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

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Nickelback, Herpes, and Obama’s Vote Share in 2012

Spurious relationships are a serious problem in social scientific research.  But… they’re also fun!  For example, did you know that ice cream causes crime?  Also, global temperature is inversely related to the number of pirates.

Seth Masket provides an excellent example of a spurious relationship asking: Are Democrats perverts?   As he shows, it turns out that there is a strong relationship between porn use and Obama’s vote share in 2012!  But as Seth aptly explains:

For one thing, there’s a big potential ecological inference problem here. We’re making assumptions about individual level behavior by examining data aggregated at the state level… Second, chances are that even if there is an individual relationship here, it’s not a direct one. Porn usage may correlate with something else that also correlates with partisan voting patterns. 

Seth notes that porn pageviews explain 16% of the variation in Obama’s vote share.  In an attempt to outdo him in the “spurious-relationship-a-thon,” I looked at the predictive power of Google search traffic at the state-level for: (1) the rock band “Nickleback” and (2) “cure for herpes.”  Here are the results.*

HerpesNickelbackAccording to the first scatterplot, “Cure for herpes” has a negative relationship with Obama’s vote share in 2012, supposedly indicating that herpes caused people to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012.  However, the R2 is just 0.08, which indicates that herpes has little predictive power (in fact, the relationship is not significant (p=.12; n=31)). Nickelback also has a negative effect, supposedly indicating that fans of the Canadian rock band were more likely (!) to vote for Romney in 2012.  Notably, in the second scatterplot, the R2 is 25%, indicating the fully a quarter of the variation in the 2012 election outcome is explained by the state-level variation in Nickelback fans.

While it’s difficult to take the above “findings” seriously, social scientists dedicate their lives to distinguishing between correlation and causation.  In practice, it’s much harder than most people appreciate.  What the world gives us is correlation, so it’s easy to draw faulty conclusions from observational data.  In an undergraduate research methods class of mine, we cover countless examples of correlation and causation.  For example, congressional candidates who spend large amounts of their personal wealth on their campaign actually receive fewer votes.  Also, humanitarian aid is associated with various negative consequences such as higher rates of infant mortality.  Are these causal relationships?  Of course not. Always remember: correlation is not causation.

* Don’t tell my department chair I spent 30 minutes working on this…

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Senatorial Courtesy, Blue Slips Caught in the Fallout

Ian Millhiser has a very good piece on judicial nominations and blue slips over at Think Progress. It covers a lot of ground and is a wonderful read.

However, I do have some bones to pick with his take. At the core of Millhiser’s argument are blue slips and their place in Senate history. He contends that blue slips, the process by which home-state senators grant approval to president’s judicial nominees, has little rooting in Senate process and history. There are a couple problems with this.

First, blue slips are the Judiciary Committee’s extension of senatorial courtesy. While the formal practice of blue slips, with letters from the Committee to the nominee’s home state senators, extends back to at least 1917, senatorial courtesy extends to the 1st Congress (1789-1791). There is no formal rule outlining the practice but it stems from a very rich history of “advice and consent.” In this way, blue slips are not unlike many Senate practices. The Senate is heavily guided by customs and precedents. Blue slips are not an aberration to this principle. Rather, they are a modern example of that history.

Second, it is improper to compare today’s blue slip process with those in prior congresses. Given my training is in congressional development and history, this is not an argument I normally make. However, the advent of the post-nuclear Senate has fundamentally changed the importance of the blue slip process.

For most of Senate history, the blue slip process has not been absolute. Failure to approve of a nominee did not prevent floor consideration, though it often meant the demise of the nominee. Today, floor consideration for judicial nominees is fundamentally different. The minority party no longer has the ability to filibuster judicial nominees (except SCOTUS nominees). Because of this, the majority can run roughshod over minority opposition, effectively ignoring their concerns as they approve judicial nominees by majority vote.

This has shifted minority opposition from the floor to the committee room. With no other place to stop or slow the nomination process, it is not surprising that blue slips are now in the crosshairs.

Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the first Senator since James Eastland (D-MS) to use blue-slips as an effective veto on a nominee. As Forrest Maltzman and Sarah Binder point out, blue slips were never intended to be a veto. However, Leahy’s position as arbiter of the blue slip is much more precarious post-nuclear option. And in all likelihood it is untenable. Arguments like Millhiser’s illustrate Leahy’s predicament. Either Leahy adheres to his current blue slip practice and hopes Republicans honor it when they retake the majority (either in 2015 or later), or he can ignore it and ensure its demise under Republican majorities.

The nuclear-option has stressed the blue slip process. With no other avenues to object, the minority has turned to its few remaining tools. Unfortunately, the nuclear-option’s collateral damage includes the minority’s role in “advice and consent” on nominations, and now appears to threaten advisory practices that stem from senatorial courtesy.

In a polarized atmosphere it is easy to become frustrated with bipartisan practices, precedents, and customs. However, eroding these customs compromises the Senate’s function as the check on overambitious majorities.

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Liberal Bias in the Classroom: College of Charleston Edition

imagesYou’ve heard about it.  College professors, who are disproportionately liberal, skew the views of their impressionable young students by assigning leftist books and poking fun at conservatives in the classroom.  Rick Santorum famously called colleges “indoctrination mills” and anecdotes about liberal bias abound.  But is there systematic evidence of this?

I find it difficult to get worked up about the “liberal bias in academia” mantra because of it’s prevalence.  However, recent events at my institution, the College of Charleston, merit some attention.

At issue is the book “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel.  While the book explores various “coming of age” issues, the central themes are sexual orientation, gender identity, and Bechdel’s complex relationship with her closeted gay father.  Also, the book is written in the style of a graphic novel, which, you know, nakedness!

Anyway, because “Fun Home” was supposedly purchased with “tax payer money” (it wasn’t) and was “required” reading (it wasn’t), the South Carolina legislature voted to strip $52,000 out of the College’s budget (the overall cost of the reading program).  Rep. Gary Smith, one of the originators of the proposal, was quoted thusly:

I understand diversity and academic freedom. This is purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate.

Colleagues at the College of Charleston have addressed various dimensions of this issue (see excellent articles by John Warner, Alison Piepmeier, Tim Carens, and Chris Korey).

I felt it important to address the bigger issue: Can college professors sway the views of their impressionable students?  Indeed, this is the underlying issue.  It is implicit in Rep. Gary Smith’s claim that the book “promotes” a lifestyle.  Its also a social scientific question that can easily be tested.

So… is there any evidence that college processors turn their students into liberals?

The answer: No.

In an innovative paper, political scientists Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner sent surveys to 200 political science professors and their students, asking questions about party identification, ideology and the appropriateness of discussing personal politics in class.  Notably, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner conducted the survey twice: once at the beginning of the semester and once at the end.  Armed with this data, they were able to assess if students became more liberal or conservative over the semester and whether changes in the students’ ideology correlate with the professor’s views.

Here’s what they found:

  • Despite instructors’ best efforts, most students are able to accurately guess their professor’s party identification (though most though their instructors were more moderate on average).
  • According to the result of the survey, 28% of students reported a change in their partisanship during the semester.  Notably, much of this shift is toward the Democratic side of the aisle.
  • But most importantly, this movement in students’ views does not correlate with either (1) the students’ assessment of the professor’s beliefs or (2) the instructor’s actual political beliefs.

As Woessner and Kelly-Woessner explain:

While student views do shift over the course of a semester, they tend to move somewhat randomly, usually regressing toward the mean.  Thus…the changes are hardly what one might expect if faculty members were systematically indoctrinating their students.

What’s often lost in the debate about bias in college classrooms is the larger question about where our political attitudes come from in the first place.  According to published studies, children experience the greatest growth in their political learning during adolescence (not college) and by about 9th grade children have an ability to think in ideological terms (Erikson and Tedin 2011, pg. 128).  In terms of party identification, the biggest influence on preadult socialization is not their school or even friends (which have almost no effect), but that of the family.  According to one estimate, 76% of children have the same partisan attachment as their parents (Erikson and Tedin 2011, pg. 132).

