Why Congressional Reforms Fail: Reelection and the House Committee System / Edition 1

Paperback (Print)
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $2.24
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 92%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (17) from $2.24   
  • New (10) from $25.00   
  • Used (7) from $2.24   


For decades, advocates of congressional reforms have repeatedly attempted to clean up the House committee system, which has been called inefficient, outmoded, unaccountable, and even corrupt. Yet these efforts result in little if any change, as members of Congress who are generally satisfied with existing institutions repeatedly obstruct what could fairly be called innocuous reforms.

What lies behind the House's resistance to change? Challenging recent explanations of this phenomenon, Scott Adler contends that legislators resist rearranging committee powers and jurisdictions for the same reason they cling to the current House structure—the ambition for reelection. The system's structure works to the members' advantage, helping them obtain funding (and favor) in their districts. Using extensive evidence from three major reform periods—the 1940s, 1970s, and 1990s—Adler shows that the reelection motive is still the most important underlying factor in determining the outcome of committee reforms, and he explains why committee reform in the House has never succeeded and probably never will.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

H-Net Book Review
Adler has done a remarkable job in tying together his own research and the extensive scholarship on congressional reform. . . . A first-rate work of political science [that] should be read by all serious students of the inner workings of the United States House of Representatives.”

— Thomas A. Bruscino, Jr.,

Perspectives on Politics
This book is a high-end piece of scholarship—as potent in its descriptive, qualitative elements as it is rigorous in its empirical sections. Adler’s review of the existing scholarship is nothing short of stunning. It is a must-read for anyone interested in subtle yet powerful forces at work in the legislative process.”

— Daniel M. Shea

Journal of Legislative Studies
This is a fine piece of research that deserves to be widely read and discussed. The empirical elements are truly impressive. . . . The discussion of the three reform efforts is rendered in a new and theoretically interesting light. It is a fine and painstaking piece of work.”

— Christopher J. Deering

Political Science Quarterly
Adler’s book is a strong addition to the growing literature on institutional change and development and will find a place in graduate congressional institutions courses for years to come.”

— Jeffrey A. Jenkins

H-Net Book Review - Thomas A. Bruscino
“Adler has done a remarkable job in tying together his own research and the extensive scholarship on congressional reform. . . . A first-rate work of political science [that] should be read by all serious students of the inner workings of the United States House of Representatives.”
Perspectives on Politics - Daniel M. Shea
“This book is a high-end piece of scholarship—as potent in its descriptive, qualitative elements as it is rigorous in its empirical sections. Adler’s review of the existing scholarship is nothing short of stunning. It is a must-read for anyone interested in subtle yet powerful forces at work in the legislative process.”
Journal of Legislative Studies - Christopher J. Deering
“This is a fine piece of research that deserves to be widely read and discussed. The empirical elements are truly impressive. . . . The discussion of the three reform efforts is rendered in a new and theoretically interesting light. It is a fine and painstaking piece of work.”
Political Science Quarterly - Jeffrey A. Jenkins
“Adler’s book is a strong addition to the growing literature on institutional change and development and will find a place in graduate congressional institutions courses for years to come.”
Read More Show Less

Product Details

Meet the Author

Scott Adler is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Why Congressional Reforms Fail: Reelection and the House Committee System

By E. Scott Adler

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 E. Scott Adler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226007561

Chapter 1 - Introduction: Why Is Congressional Structure So "Sticky"?

The election of a GOP majority in 1994 offered the promise of a "Republican revolution" that would lead to dramatic changes in the House and Senate. "The American people will see more reform in 24 hours on the very first day . . . than they've seen in decades," promised House Republican Conference Chair-elect John Boehner of Ohio, the day before the opening of the 104th Congress. Speaker-elect Newt Gingrich (GA) shared this view of the rules and structural changes his new majority party was preparing to impose on the House of Representatives and called the planned implementation of new chamber organization and procedures a "historical [sic] occasion" (Associated Press 1995). Thus, not only had the Republican leadership pledged profound legislative changes as part of their Contract with America, but they also vowed historic institutional alterations to bring about those policy changes. Among the most striking proposals was the elimination of one in every three House committees. Soon after the election, the Contract became the focus of the national political agenda. The pledge to profoundly alter the business of Congress was nearlyunanimous among Republican legislators and would-be legislators--it was signed by 367 GOP candidates for House seats, and signers subsequently composed 97 percent of the Republican House majority.

