The Macropolitics of Congress

The Macropolitics of Congress


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The Macropolitics of Congress by E. Scott Adler

How do public laws, treaties, Senate confirmations, and other legislative achievements help us to gain insight into how our governmental system performs?

This well-argued book edited by Scott Adler and John Lapinski is the first to assess our political institutions by looking at what the authors refer to as legislative accomplishment. The book moves beyond current research on Congress that focuses primarily on rules, internal structure, and the microbehavior of individual lawmakers, to look at the mechanisms that govern how policy is enacted and implemented in the United States. It includes essays on topics ranging from those dealing with the microfoundations of congressional output, to large N empirical analyses that assess current theories of lawmaking, to policy-centered case studies.

All of the chapters take a Congress-centered perspective on macropolicy while still appreciating the importance of other branches of government in explaining policy accomplishment. The Macropolitics of Congress shines light on promising pathways for the exploration of such key issues as the nature of political representation. It will make a significant contribution to the study of Congress and, more generally, to our understanding of American politics. Contributors include E. Scott Adler, David Brady, Charles M. Cameron, Brandice Canes-Wrone, Robert S. Erikson, Grace R. Freedman, Valerie Heitshusen, John D. Huber, Ira Katznelson, Keith Krehbiel, John S. Lapinski, David Leblang, Michael B. MacKuen, David R. Mayhew, Nolan McCarty, Charles R. Shipan, James A. Stimson, and Garry Young.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691121598
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/26/2006
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

E. Scott Adler is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His current research examines the factors that effect legislative activity and specialization by members of Congress over the course of their careers. He has published articles in the American Journal of Political Science, Legislative Studies Quarterly, and Urban Affairs Review, and is the author of Why Congressional Reforms Fail: Reelection and the House Committee System. John S. Lapinski is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Resident Fellow at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University. His current research examines how preferences, environmental conditions, and institutional change affect lawmaking. He has published articles in the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, and the British Journal of Political Science.

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The Macropolitics of Congress

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12149-4



John S. Lapinski and E. Scott Adler

In June 2001, the Republican Party was surprised to learn that Senator James Jeffords (Vt.) was leaving the party, resulting in a swing of control of the Senate to the Democrats and transforming a unified Republican government into one with divided control of Congress. This was the first time that such a switch occurred during a congressional session and offered scholars the rare opportunity to study its effect in legislative midstream. The event consumed the national media for days and provided political scientists with an exceptional opportunity to test an important and perplexing theoretical question-what effect does the switch between unified and divided government have on policy outputs?

Fortuitously, the Jeffords switch happened simultaneously with a conference on macro-level research on Congress that was considering, among other issues, the long-range effects of unified and divided government. As most conference participants were students of Congress, our initial collective inclination might have been to think of this event in terms of related micro-oriented work. Questions that could arise would include, how would the Jeffords switch alter congressional committee portfolios? How wouldJeffords's act of dropping Republican affiliation affect his own voting? How would this change impact the overall work and agenda of Senate committees? In short, questions and subsequent analyses would center on the ways this switch might influence micro-level behavior.

The conference, however, was not about the microbehavior of lawmakers-at least not directly. Instead its theme was "the macropolitics of Congress," focusing specifically on the macro-level outcomes produced by Congress, oftentimes in conjunction with the president and the courts. This distinction influenced the questions conferees focused on with regard to the Jeffords switch. Our discussion concentrated on how this event would affect aggregate policy outputs. Would it change the agenda or content of policymaking in the 107th Congress? Specifically, how could the switch of one member be "outcome consequential" in a supermajoritarian institution that technically requires, by its own rules, 60 senators to transform policy ideas into public statutes? These types of questions, among many others, were asked and discussed by conference attendees. Of course, no one suspected at the time that the tragic events of September 11 would introduce a huge shock to normal politics, removing the partisan divisions that emerged that summer and eviscerating almost any possibility to analyze in a meaningful way this transformation from unified to divided government. The bipartisanship that followed the terrorist attacks was short lived. Extreme partisanship and unified control of government returned with the midterm election of 2002.