Simply put, in addition to the lack of systematic evidence that professors “indoctrinate” their students, the assumption that college students are “impressionable” is not supported either.  In fact, overly political college professors are likely to generate one kind of outcome more than any other: negative evaluations!  Seriously.  In yet another study, Kelly-Woessner and Woessner show the political bias in the classroom yields negative student evaluations and a general dislike of the subject matter.

But how are we to make sense of the fact that students’ political attitudes do move in a modestly Democratic direction during college?  Well, it’s important to be clear what we’re talking about.  Studies have shown that education is strongly correlated with greater tolerance, which in turn has a liberalizing effect on social issues (Erikson and Tedin 2011, pg. 139-142).  It’s also true that college students are exposed to a large volume of media and interact with a more diverse segment of the population and are therefore at the forefront of changing social norms.  But on economic issues, there is no aggregate change over the course of a college career.  In fact, the better educated are typically more conservative on economic issues (Erikson and Tedin 2011, pg. 139-42).

In sum, college certainly affects the views of college students, and one of those is a liberalizing effect on social issues (but not on economic issues).  But the evidence does not support the view that it’s “indoctrination” or the “promotion of a particular lifestyle” by individual faculty.  Rather, the move to the left on social issues stems broader educative effects, an exposure to more diverse groups of individuals, and greater media consumption by young adults.  In all seriousness, the “solution” would be to simply avoid college altogether (not avoid specific textbooks or professors)

Finally, I’ve had this conversation before.  One response is: “So two college professors did a study of college professors and found no evidence of liberal bias?  I’m skeptical of this study’s objectivity.”  Well, for starters, the paper was peer reviewed in a leading political science journal, which should stamp out faulty research methods.  But second and perhaps more importantly, Matthew Woessner is a conservative himself!  I’d also direct skeptics to Mike Munger’s excellent book “Scaling the Ivory Tower” which was published by the conservative Institute for Humane Studies.  In this book, Munger (a noted conservative) explains that while bias in academia certainly exists to an extent, it’s much smaller than conservatives realize.


Robert Erikson and Kent L. Tedin “American Public Opinion” (2011, eighth edition).

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A Caveat on Congressional Productivity

On Thursday, Chris Cillizza examined an Obama statement in Texas: “This has become the least productive Congress in modern history, recent memory. And that’s by objective measures, just basic activity.” Cillizza agrees and extrapolates this a little too far, saying this Congress is the least productive in history. By the numbers many would argue this isn’t exactly accurate, but I’d argue he’s ultimately right.

First, if we take Obama’s statement at face value, he is right. This Congress is on pace to be the least productive in modern history (modern, in this instance, referring to the post-WWII period). However, it is decidedly not the least productive in history. The current Congress has thus far passed 98 laws. This is awful but it is not the fewest in American history. The 113th Congress, though it still has a couple months to legislate, is already more productive than several congresses prior to the Civil War. So strictly speaking this Congress will not be the least productive in history.

If you think that is a low-bar to evaluate policy productivity, you’re right. To fully examine policy productivity, we need to account for the need for policy. In short, what should Congress be doing. Reauthorizing existing policies and programs, addressing pressing social problems, or fixing broken policies are at the core of congressional responsibility. Sarah Binder examined policy demand in Stalemate to examine gridlock since 1947. She found that even when controlling for policy demand gridlock has still increased over the post-war period. This reaffirms what we already knew but doesn’t evaluate policy demand in the antebellum period (mostly due to data constraints), the last time we saw productivity levels this low.

We already know there were several antebellum congresses that passed fewer laws, so the 113this not the least productive in history. However, when put in the context of policy demand, it very well may be. The Federal Government today has more responsibilities than it did 150 years ago. The Industrial Revolution, and the economic and social problems that accompanied it brought enormous challenges to society and Congress, spurring a slew of labor legislation, economic regulations, and other policies addressing those problems. Modern shipping practices have facilitated interstate commerce. This has boosted economic potential but also made monitoring corporate financial and economic activity and controlling things like food borne diseases more difficult. Technological advances have brought the privacy versus security debate to the forefront of government functions as monitoring private conversations and access to private financial information has become easier.