The Contract was not the first sign that the new Republican leadership supported structural changes in congressional operations. During the previous term, Gingrich had repeatedly expressed wishes for substantial change in Congress's committee arrangements. For example, in a 1993 bipartisan meeting of chamber leaders to consider reform proposals to be offered by the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, Minority Whip Gingrich said he was disappointed that the reform panel had done little on "the jurisdictional cleanup issue." He advocated bringing to the House floor a bill that would recommend alterations to existing jurisdictional arrangements, and he wanted to leave this bill open to amendment by any member of the House. Despite Gingrich's past attempts to score points with Republican faithful through political bomb-throwing, we can infer some sincerity in his desire for congressional reforms from the private forum in which it was expressed. There were few obvious political gains for Gingrich from advocating jurisdictional restructuring among such a small group of chamber leaders.

Yet the changes ultimately made in the House committee system at the start of the 104th Congress were less than revolutionary and fell far short of the elimination of one-third of the House standing committees that had been promised in the Contract. Even though a number of panels were placed on the chopping block, Republicans dissolved only three standing committees (14 percent of the existing committees) and redistributed their jurisdictions to other related panels. Among the remaining nineteen committees, only a small fraction of policy domains were reshuffled, most visibly by reallocating portions of the Energy and Commerce Committee's jurisdiction. Although it was frequently declared that this change affected 20 percent of the panel's jurisdiction--a statement that originated with the Republicans' chief for the committee restructuring effort, David Dreier (R-CA; see Victor 1995; Drew 1996)-- a study of committee hearings reveals that the change actually affected less than 5 percent of the panel's policy domain (King 1997, 74). Among other changes to the chamber's committee system were caps on the number of subcommittees within full committees, abolition of proxy voting in committees, term limits on committee chairs, and elimination of independent subcommittee staffs.

The relative failure of the loudly trumpeted GOP proposals to modify the system of House committee jurisdictions should be no surprise. The unfulfilled promise of profound organizational change is part of modern congressional history. Since the mid-1940s, numerous reform advocates have repeatedly attempted to effect meaningful and permanent change in a system of legislative committees that is often claimed to be inefficient, outmoded, unaccountable, and even corrupt. Usually their efforts result in little if any change, as members of Congress who are generally satisfied with existing arrangements obstruct what can be fairly seen as relatively innocuous committee reforms.

Why do attempts at congressional committee restructuring so often fall short of the objectives of reformers? Rather than seek historically specific explanations for why representatives oppose committee reform movements at a particular moment, I set out to test one theory of legislative organization that can plausibly explain the recurring failure of initiatives at committee reorganization. The perspective I offer on legislators' opposition to rearrangement of committee powers and jurisdictions is based on their reelection imperative and the legislative structures they create in order to fulfill that ambition. First I analyze the composition and outputs of House committees since the mid-1940s and seek to establish the boundaries of this reelection theory of congressional organization. Then, using reform implications derived from this perspective on congressional structure and development, I analyze the outcome of the three efforts considered by scholars to be the most important attempts at House committee reorganization in the modern era.

Why Study Committees and Jurisdictional Change?

Political scientists continually document the importance of committees to the duties of the U.S. Congress, particularly its House of Representatives. In the academic literature on American politics, graduate student Woodrow Wilson perhaps obtained more mileage from his statement "Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work" (Wilson [1885] 1981) than did President Woodrow Wilson from any speech he delivered or document he penned during his term of office. The prominence and importance given committees is not unwarranted. In many ways congressional committees are the essential machinery that propels the legislative process. The House rules stipulate that the Speaker must refer each bill, resolution, or other measure to a committee in accordance with the subject matter of the act and the jurisdictions of chamber panels (House Rule XII, Section 2). Almost no bill is passed by the House that is not first acted upon by at least one committee, if not multiple panels. Though the proportion varies by congressional term, usually 90-95 percent of non-commemorative enactments are addressed in some way by either a House or a Senate committee.