Political scientists, sociologists, economists, (some) historians and journalists alike are very much interested in how control of government institutions (e.g., divided government) impacts policymaking. It almost goes without saying that for many political scientists the motivation for studying politics is to understand how governments perform under differing political conditions. This is perhaps why the debate over divided government has had such a long life, as it is considered by many to be perhaps the most important factor in explaining policy gridlock, which is a key indicator of system performance. Understanding the causes (Fiorina 1992; Jacobson 1990) as well as the consequences of divided government (Mayhew 1991; Binder 1999, 2003; Coleman 1999; Edwards, Barrett, and Peake 1997; Howell et al. 2000) is therefore a topic that political scientists have deemed worthy of study.

If the debate over divided government is placed in a larger context, it leads to consideration of how our political institutions, specifically the separation-of-powers system, operate. This timeless debate about institutional design and the performance of our political system has existed since the Founding. It was of vital concern to early political scientists, gaining prominence in Woodrow Wilson's tour de force, Congressional Government (1885). His book painstakingly argued that the institutional arrangements of the U.S. separation of powers were pathologically flawed. Like Wilson, other early scholars of American political institutions, such as Henry Jones Ford (1898), were profoundly concerned with the macro-level performance of our political system. Interestingly enough, these concerns emerged at a time when the federal government was much less active than today's government. It is ironic that as government growth exploded in the period after World War II (Higgs 1987), this line of study nearly ceased to exist. This silence is particularly noticeable in recent work within the subfield of congressional studies, which collectively has given surprisingly little attention to long-range perspectives on the policymaking process. To the contrary, the vast majority of contemporary congressional research explores individual-level behavior of members of Congress (MCs).

The trend toward studying micro-level behavior at the expense of consideration of system performance began its reversal with the publication of David Mayhew's examination, in Divided We Govern, of policy change under unified and divided government over the last half-century. His seminal study led to a surge in research examining policy performance in American politics, particularly the performance of Congress. Despite the debates about the causes and consequences of divided government generated by Mayhew's study, there is still little synthesis between studies of legislative production and the theories put forward in the macro-oriented political science literature. Consequently, we felt the need to improve the conversation among scholars working on related topics (i.e., those who study macro policymaking but focus on different inputs that drive policymaking such as institutional change and public opinion) that had previously not been connected in any systematic way. This book is an attempt to facilitate that conversation.


Congress undeniably plays a special role in forging macropolitical outcomes in the United States. In fact, Congress's privileged position in lawmaking is what distinguishes it from other national legislatures (Katznelson and Lapinski 2004). When we think of politics and policymaking in the United States, such as "foreign policymaking" or "health policymaking," we cannot escape the conclusion that Congress plays an integral role in manufacturing relevant outputs. This is not to say that other institutional players in our separation-of-powers system are not important. Who would argue that George W. Bush's administration has not played a guiding role in setting the policy agenda in post-September 11 America? But we must also remember that President Bush had much less success controlling the policy agenda in the first part of his administration, primarily because Congress did not agree with many of his proposals and had its own agenda. In fact, he did not sign his first major piece of legislation into law-the $1.35 trillion tax cut-until well past his first one hundred days in office. Legislation covering education reform, prescription drugs, and campaign finance reform, among others, had to wait until a new-found bipartisanship sprang from the September 11 tragedy. More recently, many Bush administration proposals in 2003 and 2004 outside the realm of security and defense policy languished in Congress with little or no legislative action (Babbington 2004).

Accordingly, many observers see Congress as the institution where the collective choice of the nation is forged into outcomes. Some have argued that studying Congress is key to understanding how policy inputs map into policy outputs. This means, in brief, that Congress can be seen as the critical link to understanding how the factors that shape the way government operates as a whole (its partisan configuration, the working relationship between branches, etc.) result in aggregate policy outputs. In addition, how do changes in those factors affect changes in overall policy? Two central questions motivate our attempt to better explain this relationship. The first is what macro-outputs are. In other words, what are the dependent variables and what makes them "macro?" The second question asks what mechanisms govern the processes that produce different macro outputs. Thus we attempt to determine the role and the weight accorded to Congress in producing outputs along with other policymaking bodies.