Social and technological advances have created new problems for governments to address. As a result Congress has more to do. One could argue the best government governs the least, but in many ways that shirks social responsibilities already under the federal government’s purview. Legislators should oversee and direct existing programs toward the proper ends. Unfortunately, unproductive congresses often fail in this capacity. This Congress’s basic budget and spending squabbles have overshadowed this fact. According to CQ, almost a third of discretionary government spending in 2014 funded programs that have not been reauthorized by Congress. Government programs are potentially wasting money on outdated projects because Congress has failed to perform its legislative function.

Pending lawmakers do not want to return to a period where employees were required to work 60 and 80 hour weeks for extremely low pay, food quality standards were lax, basic infrastructure needs were not met, or wiretapping and information hacking goes unchecked, these problems demand attention. However, given the current policy environment these vital functions are largely ignored.

In short, the 113th Congress is not the least productive in history. But relative to policy demand it very well may be.

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Boehner’s Overthrow and the “Then What?” Problem

Boehner’s time as Speaker may be limited. Yesterday Tim Alberta reported on substantial conversations to replace Boehner. This morning Brian Buetler verified that these talks are not particularly covert. According to several accounts, House Republicans are not hiding their dissatisfaction with the leadership. However, as both articles mention the plan suffers from a “then what?” problem. Conservatives’ discontent with Boehner is obvious but they have no consensus replacement.

The successor problem is important. However, it’s unlikely to play a role in determining whether Boehner stays or goes. Naming a successor is ideal but more often than not it isn’t a prerequisite for effectively displacing a sitting speaker.

Here is why. Historically, sitting speakers have avoided electoral confrontations on the House floor. When rumors emerge of a potential coup they have been far more likely to remove themselves before any potentially embarrassing results occur. Thomas Brackett Reed (R-ME), David Henderson (R-IL), and Newt Gingrich (R-GA) are all notable examples. Each stepped down from the speakership amid serious rumors of an overthrow. (To a lesser extent Carl Albert was also facing pressure to step aside, though he announced his retirement from the House in June, well before the rumors reached a critical mass) The only speaker to buck this trend was “Uncle” Joe Cannon (R-IL). In the 61st Congress Cannon ran and again won the speakership despite plans, hatched members of his own party, to deny him the position. However, his tenure was short lived. A year later the Republican Insurgents stripped Cannon of his authority, effectively overthrowing him as Speaker.

Politics is obviously not governed by historical law. Despite popular idioms, we are not always bound to repeat the past. However, these rumors follow some very familiar historical trends. Rumors of Reed’s overthrow began in 1895, four years before his retirement in 1899 to “go make some money.” Speaker Henderson (1899-1903) endured calls for his job throughout his four-year tenure. And Gingrich began facing coup rumors early in his second term in 1997.

Boehner currently finds himself in a similar position. Of course this is speculative. The rumors could die down and Boehner’s coup could never materialize.  However, given Boehner’s refusal to schedule bills that even remotely endanger their 2014 electoral chances and conservative’s discontent with that meager legislative schedule, it appears unlikely the rumors will dissipate.

As Beutler points out the conservative’s plan suffers from uncertainty. Historically, however, this has almost never prevented forced retirement. Is Boehner’s speakership safe absent a challenger? Not by a long shot.

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Will McCutcheon Decision help the House Majority?

To say the Republican majority has struggled with the influence of outside groups during the past two congresses is to put it mildly. These groups have stymied progress on major legislation, counseled members into bad strategic stances with serious economic and political consequences, and generally frustrated House and Senate compromise. From the government shutdown, Hurricane Sandy relief, and the various debt limit bills, these groups have made Speaker Boehner’s job very difficult.