Moreover, standing committees are often seen as implicitly setting the legislature's policy agenda by reporting out bills in whatever form they prefer and not reporting out those proposals that they wish to prevent from further consideration. Hence, it is not the personalities or individual policy agendas of committee members that distinguish one panel from the next; it is the jurisdictional boundaries of committees that really define their importance in the legislative process. Almost every landmark legislative battle fought in Congress over the last fifty years has at one point included a skirmish between two or more committees over policy turf-- the civil rights struggles of the late 1950s and 1960s (Berman 1966), the battles over control of energy policy in the 1970s (Rosenbaum 1981), and the fracas over the Clinton Health Care Plan (Evans 1995) are just a few good examples. As we will see, the process of delineating jurisdictional boundaries--particularly in an institution like the House of Representatives, where strict rules of deliberation make it difficult to skirt around such structures--is in many ways equivalent to defining the direction of policy and a matter not taken lightly by members of Congress.

Despite the significance of these legislative bodies, the position that standing committees hold in the congressional policy process today is very different from their role in chamber deliberation shortly after the nation's founding. For many years following the ratification of the Constitution, policymaking in Congress rarely included the input of standing committees. Initially, both chambers of Congress formulated policy by first arriving at the general principles of the legislation in the Committee of the Whole, and then appointing a select, or "spot," drafting committee to determine the details and present the bill back to the chamber for enactment. Once the bill was passed, the committee was dismissed (Cooper 1970; Gamm and Shepsle 1989).

Not until the 15th Congress (1817-18) did the bulk of the legislature's work include the efforts of permanent standing committees that operated in much the same way as we know them today (Jenkins 1998). During the next century, the House committee system underwent tremendous upheaval. The chamber created more than forty-five different standing committees of varying sizes and importance (Cooper 1970; Galloway and Wise 1976). Control of the congressional policy agenda shifted from party leaders to committee chiefs. And authority over critical federal appropriations was reallocated among committees several times over the course of a hundred years. Finally, in 1920, with the passage of the Budget and Accounting Act on the horizon, the House overhauled its appropriations process by removing this spending authority from six standing House committees and consolidating budgetary control back into the existing Appropriations Committee (Stewart 1989).

Yet since the 1920s there have been few perceptible changes in the duties of standing committees in the House of Representatives. Committees hold essentially the same position in the policymaking process as they did for most of the twentieth century. In large part the modification of policy property rights has been small, gradual, and mainly concurrent with the evolving policy needs of government and the governed.

But this stability has not prevailed for lack of attempts at change. Over the last six decades politicians, journalists, and even the public have frequently been heard to lament how the existing committee jurisdictions or rules of procedure inhibit the enactment of whatever pressing legislation is being obstructed or facing alteration at the moment. Critics have charged that control of policy arenas is too fragmented among numerous House committees or too concentrated in one obstructionist panel, that committees overrepresent special interests or underrepresent certain political orientations. The list of complaints seems endless. Such protestations have prompted the creation of no fewer than five formal panels within the House of Representatives since World War II to review and propose changes in the existing committee system (including joint efforts with the Senate): the La Follette-Monroney Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress (1945-46), the Monroney-Madden Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress (1965-66), the Bolling-Martin Select Committee on Committees (1973-74), the Patterson Select Committee on Committees (1979-80), and the Boren-Domenici-Hamilton-Dreier Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress (1993-94). In addition, there have been several informal attempts at reorganization, including a decade-long struggle within the Democratic caucus from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s over sweeping changes of chamber rules, including those governing committee hierarchy and procedures, as well as the Republican efforts at the start of the 104th Congress (1995-96).

Yet, even counting a few name changes and the consolidation of mostly inactive committees in the mid-1940s, the structure is barely any different than it was during the New Deal. Reform efforts, frequently proceeding under the banners of policymaking efficiency and the equalization of workloads, have been largely unsuccessful in accomplishing either. For instance, take workload: if we examine just the days of committee hearings held by each House panel (including their subcommittees) per Congress, we find that the incongruity between the least and most active committees that existed in the late 1940s still exists today. In fact, to a great extent the same committees remain on opposite ends of the workload continuum. House Administration, Government Reform (formerly Expenditures in the Executive Departments), and Veterans' Affairs are among the least active, while Appropriations, Energy and Commerce (formerly Interstate and Foreign Commerce), and Education and the Workforce (formerly Education and Labor) are the most active. The livelier committees hold five to ten times more hearing days per year than the less active panels.

