Do the Republicans Lack a Legislative Agenda?

Though I planned this entry a few weeks back, it dovetails nicely with Josh’s previous post.  Essentially, Josh reminded us of Richard Fenno, arguing that a legislator’s electoral and policy motivations are not mutually exclusive.  This is despite the punditry’s emphasis on electoral concerns: an emphasis he attributes to horse race politics.  Here is one part I especially like: “Reading politics as a zero-sum game between governing and elections is pretty pessimistic and doesn’t have a firm empirical grounding.  It is pretty hard to imagine how doing nothing will somehow help a party gain seats.”  To help make this case, Josh explored the relationship between the success of priority legislation and the number of seat gains by the minority party.  The slope nearly zero.  I think the intuition here is good and the results support this intuition nicely. On the one hand, Josh’s post reminded me of John Gilmour’s (1995) Strategic Disagreement—a favorite of mine.  According to Gilmour, strategic disagreement occurs when politicians avoid legislative agreements that would make them better off from a policy standpoint but worse electorally.  Based on a Mayhewian perspective of members’ goals, Gilmour argues that politicians will avoid policy agreements because: (1) explaining compromise to constituents is difficult; (2) cooperation is easily spun by political opponents; (3) parties need to maintain their distinctness within the electorate; and (4) disagreement is a tool of agenda manipulation.  What I’m getting at is that, in my opinion, the concept of strategic disagreement explains the Republican Party’s legislative strategy much better than the purported lack of governance.

To buttress the previous assertion, I wanted to take a closer look at “Republican governance.”  Specifically, I was interested in the popular claim that Republicans lack a policy agenda (see this article in Politico).  On the one hand, this is all pretty amorphous stuff.  For example, the meaning of the term “agenda” depends on ones subfield in political science.  For individuals in the behavioral camp, the “agenda” usually refers to the policy proposals considered salient to the electorate and emphasized by political campaigns.  For legislative scholars such as myself, the term “agenda” refers to the slate of proposals formally considered by the House and Senate.  The two are similar, but not always.  From the legislative side of things, if Republicans are truly failing to govern, we would expect them to vote “no” on most proposals brought to the House and Senate floor while simultaneously failing to provide their own proposals.  I believe the former is happening (see the previous paragraph).  What about the latter?  Are Republicans making policy proposals in Congress?

To explore this question, I assembled James Fowler’s individual-level sponsorship and cosponsorship data for the (previous) 110th House alongside an analogous dataset from the current 111th House.  I used for the latter.  Members serving in both Houses were matched across the two periods.  For comparability, in Fowler’s dataset I restricted sponsorship and cosponsorship to the period prior to July 29th, 2008.  Thus, we can cleanly compare the proposals advocated by Republicans and Democrats over the two time periods.  Though this approach contains obvious limitations (see the last paragraph), I think it presents a relatively straightforward and valid assessment of Republican policy activity within Congress.  Whether these proposals reflect a “coherent” agenda or “good” policy is beyond the scope of this post.

The data show that, in the current Congress, Republicans are sponsoring about 19 fewer bills compared to the previous Congress.  This difference is statically significant at the .05 level.  Though this may seem like evidence favoring the “lack of governance hypothesis” it is important to point out that Democrats are sponsoring about 38 (!) fewer bills on average compared to the previous Congress.  My sense is that this aggregate decline in sponsorship and cosponsorship stems from time constraints.  That is, Congress spent so much time considering major proposals like health care that lawmakers had limited time for bill introduction and consideration.

We can also look at the average number of sponsorships and cospnosorships for members of both parties in the current 111th Congress (i.e. without the previous Congress as a baseline).  The data reveal that the average Democrat has thus far sponsored or cosponsored 341 bills while the average Republican has thus far sponsored or cosponsored 343 bills.  The differences are not statistically significant (P=.88).

In short, I’m skeptical of the claim that Republicans lack a congressional agenda and are completely failing to govern given the fact that they have, in fact, advanced an equal if not greater slate of proposals compared to Democrats.  The empirics behind the punditry’s received “wisdom” just don’t add up.  Rather, I think it is more accurate to say that Republicans are strategically disagreeing with Democrats on proposals brought to the House and Senate floor (publically and in formal roll-call votes) in order to create a contrast between the two parties.

One obvious limitation with this crude but simple analysis is that the act of sponsoring and cosponsiring legislation is not entirely about the enactment good policy nor does the act necessarily correspond with an individual’s policy preferences.  Indeed, research shows that sponsorship is also an electoral signal intended for a member’s constituents (see a 2003 study by Gregory Koger).  I think this is a genuine limitation, but remember one thing: sponsoring and cosponsoring requires an actual written bill.  Thus, even if we accept that the behavior analyzed here is driven entirely by electoral concerns, the fact remains that the sponsor of a proposal must have a concrete, written policy in place.  Conceptually, Republicans do have some drafted policies waiting in the wings.