Interestingly enough, the focus of congressional scholars for decades has been on the actions and behavior of lawmakers and the structure of the institution, with little attention paid to what is removed from the forge. This is what we refer to as macro-outputs. We distinctly see the roots of this tradition in the work of Richard Fenno and David Mayhew. Consider chapter 1 of Fenno's second book, Congressmen in Committees (1973), which begins, "A member of the House is a congressman first and a committee member second," after which he examines the individual behavior of MCs inside the committee system. Building on earlier work, Fenno's next pathbreaking study, Home Style: House Members in Their Districts (1978), expands on the exploration of the behavior of members of Congress by probing representative-constituency linkages. In his hallmark work Congress: The Electoral Connection (1974), Mayhew explores the policymaking activities of lawmakers as they relate to their own reelection strategies. The focus in this work is on understanding the behavior of individual MCs. While understanding individual behavior certainly provides insights into macro-level phenomena, elaborating on those insights is simply not the primary purpose of this earlier work.

While the successes in studying congressional organization and legislative behavior have been many, they are only a part of a larger understanding of our democratic institutions and governance. One way to appreciate the remaining void is to look at congressional research from the point of view of the structure-conduct-performance paradigm that has long been part of the industrial organization subfield in economics. This work provides an interesting example of how one might bridge micro-oriented work with macro-level outputs. Roger Myerson (1995), in his review essay "Analysis of Democratic Institutions: Structure, Conduct, and Performance," argues that we must fully identify and understand the organization of democratic political systems and the actions of policy actors so that it is possible to appreciate the linkage of structure and conduct to performance. Industrial organization scholars built microfoundations for their subfield through careful inductive work, using industry-specific qualitative case studies followed by empirical analyses. Later, these scholars turned to the study of macro-level performance focusing primarily on efficiency and profits.

In contrast, the literature on Congress has yet to truly connect micro-oriented work to macro-level phenomena. The recent attention given to studying how members of Congress behave is akin to studying how firms act given a certain set of rules governing market structure. The theories explaining why and how individual members of Congress behave have been a real success story, and this success at the micro level makes it possible to expand our horizons and begin to fully explore the consequences for political outcomes. Furthermore, we believe that the study of macropolitics can simply be thought of as the next logical step for the field of congressional scholarship. Our micro theories that explain member behavior, combined with micro-oriented understanding of internal structure (e.g., the committee system, and organizational rules), provide us with the building blocks for a macro theory of policy performance. Nonetheless, the long-range implications of our micro insights have not been properly explored. It is at this aggregate level where performance must be measured.

The work found in this volume tries to link the microfoundations that already exist in current literature more directly to macro-oriented policymaking and congressional operations. We do this to increase our understanding of how Congress performs over time and in relation to other political actors. Questions central to this concept of the "macropolitics of Congress" include these: Does Congress as a representative body broadly reflect public desires? What are the aggregate implications of Congress as ombudsman for the way people relate to their government? How does Congress manage the administrative state, including its role in the creation of agencies as well the Senate's special role in filling such agencies (or leaving them empty) with its advise and consent power over nominations? To properly synthesize what is a diverse body of work, it is first necessary to define the key term-macropolitics. It is to this complicated task that we turn next.