The changes that have occurred in House jurisdictional arrangements have resulted as much from slow and infrequent modifications to structure and "common law" policy property rights during less tumultuous times (King 1997) as from sanctioned efforts at organizational change. Accordingly, scholars have begun to ask the obvious question, paraphrasing Gordon Tullock and other formal political theorists: Why is there so much stability in critical legislative institutions like the House committee system? 9 If reform advocates continually try to initiate reorganization in the House committee system and its jurisdictional arrangements, why is there so little change in the existing structure? What prevents reform proponents from achieving their organizational objectives?

By focusing specifically on the critical policymaking institutions of committees in the U.S. House of Representatives, this book explores when and why a legislature alters its rules and decision-making structures. In particular, I concentrate explicitly on legislators' motives for opposing structural changes and analyze why designs for legislative alterations so often fall short of their goals. What is it about the House committee system that makes it so "sticky"? This question involves a number of other important issues in politics and congressional studies: What are the principles underlying the legislative committee system? How do we measure institutional change? Has meaningful structural change occurred in the committee system? Why is substantial change so difficult to achieve? And, if efforts at profound structural alterations are taken up in the future, what can reform advocates do differently to increase their likelihood of success?

Scholars are now using positive theories of legislative structure to explain changes in congressional rules and procedure. The emerging wisdom is that principles useful in understanding the existence of specific rules and institutions should also be valuable in explaining why the same institutions and rules change or evolve. Similarly, consideration of the reasons for the success or failure of efforts at committee restructuring embodies many of the motivations that define the structure of legislative institutions. Therefore, a study of the "stickiness" of committee jurisdictions under reform pressures should illuminate the underlying principles of congressional organization.

The Legacy of Research on Congressional Reform

The study of legislative change has a relatively long and rich tradition, particularly that which examines the U.S. Congress. For decades, academic work treating the causes and consequences of change in congressional structures would swell following periods of particularly active debate over proposed institutional modifications. Early literature on legislative change, while rich in historical detail, was largely descriptive rather than theoretical (Galloway 1946, 1951). As the field of political science became more analytical and quantitatively oriented, so too did the study of congressional reform (see, for example, Davidson and Oleszek 1977; Sheppard 1985; and works in Ornstein 1975). In recent years, when research in American politics, and particularly on Congress, shifted in a more theoretical direction, so did work examining legislative change (Evans and Oleszek 1997). Yet much of this research on congressional reform has employed theory in a relatively inductive fashion, using models of legislative organization as post-hoc tools for discerning the meaning of institutional outcomes and legislators' behavior.

Another avenue of work on congressional reform, however, is grounded in political science research begun in the 1970s that develops formal models of political institutions and behavior. Borrowing the economic theories of rational actors (as in the works of Riker; Black; Buchanan and Tullock; Olson; and Downs), a group of legislative scholars introduced a more positivist orientation to studies of congressional organization and output. For a number of years, they confined themselves to theoretically based examinations of stylized legislative bodies; but as competing models of legislative structure emerged, scholars could not avoid substantiating their theoretical contentions with empirical evidence.

Even when researchers began to test their more formal theories with quantitative and anecdotal evidence, they still confined themselves to investigating the presence of specific legislative structures or rules. Internal legislative institutions and rules of procedure, like the committee system and policy jurisdictions, were still considered exogenous or previously determined (Binder 1997, 4). The matter of structural change had not been broached, since scholars were primarily--and rightly--inter-ested in laying an initial theoretical foundation for the organization of political institutions before beginning to treat procedural and institutional modifications.

Over the last decade or so, a new line of research has developed wherein scholars apply theories of congressional structure to our knowledge of historical change and development in congressional institutions. Using positive theories of institutional organization to guide them, researchers explore the evolution of congressional rules and procedure to gain a fuller understanding of how and why members of Congress have reconfigured the structures through which they legislate. The prevailing question has been, If there is nothing to prevent the legislature from reorganizing itself except for the preferences of its own members, under what circumstances does this occur and for what reasons? Research by Binder; Dion; Schickler; Schickler and Rich; Stewart; and King has enhanced our knowledge of the historical development of Congress as it tests more extensively the rationally based models of legislator behavior.

