition where members of Congress don’t have to worry about reelection, we still find consistent evidence that they faithfully represent their constituents.

Of course, the “symptoms” of career politicians include greater polarization and gridlock.  If only we had new lawmakers (so the logic goes) all of Congress’s problems would be solved.  In reality, however, the exact opposite is true: it’s the replacement of old members with new members that has caused much of Congress’s polarization and gridlock.  According to political scientist Sean Theraiult’s excellent book on party polarization, about 2/3rds of the increase in Congress’s polarization is due to member replacement while only about 1/3rd is due to adaption over time.

Finally and relatedly, career politicians can actually have beneficial effects.  In Artists of the Possible, political scientist Matt Grossman studied policymaking in the post-war Congresses.  Among his findings, Gorssman notes that policy change is facilitated by deep, long-term connections forged among veteran lawmakers.  As note notes:

I argue that policy change results from long-standing productive ties among central policymakers. Institutionalized entrepreneurs, actors with a political and policy skill set as well as an institutional position and ties, are responsible for the bulk of domestic policy change.

In sum, while Congress is very unpopular, and perhaps deservedly so, it’s important to keep the real problems in focus.  In various posts (see for example this post on Rick Perry’s calls for a “citizen legislature”), we’ve tried to debunk the simplistic explanations for how to “fix” Congress.  While it may seem intuitive, career politicians are not the problem.  Yes, it may make voters happier in the short-term, but that “new Congress smell” won’t make the institution run better.

 

Methodological Details

Figures 1 and 2 were produced from a regression analysis interacting the number of terms served in the Senate and the two-party vote for president in the past two elections.  Both figures plot the interaction term (specially the marginal effect of a 1% increase in the Democratic candidate’s share of the two-party vote for senators from their first to twelfth term).  Figure 1 contains a linear interaction effect while Figure 2 uses a binary indicator for every two-year term (allowing the estimates to vary in any functional form).  Each figure was estimated with data from the 93rd Congress to the 112th Congress.  I also examined the data back to 1877; the results are not sensitive to the time period under examination.

Posted in Elections, Electoral Institutions, Legislative Politics, Polarization, Political Parties, Primaries, Voting Behavior | 4 Comments

Bergdahl, Benghazi, and Beyond: The Politics of Congressional Investigations

Iran-Contra-HearingsIs Bowe Bergdahl the new Benghazi?

It would certainly seem so.  Several Republicans are calling for investigations into the now infamous prisoner swap.  Calls for impeachment exist.  And, of course, Hillary Clinton’s name has been linked to the Bergdahl scandal.

In an even broader sense, we might link the Bergdahl scandal with the IRS targeting investigation, which is still simmering, and the VA scandal, where Congress is almost certain to investigate further.

But which investigation is a “warranted” examination of legislative-executive authority, which is motivated by legislators’ “problem-solving” motivations, and which investigation is simply “political theatre?”

I think most would agree that continued investigations into the VA are warranted.  Even the IRS targeting scandal deserved at least a cursory look in my mind.  Are the Bergdahl and Benghazi investigations warranted?  It depends on your political leanings; scandals are highly subjective creatures.

Does this mean we can’t systematically examine the politics of congressional investigations?  Should we be surprised at the volume and intensity of congressional investigation in the modern Congress?

In both instances, the answer is: No.

In an excellent article appropriately titled “Divided We Quarrel,” political scientists David C.W. Parker and Matthew Dull examined the dynamics of divided government, congressional polarization, and congressional investigations of the executive branch.  Parker and Dull collected an impressive dataset of congressional investigations from 1947 to 2004 including their frequency, duration (measured in days), and intensity (measured as the number of published pages).

Here’s what Parker and Dull found:

  • Divided government is indeed associated with more frequent and longer investigations of the executive branch.
  • Legislative polarization is also associated with more intense investigations.
  • However… divided government and polarization increase the frequency and duration of congressional investigations in the House but not the Senate.
  • And finally, when the presidential is popular, Congress initiates fewer and less intensive investigations of the executive branch.

I don’t think Parker and Dull’s results could fit the current Congress’s political environment better.  Indeed, the president is unpopular, Congress is polarized by any measure, we have a situation where both parties are sharing power, and investigations in the House far outpace investigations in the Senate.

