Things Institutionalists Know that You Should: Timing is Everything

Moving forward with the third installment of our institutionalism series, I’m going to discuss the relevance of time in new institutionalist literature. So far, Nate and Jordan have discussed how institutions and preferences affect outcomes and how those outcomes are largely stable across time. I’m here to offer another perspective about how time/timing affects outcomes. Among new institutionalism’s unique contributions is the effect of time and temporal processes on institutional behavior and interaction. This concept is applied in different ways in new institutionalism's two primary branches. I'm going to start with historical institutionalism and end with rational choice. Historical-institutionalists mostly study big picture questions. As their name suggests, they look at broad swaths of history to explain institutional and political developments. In short, historical institutionalism focuses on change in American politics. The irony, as Jordan points out, is that American politics is largely stable. Major changes are rare occurrences. Often, they occur only once in a generation. However, the fact that major developments are rare does not mean “change” is not an ongoing process. In fact, the “stable” processes and institutions that often appear very durable are marred by internal contradictions. In short, historical institutionalist illustrate that stability is not often all that stable. Beneath the surface there are several developments that slowly undermine stable foundations.

Why does change take such a long time? It's mostly because institutions are good at structuring conflict. Take Congress for example: on a daily basis, as an institution, its challenge is to organize 535 different and unique interests into a single policy agreement. In the short term it does this very well. In every Congress, though today it may not seem like it, legislation is passed. The fact that Congress continually passes legislation is important. In the short run Congress enacts the majority’s policy goals. In other words, an overarching goal is continually achieved: to legislate.

Creating legislation on a routine basis creates a sense of stability. Passing legislation gives positive feedback (Peirson 2004) to the legislative process – the procedures that structure debate and positions in Congress. Despite the difficulties associated with the process, Congress continues to do its job. So in the short term, legislating can reinforce the legislative process and make it resistant to change. In other words, if it’s not broken don’t fix it. Where this all starts to unravel are when reinforcing processes, or the inherent tensions and contradictions in the process, reach a critical mass.

Let’s take the existing legislative process as an example. Today, the party leaderships control the legislative process. This was enacted in the mid-1970s in response to the then dysfunctional committee system. Committee chairs would thwart parties’ policy goals in favor of their own parochial goals; making legislation less national, more regional and local, riddled with pork-barrel and distributive projects, and ultimately a portrait of gridlock politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This didn’t happen over night. It took roughly 60 years for the committee system to break down. However, at the end of the committee Congresses (or committee government), committees exerted so much influence that parties had little control over legislation. Committee chairmen abused their powers and often blocked party supported legislation. David Mayhew commented during this period: “The fact is that no theoretical treatment of the United States Congress that posits parties as analytic units will go very far” (1974). As committees continued to dominate, and party extremists became more frustrated, the natural response to reform this process was to strip committees of legislative power and give more power to the party leadership to control the process (Rohde 1991; Cox and McCubbins 1993). This would alleviate the bottle-neck created by committee chairs while also serving party goals that were emerging during this time.

That’s exactly what happened. The committee system served its purposes for a very long time but as the internal contradictions were exacerbated over time – in my very simplified example, the tension between party goals and committee chairs – major change occurred and parties were given more power to solve the critical problem in the legislative process. The fact that committee chairs had become more stubborn while party interests were also emerging at the same time is referred to as “intercurrence” (Orren and Skowronek 2004). This is the mixture of multiple underlying developments within an institution that all come to a head at the same time, ultimately driving major political developments.

Now we get to the moral of the historical institutionalist story: past decisions/institutions affect future decisions/institutions. Institutions are resistant to change but have innate contradictions sewn into them. As those inherent contradictions become so overbearing to push the institution to a critical moment, reform occurs and a new institution is created to solve the crisis. This is how past institutions affect future institutions. In the example above, the problems unique to committee government pushed Congress to a critical moment. Therefore, the reforms offered by members of Congress were (1) aimed at solving committee government’s problems and (2) developed from within the existing committee process. In brief, reformers were trying to solve the difficulties with committee government from within committee government. In many ways, it’s like trying to fix your leaky roof from within your own house. You may fix the leak but you’ll create another set of problems – like overly power political parties and extreme polarization in Congress… The point is that past institutions affect future institutions by shaping how solutions are created and the problems those solutions are aimed at.

Switching gears abruptly, rational choice institutionalists utilize time differently. While time is theoretically “flattened”- meaning less attention is paid to long-term trends – it still plays a significant role. In this case, the legislative process’s sequence of events determines who, or what committee, has the most leverage over the policy outcome. The timing and sequence of decision making in the legislative process determines which positions have the greatest influence.

In this literature, two different kinds of powers are emphasized. The first is gatekeeping. In most cases, this refers to committees’ agenda setting power in their respective jurisdictions. The abuse of their agenda power led, in part, to the transition from committee to party government I described above. Committee chairs have the option to consider legislation that is referred to them or table the bill indefinitely so that it is never considered (though bills can be extracted from committees through discharge petitions signed by a majority). Since the 1970s, however, parties have also gained agenda power. They are able to bypass committees entirely and send legislation straight to the floor. This also gives them significant weight in the current process over committees gatekeeping ability. Regardless, who controls what enters the process offers significant leverage when legislating.

The second is ex post power to adjust legislation at the end of the process. Here, scholars are often referring to conference committees (Shepsle and Weingast 1987). These committees are rarely given their due by the media. They tend to pay attention to party leaders and standing committees and their chairs. However, conference committees are the final step in a very long process making them crucial to the final shape of a bill. Arlen Spector once said, “Everything else which is done is really of much less significance than the conferences, where the final touches are put on legislation which constitutes the laws of the country.” Of course, each step in the legislative process is important in shaping a bill. But the negotiations that put that determine final language of the bill is arguably the most important step in the long process of bill making.

In sum, timing is crucial to creating legislation and the developments that produce major policy or institutional changes. In both branches of new institutionalism it’s used as a theoretical component in and of itself. How developments or legislation play out across time is crucial to understand its politics and its outcome.

Note: There are several references relevant to this post. If you are interested in them, feel free to email for a more comprehensive list.