Binder (1997) contends that changes in the rules governing the powers and privileges of minority parties have been conditioned on the state of interparty political divisions and the existence of cross-party cleavages. Similarly, Dion finds that "small majorities are more cohesive, cohesive majorities lead to minority obstruction, minority obstruction leads to procedural changes on the part of the majority to limit obstruction" (1997, 245). Conversely, Schickler and Rich's (1997) study of changes in House rules from 1919 to 1994 (including committee jurisdictional alterations) calls into serious question the ability of the majority party to control the extent or direction of structural modifications in the policy process, at least until the more recent period, when the majority party became more homogenous and unified. Even then the majority caucus has been constrained in what types of structural arrangements it can implement. Schickler (2001) further argues that no one theory of legislative organization can explain the institutional development of Congress. Rather there exists a "disjointed pluralism," in which different interests influence the process of change in legislative arrangements during different periods. Stewart's (1989) examination of budget reform politics between the Civil War and World War I shows that a combination of environmental and membership pressures, including the electoral incentive to seek targeted benefits for members' districts, shaped the aggregate decisions made about the changing structure of the budgetary process in Congress.

Perhaps most relevant for the current study is King's examination of changes in "common law" jurisdictions: committee policy boundaries as determined by the precedent of bill referrals made by the House Parliamentarian. King contrasts these with what he refers to as "statutory" jurisdictions: the list of policy issues written into the chamber rules delineating committee boundaries (1997, 19). King claims that "most of the organizational action"--significant change in policy property rights of House committees--occurs via common law rather than statutory jurisdictions. His argument is that the principal jurisdictional modifications happen not as a result of formal efforts to alter the structure of committee arrangements written into the chamber rules, but as informal encroachments by committees on other panels' turf or through adoption of emerging policy arenas. I have no intention of disputing the claim that formal efforts at committee restructuring often fail. I believe that King is largely correct that policy entrepreneurs tend to rely on jurisdictional expansion through bill referrals because system-wide and sanctioned reform efforts are more often than not doomed to failure. Where we are most likely to disagree is in the extent to which any jurisdictional changes have altered the House committee system, if at all.

Yet, even though the jurisdictional action that does occur is likely to be informal, this does not mean that what occurs in the more formal instances is inconsequential. To the contrary, we will see that if the chamber-sanctioned reform efforts had succeeded to any significant degree in their proposed reorganization, the result would have been substantial rearrangement of committee responsibilities and powers. To wit, the very reasons for the failure of such reform movements will lend us even greater insight into the underlying motivations of the existing legislative structure.

A New Direction for the Study of Congressional Change

The present study continues in the rational-choice vein, returning to the study of formal efforts at system-wide jurisdictional reforms in the House of Representatives--the kinds of changes in legislative structures that previous legislative scholars have often considered to be among the most important for shaping congressional procedure and the policymaking process. The phrase "congressional reform," however, is not an easy one to define and can mean different things to different people. Davidson and Oleszek perhaps described this phrase most succinctly in their study of the Bolling-Hansen reorganization debate in the 1970s: "One person's reform is another's stumbling block" (1977, 2). Though scholars continuously probe the intent, causes, and consequences of "reform" movements in Congress, they frequently cannot produce any better definition for the phrase than "a change for the better." 12 For purposes of this study, I am agnostic on the meaning of the word reform and accept its definition as "any suggested changes in the existing congressional structure."

I specifically examine one type of congressional reform--proposals for the formal relocation of policy issue property rights between committees. I chose to focus on efforts intended to alter committee policy jurisdictions because such chamber-wide reform movements seem to recur continuously over the span of modern congressional development. While the details of the specific proposals may vary in different time periods, the articulated objectives of reformers are almost always the same--rationalize committee jurisdictions, eliminate useless panels, equalize committee workloads, and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the policy process in Congress. If reformers are simply advocating something as seemingly innocuous as the improvement of policy decision making through restructuring of these essential legislative panels, why are such efforts so persistently and bitterly contested? Obviously there are other kinds of reforms that I do not consider here--changes in leadership powers, alterations in the structure and authority of subcommittees, modifications in the rules governing minority party rights, and so on. Other scholars have examined the success and failure of such reform movements (see, for example, Binder 1997; Schickler 2001; Rohde 1991). I conclude this study with a few words about how the lessons drawn from this analysis can help us to understand other types of reform efforts directed at structures other than legislative committees.

