Congressional Absurdity

Bergdahl, Benghazi, and Beyond: The Politics of Congressional Investigations

Iran-Contra-HearingsIs Bowe Bergdahl the new Benghazi? It would certainly seem so.  Several Republicans are calling for investigations into the now infamous prisoner swap.  Calls for impeachment exist.  And, of course, Hillary Clinton’s name has been linked to the Bergdahl scandal.

In an even broader sense, we might link the Bergdahl scandal with the IRS targeting investigation, which is still simmering, and the VA scandal, where Congress is almost certain to investigate further.

But which investigation is a “warranted” examination of legislative-executive authority, which is motivated by legislators’ “problem-solving” motivations, and which investigation is simply “political theatre?”

I think most would agree that continued investigations into the VA are warranted.  Even the IRS targeting scandal deserved at least a cursory look in my mind.  Are the Bergdahl and Benghazi investigations warranted?  It depends on your political leanings; scandals are highly subjective creatures.

Does this mean we can’t systematically examine the politics of congressional investigations?  Should we be surprised at the volume and intensity of congressional investigation in the modern Congress?

In both instances, the answer is: No.

In an excellent article appropriately titled “Divided We Quarrel,” political scientists David C.W. Parker and Matthew Dull examined the dynamics of divided government, congressional polarization, and congressional investigations of the executive branch.  Parker and Dull collected an impressive dataset of congressional investigations from 1947 to 2004 including their frequency, duration (measured in days), and intensity (measured as the number of published pages).

Here’s what Parker and Dull found:

  • Divided government is indeed associated with more frequent and longer investigations of the executive branch.
  • Legislative polarization is also associated with more intense investigations.
  • However… divided government and polarization increase the frequency and duration of congressional investigations in the House but not the Senate.
  • And finally, when the presidential is popular, Congress initiates fewer and less intensive investigations of the executive branch.

I don’t think Parker and Dull’s results could fit the current Congress’s political environment better.  Indeed, the president is unpopular, Congress is polarized by any measure, we have a situation where both parties are sharing power, and investigations in the House far outpace investigations in the Senate.

So, why is this relevant?  For starters, while we can’t point to a specific investigation or scandal and say it’s “obviously political,” we do know in a general sense that investigations are political endeavors. From a theoretical perspective, this research highlights the critically important role that parties play in the U.S. Congress (for better or worse).  While it may seem surprising to non-political scientists, for decades the prevailing wisdom was that parties didn’t matter all that much.  (In fact, the title of Parker and Dull’s article is a response to David Mayhew’s famous “Divided We Govern.”)  Lastly, while some of the dynamics uncovered are indeed intuitive, others (like presidential approval and the bicameral differences) are not.  In this sense, Parker and Dull’s work helps situate contemporary congressional investigations in a broader institutional framework (including the transition from the era of strong committees to the current era of strong parties) and highlight key determinants of congressional behavior.

How Can We Explain the Amash Vote to Defund the NSA?

A peculiar thing happened in the House last week.  An amendment offered by Justin Amash (R-MI) narrowly failed on the floor, with a majority Democrats voting for the amendment (offered by a conservative Republican in the Republican controlled House) and a majority of Republicans voting against it.  The controversial amendment would have defunded the NSA program that collects Americans’ phone records en masse.  The program was made public by the now infamous Edward Snowden.  The amendment went down by a narrow 12-point margin. How can we make sense of the Amash amendment vote?  And what does it tell us about the House of Representatives?  Despite all the commentary about the controversial vote, I’ve seen no rigorous discussion of this in the political science blog-o-sphere.

As an exercise, look at the vote tally and try to find a discernible pattern.  See one?  It’s hard to eyeball, so let’s leverage some basic statistics.  The dependent variable used here is coded “1” if a member voted for Amash’s amendment (to defund the NSA program) and coded “0” if a member voted against the amendment.  I’ll explore five possible explanations: ideology, an ends-against-the-middle pattern, party, terms in the House (as a measure of "outsider" status), and the Patriot Act.  For technical reasons, only representatives who served in the 112th House are included (i.e. no freshmen).

Here are the statistical results.  Positive coefficients indicate an increased probability of voting for the Amash amendment.  Methodological details are at the bottom of the post.


What we see, first, is that ideology is negative and significant, indicating that liberals were more supportive of Amash’s amendment to defund the NSA program.  You read that right.  Liberals were more supportive of a conservative Republican’s amendment to restrict the power of the Obama Administration and, ostensibly, protect Americans’ civil liberties.  Politics something something strange bedfellows.  How can we explain this? Well, liberals have always been skeptical of policies associated with the so-called “War on Terror” (Guantanamo Bay, rendition, the Iraq war, etc.).  Moreover, for conservatives, there’s a cross-cutting issue: the desire to appear strong on national defense.

What about party?  There’s no evidence of a partisan divide in the roll-call pattern.  Amash is not exactly friendly with House Republican leaders, after all.  He famously opposed Boehner’s bid for Speaker.  Moreover, most of the Republican leadership opposed the amendment, with Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy all voting “no.”