Two big factors make House leaders’ job in the 113th Congress more difficult than in previous years. The first is the ban on earmarks. The second is the growth of outside money in politics. The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision may ameliorate, to a degree, the influence of outside money by potentially making parties more powerful fundraisers. Will this have a huge effect on House politics? The likely answer is some, but not much.

The 2010 Citizens United decision allows outside groups to raise and spend money more easily than formal party organizations. Rather than develop vast networks of small donors, these groups could raise huge sums of money from only a few individuals. By easing fundraising barriers, their influence in Congress grew because they could credibly threaten sitting members of Congress. They became better suited to bolster or challenge members that did not share their views.

Citizens United also somewhat trivialized traditional fundraising techniques. For example, in 2010 Tom Marino, a candidate mired in scandal allegations, was able to unseat incumbent Chris Carney. While 2010 was a wave election bringing 63 new Republicans to the House, Marino probably should not have been among them. Throughout the campaign Marino trailed Carney by well over a million dollars in fundraising and spending. Yet over the last 2 months of the campaign the ratings shifted from Carney’s favor to Marino’s. Outside groups were able to step in just before the election, close the funding gap and give Marino enough help to pull off the upset. Prior to 2010, this was a virtually impossible scenario. Large funding gaps were difficult to overcome in the final months of an election, even with support from the party. However, today outside groups and Super PACs play a much more central role in elections. In this sense, Citizens United skewed factors that normally forecast candidate success away from traditional predictors like candidate and party driven campaign fundraising, and toward outside influence.

That electoral influence has affected politics within the Republican majority. In recent years, Members have paid closer attention to the key vote alerts sent by outside groups. And at times this has pulled the majority coalition in different directions. In the 113th Congress these groups have actively opposed several leadership priorities, thwarted leadership strategies, and some have started “Fire Boehner” whip lists on their websites. In many ways Citizens United made “getting 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow,” as Speaker Boehner put it, much harder.

That said, campaign funding is only one piece of a broader change in leadership politics. Over the past few years leaders have lost critical tools needed to build coalitions. Prior to 2011, earmarks and campaign contributions were the carrots in the leaders’ pockets. Since then, earmarks were banned and direct campaign contributions were weakened by the growth and quantity of outside money. As a result, leaders’ tools have become more punitive. Rather than sweetening deals, they must rely on negative consequences. Rather than giving something to members, they are more often taking something away. For example, rather than creating jobs in members’ districts through pork-barrel projects, members are threatened, committee assignments are stripped, a member’s bill may be pulled from the floor schedule, and their proposed floor amendments may not be made in order on the floor. In other words members are threatened with less legislative and political influence. This is not to say that these strategies are altogether new. However, today they are the few remaining tools left to the leadership. In this light it may come as no surprise that leaders’ relationship with their rank-and-file has chafed over the past 3-4 years.

So while some expect the McCutcheon decision to empower party leaders, it is not likely to have a big effect. First, the decision affects campaign funding but only slightly. Leaders can coordinate with national party organizations to spread money around more generously. However, caps on contributions to individual candidates still exist. The decision will likely bring outside spending and formal party spending into better balance. However, outside group spending is not going away. And at times, the party may have to fight those groups to keep incumbents loyal to the leadership. It’s likely the party will still lose some of these battles.

These changes will likely have the greatest influence on “middling Republicans,” those not in the Tea Party camp but nonetheless influenced by outside group threats. It’s possible that many of these lawmakers will gravitate closer to the leaders over the next few years. However, as mentioned above, that is hardly a guarantee.

On the other hand, members closely aligned with Tea Party groups are unlikely to suddenly change fundraising strategies, find new money networks, or cozy up to lawmakers they routinely challenge or undermine in public. In other words, don’t expect the Tea Party coalition to suddenly start jumping into Boehner’s wheelbarrow as a result of McCutcheon. Their independence from the leadership will be significant in congresses to come. And without the cooperation of this group, Boehner lacks a majority. So, on many issues, we will likely find ourselves in the same place.

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