What is different about my study of efforts at jurisdictional restructuring (although it is similar in many ways to more recent research on other types of organizational change in Congress) is the use of positive models of rational legislators in a more systematic analysis of institutional outcomes. Following the established principles of the rational-choice literature, I analyze member preferences in combination with organizational structures to develop an understanding of institutional resilience in Congress. Given that "the rules of the game" are controlled by the legislators themselves, positive theories explaining the presence of specific legislative institutions should also explain the persistence of the same structures.

I take issue with some previous literature on congressional reform in two important ways. First, I do not assume that efforts during prominent reform periods necessarily change organizational structures. More to the point, I challenge the notion that certain historical modifications in committee jurisdictions resulted in substantial and enduring change in the policy responsibilities of individual House panels. George Galloway noted that the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 was thought of as a "legislative miracle . . . [that] added up to the most sweeping changes in the machinery and facilities of Congress ever adopted" (Galloway 1953, 646). Similarly, contemporary scholars have referred to the changes imposed by the Republicans at the start of the 104th Congress as "sweeping institutional reforms" (Gimpel 1996, 38) or "landmark" organizational alterations (Deering 1999, 93). I show that despite minor alterations in committee names and the reshuffling and merger of largely overlapping or marginal jurisdictions, there have been no "sweeping" or "landmark" changes in the arrangement of the policy property rights of committees. The essence of the House committee system and the legislative responsibilities of individual committees have remained essentially the same over the last half-century or more. Therefore, what I set out to explain is not why or when certain committee structures change, but rather why, under significant and direct pressure for change, they are so resilient. In the process my approach implicitly explores why legislators find some institutional alterations tolerable while rejecting others.

Given that the U.S. Constitution clearly grants each chamber the freedom to "determine the rules of its proceedings" (Article 1, Section 5), there appear to be two possible reasons for the committee system's resilience in the face of the sincere and determined efforts of reformers: either some faction within Congress--a chamber or party elite, for example--has the gatekeeping power to stifle reform efforts, or the majority of members are satisfied with the existing structures. This study supports the latter hypothesis and attempts to explain majority acceptance of the committee system by expanding on one of the fundamental underpinnings of legislative organization--the electoral connection. My second major challenge, then, is directed at observers who agree that little change has occurred in committee jurisdictions but who attribute the stability to other factors and pressures--to legislators' institutional motivations (protection of internal organizational turf and positions of influence) or even to partisan policy objectives (defense of legislative structures that facilitate passage of policies desired by the majority caucus).

I contend that a primary and constant force hindering committee restructuring movements has been the electoral objectives of members of Congress. Under pressure to bolster their reelection prospects in order to achieve long-term legislative and personal goals, rational politicians with the ability to shape legislative structures utilize the arrangement of rules and procedures to secure targeted government benefits for needy constituency groups and voting blocs. Any widespread change in the established order of policy deliberation--particularly its centerpiece, the committee system--would create far too much uncertainty in members' electoral strategies and therefore would be broadly opposed from the start.

The notion that politicians are electorally motivated was the unsurprising core assumption in Mayhew's study of the essence of congressional structure. His distinctive contribution was to use this fundamental instinct of politicians as the critical building block in theorizing on the structure and procedures of Congress. Foremost, he recognized that, while reelection was not the only objective of members of Congress, it was "the proximate goal of everyone, the goal that must be achieved over and over if other ends are to be entertained.. . . Reelection underlies everything else" (1974a, 16 -17). Mayhew revealed how structures within Congress, many of which are inherently endogenous, were remarkably well suited to serve members' electoral needs for advertising, credit-claiming, and position-taking (81).

Predictably, legislators invest considerable time and staff resources in work on committees that consider issues of particular importance to their home districts. The first half of this book maps the theoretical and empirical boundaries of this investment. I document the consistency with which, across a half-century, legislators have gravitated to House panels of special interest to their constituents. Then I explore how district characteristics and committee membership affect members' ability to bring home disproportionate shares of particularized federal benefits. Given the recent scholarly attention to the importance of parties and party leadership in congressional operations, I examine closely how the distributive aspects of committee composition and policy output change with the rising conditions of strong party polarization and caucus influence over the legislative agenda.