Second, there is clear evidence of an ends-against-the-middle voting pattern in the Amash roll-call.  The pattern was first noted by VoteView blog.  The results indicate that liberals and conservative joined forces in supporting the amendment while moderates—who succeeded in defeating the amendment—opposed it.  For example, on the left, the ACLU urged liberals to support the Amash amendment as did Freedom Works on the right.  Such patterns are rare in a polarized legislature like the House.

However, the results indicate no evidence for VoteView’s contention that this was an “establishment vs. outsider” vote.  Granted, the number of terms served in the House may be a poor way to operationalize “outsider” status.  And freshmen are excluded from this analysis out of necessity.  But junior and senior representative supported the Amash amendment at the same rate once we control for other factors.

The final explanation for the Amash vote is the Patriot Act.  According to the data, 135 representatives who voted on the Amash amendment also voted on the original Patriot Act (which established the NSA program).  By my count, 65% of those who voted for the Patriot Act voted against the Amash amendment while 85% voted against the Patriot Act and fore the amendment.  Even controlling for the factors above, the legacy of the Patriot Act remains statistically significant.  Now I’m not so sure voting on the Amash Amendment was caused by the Patriot Act vote.  Rather, this serves as a key control for unaccounted for characteristics in a lawmakers policy views.

What does this vote tell us about the operation of the House?

The conventional wisdom is that party leaders only allow bills and amendments on the floor when they have the votes to pass the proposal.  The so-called “Hastert Rule” has been the subject of much discussion this year.  So why did Boehner schedule the Amash amendment if it was going to fail?  Well, Boehner has adopted a strategy dubbed “let the House work its will.”  Rather than twist arms—which rarely happens anyway—Republican leaders let the floor decide the amendment’s fate.  But that doesn’t mean that this (failed) vote isn’t in the Republicans interest: quite the contrary.  What party leaders are most concerned with is reelection.  With this vote lawmakers on both sides were allowed to “vote their district” thereby helping their reelection prospects.  Policy outcomes help your party win seats in elections, but so does strategic positioning.

In sum, while the Amash amendment vote was a quirky creature, the vote contains important lessons for how the modern House operates as well as the factors that drive legislative decision-making.

Methods Notes:

The ideology data are available at  Ends-against-the-middle is simply the absolute value of ideology.  Party is coded 1 for Democrats and 0 for Republicans.  The Patriot Vote is coded 1 if a member voted for the original Patriot Act, 0 otherwise.  And terms--a measure of "outsider" status--is coded as the raw number of terms a member has served in the House.

Are Members of Congress “Truthful?” A Response to the PolitiFact Study

pants-on-fire1The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) at George Mason University released a report examining PolitiFact ratings gauging Republicans’ and Democrats’ “truthfulness.”  PolitiFact developed their so-called "truth-o-meter" (pictured at right) which rates politicians' statements as "true," "mostly true," "half true," "mostly false," "false," and "pants on fire."  The main findings:

PolitiFact rated 32% of Republican claims as “false” or “pants on fire,” compared to 11% of Democratic claims – a 3 to 1 margin. Conversely, Politifact rated 22% of Democratic claims as “entirely true” compared to 11% of Republican claims – a 2 to 1 margin.

Dr. Robert Lichter, a communications professor at George Mason, concludes:

While Republicans see a credibility gap in the Obama administration, PolitiFact rates Republicans as the less credible party.

According to the PolitiFact data, Michelle Bachmann rates as the least truthful politician examined, receiving a whopping 15 “pants on fire” ratings.  There’s much rejoicing on the left of late given Bachmann's announced retirement from the House.

But if our elected officials are generally “dishonest,” or if one party in particular is overly dishonest, that has rather serious implications for democratic societies like our own.  While the PolitiFact findings are amusing, there are serious normative issues at play.  Indeed, an important element of representative government is the extent to which policy outcomes reflect the preferences of citizens.

A few people have already weighed in on the PolitiFact ratings.  At TheMonkeyCage, John Sides questions the generalizability of the PolitiFact data.  I echo his concerns.  But I’d like to offer one additional caveat.  Political scientists have examined a related phenomenon: the frequency with which lawmakers keep their campaign promises.

Tracy Sulkin is the author of the aptly titled “Promises Made, Promises Kept” (ungated version here, but see also Congress Reconsidered).  In this paper, Sulkin debunks the common myth that political campaigns contain nothing more than personal attacks (devoid of any policy content) and that members of Congress routinely violate their campaign promises.  As she points out, it’s odd that while citizens regularly criticize their lawmakers for being dishonest and not following through on campaign promises, surveys routinely show that many citizens don’t know who their representative is in the first place (let alone know their position on key votes).