So, why is this relevant?  For starters, while we can’t point to a specific investigation or scandal and say it’s “obviously political,” we do know in a general sense that investigations are political endeavors. From a theoretical perspective, this research highlights the critically important role that parties play in the U.S. Congress (for better or worse).  While it may seem surprising to non-political scientists, for decades the prevailing wisdom was that parties didn’t matter all that much.  (In fact, the title of Parker and Dull’s article is a response to David Mayhew’s famous “Divided We Govern.”)  Lastly, while some of the dynamics uncovered are indeed intuitive, others (like presidential approval and the bicameral differences) are not.  In this sense, Parker and Dull’s work helps situate contemporary congressional investigations in a broader institutional framework (including the transition from the era of strong committees to the current era of strong parties) and highlight key determinants of congressional behavior.

Posted in Congressional Absurdity, Legislative Politics, Polarization, Political Parties | Leave a comment

Could Boehner be the first Speaker to Win Seats and Lose Job?

The Fix recently wrote about how “A 2015 rebellion against John Boehner would be unprecedented.” In the piece Philip Bump argues that “no speaker has overseen a pick-up of House seats and subsequently lost his job.”

Setting aside problems in closely connecting congressional elections and the speakership election across this period,* this statement really hangs on the definition of “losing the job” in this context. Bump is essentially arguing that aside from losing their majority, Gingrich is the only sitting Speaker to be pushed out of office. That is not entirely true. In fact, most retiring speakers face revolts of varying degrees and momentum at the time of their retirement. No sitting speaker was literally forced out through a vote. But as I argued before, most retire before a revolt comes to fruition.

For example, Speaker Reed stepped down in 1899 amid multiple rumors that many in his caucus were plotting against him. Henderson faced overthrow rumors throughout his tumultuous four year term. McCormack faced serious challenges to his speakership from young liberal Democrats. He and O’Neill actually faced challengers for the top spot in their final term. Though they won those battles it hastened McCormack’s retirement the following year and likely reaffirmed O’Neill’s decision, since he already announced he would retire in 1984 after one final two-year term. And to a lesser extent, many Democrats were frustrated with Albert’s anachronistic post-war (as in WWII) leadership style, though he did not endure overthrow rumors to the same degree.

What set Gingrich apart from his predecessors was timing. He faced the same overthrow rumors leading up to the 1998 Election. The difference between Gingrich and the rest is he chose to wait until after the election to announce his retirement. In sum, “losing the job” through early retirement is hardly unprecedented. In fact, it is more the rule than the exception.

The second part of Bump’s argument states Boehner would be the only speaker to lose his job after his party picked up seats. This isn’t entirely accurate either. The chart below lists House Speakers since 1900 who did not die in office, did not seek higher office, did not lose their majority, and did not resign due to scandal. This narrows the field to only those speakers who had the option to stay and run for speaker again. In the 20th century, this reduces the list to five speakers.

Speakers who did not die in office, seek higher office, or resign due to scandal
Announced Retirement House Seat Change in final Election
Henderson September 1902 +7
McCormack June 1970 +13
Albert June 1976 +0
O’Neill Oct/Nov 1984 – Retired 1987 +4
Gingrich November 1998 -3

Since 1900, three out of the five speakers who had the option to run for another term gained seats in the election following their retirement. In Albert’s last term as Speaker, the parties drew a dead heat. Again, Gingrich is the exception. His party lost three seats and he waited to retire until after the election. For the rest of the Speakers, their party either drew even or won seats. However, their electoral fortunes did not stop them from preemptively stymieing revolts.

In short, both the nature in which Boehner may lose his job and his party’s electoral fortunes before his retirement have plenty of historical precedence. That said if Boehner wants to make his mark on history (some sarcasm), he could wait until after the election to retire. Given the possible change in power in the Senate, it is more likely than not that he waits until after the Election to decide whether to run for another term in the top spot. Regardless of his decision, this is not uncharted territory.

*There are several issues not addressed in this hypothetical: since 1900 speakership elections were internal battles with little national electoral consequence. For most of the 20th century congressional elections were local, not national, affairs. For most of the 20th century individual candidates were more important than national party platforms in congressional elections. The power of the speaker to dictate policy fluctuated enormously in the last 114 years. Therefore, speakers’ ability to pass policies – or take/avoid blame for failed platforms – has also fluctuated. Parties’ internal makeup/coalitions have changed dramatically. In short, congressional elections are just one factor among several that affect choosing a House leader. That said, the increasing national character of congressional elections is more prevalent today than in previous decades.