The second half of the study examines how the nature of the constituency/electoral investment in the existing committee structure drives legislators' resistance to changing committee arrangements. That is, I extend the notion of the "electoral connection," suggested by Mayhew (and others), to the important subject of congressional jurisdictional reform. If legislators arrange the committee system so that it meets members' electoral needs, the same motive should propel their preferences and actions when confronted with proposals to alter the committee system.

To explore my contention about the electoral connection, I examine the most significant and celebrated occasions when the modern Congress contemplated fundamental restructuring of its committee system. They are (1) the efforts surrounding the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946; (2) the work of the House Select Committee on Committees (the Bolling Committee) in 1973-74 and the substitute proposal of the Democratic Committee on Organization, Study, and Review (the Hansen Committee); and (3) the efforts of the Joint Committee on the Reorganization of Congress in 1993-94 and the subsequent actions of the Republican leaders when they took control of the House in the 104th Congress. As should already be evident, the outcome of each of these institutional junctures is almost exactly the same--little to no change in the extant powers and policy arrangements of House committees. From a social science perspective, this research design presents a bit of a problem for my examination of reelection theory: there are no contrary cases here. That is, no committee reform proposals succeeded. This is not to say that there have never been successful reform movements in Congress, but, because I limit my scope to decisions about jurisdictional rearrangement of committees, I necessarily must examine the failure of reform movements, since there were no other outcomes. Therefore, the critical question is not whether committee reforms failed, but what theory best explains why such reforms incessantly fail. On this point, I contrast the electoral approach with whatever theory seems most appropriate or plausible for the time period at hand. Moreover, the periods do offer considerable diversity in the political and institutional circumstances of Congress. For instance, through study of three reform eras that span fifty years, we find variations in the party control of the Houses, cycles of weak and strong parties, eras of substantial membership turnover before reforms and eras of negligible turnover, and instances where congressional reforms were a publicly salient issue and others where the electorate was largely unaware of efforts at institutional reform.

Scholars lately have remarked how much Congress and its membership have changed since Mayhew wrote, noting the diminished impact of the electoral motivation vis-a-vis the impact of parties (Aldrich and Rohde 2001). Since some of this recent work on institutional changes in Congress has argued that legislators' reactions to structural alterations can take on different forms depending upon the partisan conditions in Congress at the time, I explore in detail how the reelection theory plays out in periods of partisan strength or change in party control of the chamber. To the extent that I dispute the claim about the diminished influence of the "electoral connection," it is a matter of degree--parties are more influential in Congress at the start of the twenty-first century, but the electoral motivation has anything but disappeared.

Thus, when parties are particularly weak and members are more or less left to their own devices in determining policy choices and reelection strategies, I contend that representatives protect legislative arrangements, like committee structures, that help them provide for the specific social and economic needs of their districts. Electoral motivations take a slightly different shape under a strong partisan regime. In eras where co-partisans are staunchly similar in their policy preferences, but preferences between parties diverge and party structures are more influential in determining the form of legislative rules and procedures, reform is still unlikely. Under such conditions the reform preferences of individual legislators are more likely to be driven by a combination of individual constituency/electoral needs and the collective electoral needs of party candidates.

To support my contention, I draw on a substantial amount of information from the public record, archival material, and quantitative data. The quantitative analysis investigates how congressional district interests determine legislators' committee memberships; whether or not panel membership and district need relate to the provision of disproportionate federal benefits; and how these factors drive individual preferences on jurisdictional restructuring. Data on members' reform preferences are taken from roll-call votes and public and private statements concerning specific structural or jurisdictional changes. The more qualitative evidence, such as archival materials and participant interviews, shows as thoroughly as possible how key political actors viewed the overall structural effects of reform efforts on the institution's policy decision making.