Defining what we mean by macropolitics is necessary to further advance this new genre of work. The long tradition of a micro-oriented focus in congressional scholarship means that our first obstacle is coming up with a definition sufficiently narrow to give the field meaning and boundaries, but not so narrow that large areas of congressional research will easily fall between the micro and macro approaches. This is made all the more difficult by the tremendous heterogeneity in the study of macropolitics, as demonstrated in the chapters that follow. Each tries to explain policymaking; however, different emphases are placed on such influences as public opinion, mood, preferences, elections, divided and unified government, committee chairs, bureaucratic agencies, and political parties. To construct a cohesive yet parsimonious definition of macropolitics, we return to the two questions laid out in the previous section: What are macro-outputs, and what mechanisms govern the processes that produce macro-outputs? As alluded to above, studying macropolitics is about developing and testing theories that explain how collective choice maps into policy outputs across time. To understand this mapping process, we first turn our attention to the policy outputs that serve as the dependent variable for macropolitics. Policy outputs, or "system performance," comprise aggregate views of legislation, impeachment, and ombudsman activities, advice and consent in shaping the executive branch of government, or approval of matters concerning foreign affairs. What differentiates these outputs from past work on Congress is that we are looking at "outcomes" and, for the most part, think of these in their aggregate form (e.g., the proportion of a party's platform adopted into law instead of individual enactments passed from a platform considered in isolation).

For an example, consider Cain, Ferejohn, and Fiorina's seminal book The Personal Vote: Constituency Service and Electoral Independence (1987). They show how constituency service enhances lawmakers' reelection prospects. Though their focus is on the behavior of individual members of Congress, they speculate about the system-level or macro-level consequences of these activities. An important implication of increased constituency service is that it insulates members' electoral fortunes from the fate of the party. This leads to the macro implication that parties' legislative programs might lose cohesiveness and perhaps are less likely to pass. Thinking about these ombudsman activities at the macro level, we might analyze party programs across time and determine whether the success or failure of party platforms and legislative agendas can be explained by changes in constituency service. This illustration demonstrates that a boundary between a micro and macro approach is that the macro perspective looks at the outcomes that are produced out of collective choice. In other words, the emphasis is on the products that flow out of our political institutions.


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Table of Contents

List of Contributors ix

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction: Defining the Macropolitics of Congress by John S. Lapinski and E. Scott Adler 1

Part I: Theoretical Approaches to the Macropolitics of Congress

Chapter 1: Macropolitics and Micromodels: Cartels and Pivots Reconsidered by Keith Krehbiel 21

Chapter 2: Bureaucratic Capacity and Legislative Performance by John D. Huber and Nolan McCarty 50

Part II: The Macropolitics of Representation

Chapter 3: Public Opinion and Congressional Policy: A Macro-Level Perspective by Robert S. Erikson, Michael B. MacKuen, and James A. Stimson 79

Chapter 4: The Substance of Representation: Studying Policy Content and Legislative Behavior by Ira Katznelson and John S. Lapinski 96

Part III: Testing Theories of Macropolitics across Time

Chapter 5: Macropolitics and Changes in the U.S. Code: Testing Competing Theories of Policy Production, 1874-1946 by Valerie Heitshusen and Garry Young 129

Chapter 6: Does Divided Government Increase the Size of the Legislative Agenda? by Charles R. Shipan 151

Part IV: Macropolitics and Public Policy

Chapter 7: The Macropolitics of Telecommunications Policy, 1899-1998: Lawmaking, Policy Windows, and Agency Control by Grace R. Freedman and Charles M. Cameron 173

Chapter 8: The Influence of Congress and the Courts over the Bureaucracy: An Analysis of Wetlands Policy by Brandice Canes-Wrone 195

Chapter 9: Legislative Bargaining and the Macroeconomy by E. Scott Adler and David Leblang 211

Part V: Understanding the Macropolitics of Congress

Chapter 10: Lawmaking and History by David R. Mayhew 241

Chapter 11: Rational Choice, History, and the Dynamics of Congress by David Brady 251

Index 259

What People are Saying About This


An impressive set of contributions.
Steven S. Smith, Washington University, St. Louis

Sarah Binder

The Macropolitics of Congress brings together an impressive array of scholarship on the dynamics of lawmaking in the American political system. Readers will enjoy the broad range of historical, theoretical, and methodological contributions offered throughout the book.
Sarah Binder, George Washington University

Jeffery Jenkins

Adler and Lapinski open the first significant window into the macropolitical role that Congress plays in society, bringing together the leaders in the field of American politics to begin a cohesive treatment of the subject.
Jeffery Jenkins, Northwestern University

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