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Assessing Congressional Productivity: Getting it Right

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog had a write up on congressional productivity not long ago. Its central thesis is Congress is more productive in election years than in non-election years. This is a good counter-intuitive point. Many pundits discuss congressional productivity only in terms of major bills passed. However, Congress often passes laws that fly under the radar.

There are a lot of reasons why Congress is more productive in election years than in off-years.  Each new Congress must start over from scratch. Therefore, bills that failed in the previous Congress must be re-introduced, committees must re-hold hearings, and the process of reconciling differences between the two chambers must also begin anew. Basically, the first year of a Congress is filled with preliminary steps in the legislative process. In the second year of a Congress, many bills require fewer steps to become law. Also in election years, many bills are passed for campaign fodder. The Senate’s attempts at equal-wage and minimum wage legislation the past few weeks are perfect examples of this strategy.

However, while Wonkblog’s central argument – that the House and Senate pass more bills in election years – is correct, there are a bevy of problems with the article.

First, it uses the wrong metrics. It employs the number of public and private bills “enacted into law” for each chamber. This is a pretty big problem since a single chamber cannot pass a law. So what does this line in the Resume of Congressional Activity actually measure? This line reports the number of laws that originate in the House (bills beginning with H.R.) or Senate (S.) that eventually became law. So really this piece is not capturing productivity in either chamber. Instead, it is measuring how many bills originally introduced in each chamber actually became law. The measure used doesn’t capture productivity–it captures bill origination.

This is hugely problematic for a few reasons. Bills that originate in one chamber are many times merely vehicles for the other chamber’s bill. For example, according to the House’s reading of the constitution, all revenueand spending bills must originate in the lower chamber. However, there are several revenue and spending measures the Senate would like to consider and pass. So rather than wait for the House to initiate the spending bill the Senate would like to pass, it will substitute its text on an old House bill and claim that the constitutional requirement has been met. The same is true vice-versa. A situation like this happened this past February when a Senate bill originally naming a Nashua, NH air traffic control tower after Patricia Clark turned into a bill raising the United States debt ceiling. The House changed the title of the bill to reflect the change.

Chamber productivity should be analyzed by the number of bills passed in the chamber per session of Congress. Or, it should capture the total number of laws. (See below)

bills and laws

As these numbers show, the trend described in the piece holds but not to the same degree. Bills passed in each chamber increases during election years, but only modestly. The number of laws passed, however, is nearly double in election years rather than in non-election years, suggesting that one chamber is likely finishing the work of the other in the second year of the Congress. Regardless, stating that “the volume of bills passed during election years nearly doubles, in both House and Senate” falls well short of reality.

These numbers also fail to distinguish between significant and non-significant bills, which is a big distinction. When discussing congressional productivity abstractly most people are not referring to inconsequential bills such as renaming Post Offices. Yet, to a large extent these numbers capture exactly that. In any given year, most bills are passed with little to no fanfare. The overwhelming majority of bills (over 88% from 1891 to 1994 according to Clinton and Lapinski (2008)) do not even receive a roll call vote in either chamber. In any given Congress the overwhelming majority of bills are passed under super-majority procedures such as unanimous consent or suspension of the rules (which requires 2/3rds majority to pass the House). Just because there are more bills “passed” does not mean Congress has been productive on any substantial front. In this Congress, the notion that Congress will get nothing done of much substance in this election year holds true.

Another problem is that the article includes the passage of private laws. Private laws are fundamentally different from public laws (note: the above chart graphs measured passed in each chamber minus private laws). Public laws apply to all citizens, states, etc. Private laws are bills that directly affect one or a few private citizens. These bills often deal with immigration cases or claims against government. In the more distant past private bills were the means used to dole out government benefits (Jenson 2003). Private laws frequently bestowed disability benefits to wounded veterans and their widows as far back as the Revolutionary War.

private laws

Over the past several decades the practice of passing private bills has declined dramatically. Some of the functions private bills served have been automated through programmatic legislation. Other research suggests new avenues of constituent service emerged, making private bills an antiquated means for representatives to address constituents’ problems. Regardless, conflating public and private bills can overestimate the “productivity” in many of the mid-20th century Congresses.  However, the general trend that Congress is passing fewer laws still holds.

The article was an interesting and counterintuitive look into congressional productivity. However, this is one instance in which the thesis was not resting on the right evidence.

Piece was re-posted from reviseandextend.com.

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