One word of caution: I do not contend that the theoretical perspective offered in this book is the only explanation or a complete explanation for committee organization, output, or change. Nothing in the social sciences, specifically in the study of politics, is that simple. I offer here what I believe to be an important ingredient in our understanding of congressional structure. The critical question, therefore, is how much can explained by this approach. After laying out the theoretical propositions for both the existence and alteration of relevant committee structures, I test their limitations as a model for House organization, using congressional data since World War II. Knowing the empirical boundaries of this electoral/constituency approach to legislative organization helps us to probe more precisely how the model merges with other theoretical approaches for a more accurate portrayal and clearer understanding of Congress.

Overview of the Book

The book is divided in the following way. In the first part I examine the constituency approach to committee structure. Chapter 2 elaborates a distributive/electoral theory of congressional committee organization and reorganization. I review the relevant literature on electoral theories, or what will more accurately be referred to as "gains-from-exchange" models of legislative behavior and congressional structure, and establish explicit hypotheses regarding committee assignments and output. Drawing on the underlying tenets of the distributive theory, I also suggest several propositions regarding how members of Congress will react to proposals for profound structural changes in the system of legislative committees. Finally, I address the ways in which these theories should or should not be adjusted for periods of heightened partisanship and party polarization.

In chapters 3 and 4 I conduct an explicit examination of the evidence relating to the recruitment/composition and benefits hypotheses of distributive committee structure and operations. Chapter 3 explores the nature of committee assignments and uses newly compiled data on the characteristics of congressional districts to analyze the relationship between constituency needs and the appointment of representatives to standing committees and Appropriations subcommittees from the early 1940s to 1998. In chapter 4, I test the effect of committee membership and district needs on outlays falling under the jurisdiction of several standing committees and Appropriations subcommittees for a number of congressional terms, during both Democratic and Republican chamber majorities.

The second part of the book investigates the reaction to and the ultimate failure of jurisdictional reorganization efforts in the three major reform eras since World War II, using the knowledge about the prevalence of distributively oriented committee structures. In chapter 5 I argue that the changes made by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, sometimes considered the most substantial revamping of congressional committees in history, were simply cosmetic. By exploring in depth four principal elements of the Act, I demonstrate that legislators purposely avoided any alterations that would impair the distributive capacity of the committee structure, which was already well established as a useful reelection tool; indeed, in many ways, jurisdictional and procedural changes simply augmented the institution's gains-from-exchange potential.

Chapter 6 explores the committee reforms considered during the 93rd Congress (1973-74), sometimes referred to as the Bolling-Hansen reforms. Specifically, I examine the consideration of seven distinct jurisdictional changes, including roll-call votes for several of these reforms, as well as the final passage of the Hansen package, which was significantly weaker than the proposed Bolling reforms. Quantitative and archival evidence shows that even when one controls for the institutional interests of legislators (established committee position and panel seniority), which are frequently blamed for the failure of the Bolling proposal, constituency factors substantially affected members' reform preferences and behavior.

The third reform effort, spanning the Democratic 103rd Congress (1993-94) and the transition to the Republican-controlled 104th Congress, is the subject of chapter 7. Unlike those of earlier periods, this reform moment was characterized by considerably more party unity and by active caucus involvement in the shaping of congressional structures and provision of electoral resources. While such influences do alter the manner in which reforms are considered, constituency and reelection considerations are still clearly among the most important factors in the decision. Contrasting the distributive explanation for reform outcomes with two others--one based on institutional efficiency and another grounded in party policy objectives--I find that, while profound changes in committee jurisdictions remain quite unlikely, under conditions of increased partisanship individual-level constituency factors become less important than broader party constituency motivations as the caucus contemplates jurisdictional reforms.


Excerpted from Why Congressional Reforms Fail: Reelection and the House Committee System by E. Scott Adler Copyright © 2002 by E. Scott Adler. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents


1. Introduction: Why Is Congressional Structure So "Sticky"?
2. Understanding a Gains-from-Exchange Theory of
Committee Structure and Change
3. Demand-Side Theory and Congressional Committee
Composition: A Constituency Characteristics Approach
4. Distrubitve Politics and Federal Outlays
5. The Postwar Failure of Congressional Reform:
The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946
6. Protecting Turf in a Reform Era: Distributive
Politics and Congressional Committee Reform
in the 93rd Congress
7. Committee Reforms under Partisan Politics
8. Conclusion: Beyond "Instituational Navel Gazing"


Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)