Sulkin studies this issue by measuring “promising keeping.”  Rather than examine lawmakers' issue positions on specific bills, she looks at policy “priorities.”  In particular, Sulkin studies campaign ads for 1998, 2000, and 2002 and compares the priorities mentioned in a candidate's ad to his or her bills introduced and cosponsored.

Based on the various issue areas coded, she compares the percentage of representatives who devoted attention via introduction or cosponsorship to each issue area.  She creates two groups: those who discussed the issue in a campaign and those who did not.  One of the central findings is that, in every case, members who mentioned an issue during the campaign were more likely to pay that issue attention while in serving in Congress.  In short, representatives follow through on their campaign promises.

Further, Sulkin models who keeps their promises.  The dependent variable is the proportion of kept promises and the unit of analysis is the individual representative.  The results:

  • There is no difference across the parties (contrary to the PolitiFact data).
  • Senior members are less likely to keep promises, while junior members follow through on campaign promises more often.
  • Members who are slightly vulnerable electorally are more likely to keep promises (though a non-linear effect exists).

So while it may run counter to the popular belief that “Congress is full of liars and crooks,” when we systematically examine campaign statements, it turns out that most members of Congress keep their promises.

Finally, if citizens are (a) unaware of who their elected lawmaker is and (b) are woefully ignorant of their representatives’ position on key votes, the question is: what keeps lawmakers honest?  The answer is that while private citizens may not know how their representative or senator voted, general election opponents and interest groups sure do.  Thus, while the electorate is generally inattentive to lawmakers voting record, the reelection incentive—and the threat of attack ads from one’s rival—keep lawmakers honest.

edit: I recommend reading Jonathan Bernstein's perspective on this issue.  His post is here.

Is the GOP Debt Ceiling Proposal Constitutional?

Over the weekend, House Republicans unveiled a debt ceiling proposal that’s the subject of some controversy.  Shocking, I know.  The controversy hinges on the fact that, while Republicans tout themselves as defenders of the Constitution, their plan contains a constitutionally questionable provision. The House Republican proposal calls for a 3-month extension of the federal government's statutory borrowing limit, a significant moderation from the GOP's earlier debt ceiling rhetoric.  In exchange, the text of the bill requires the House and Senate to pass budget resolutions by April 15th.  This seems like a constructive step toward a "grand bargain" and a move that probably lowers the probability of a costly and embarrassing default. However, the agreement also contains language that if Congress does not pass a budget resolution by the April 15th deadline, lawmakers will not get paid for their services. This provision mirrors the so-called "No Budget, No Pay" proposal advocated by the group "No Labels."  But is it Constitutional?

A number of commentators have opined on this matter, with most citing the proposal as lacking constitutional muster.  This includes some prominent conservatives.  I initially agreed with this view.  However, yesterday the text of the proposal was made public by the House Rules Committee.  The committee will vote today on the rule attached to the proposal with a vote on the full bill scheduled for Wednesday.  There are some interesting points in the plan.

A little background first.  During the Constitutional Convention the issue of compensating members of Congress was debated.  The most famous opponent of paying lawmakers was Benjamin Franklin.  During the convention the arguments in favor of paying lawmakers were (1) that paying elected officials enhances representation by increasing the likelihood that less financially well-off individuals serve and (2) that a competitive salary would ensure the “wisest” citizens would choose a career in politics and make Congress an institution of considerable political ambition.  During the Convention the final votes were 8-3 in favor of paying representatives and 7-3 in favor of paying senators.  Thus, Article 1, Section 6, Clause 1 of the Constitution states:

Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States.

And while this clause clearly gives Congress the power to determine its own pay, the 27th Amendment prevents pay increases or decreases during a concurrent term:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

On its face, the 27th Amendment would seem to invalidate the House proposal.  But the text of the bill released yesterday (as as of this time, an unnumbered House bill) addresses this issue explicitly:

In order to ensure that this section is carried out in a manner that shall not vary the compensation of Senators or Representatives in violation of the twenty-seventh article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the payroll administrator of a House of Congress shall release for payments to Members of that House of Congress any amounts remaining in any escrow account under this section on the last day of the One Hundred Thirteenth Congress.

Clever.  Under the proposal lawmakers will not “lose” their pay per se, rather, their pay is temporarily “withheld” (in escrow) until the close of 113th Congress (or the date a budget resolution is passed, whichever comes first).  While I’m not a Constitutional law expert, and I'm largely speculating here, I suspect this passes Constitutional scrutiny (but see an actual Constitutional law professor, Adam Winkler, who disagrees).  Article 1 clearly gives Congress the statutory authority to determine its own pay and, presumably, this vests in Congress the power to determine the amount of pay as well as the manner of its administration.  Indeed, the proposal does not technically vary the amount members receive in compensation (at least least as I understand the word "vary"),  just the timing of its disbursement.  I have to imagine Congress, like any employer, has made occasional changes over the years to how lawmakers literally receive their pay.  For example, Cost of Living increases were deemed Constitutional under the 27th Amendment by a lower court.  I just don’t see this as a distinction without a difference; it's a political question in an area where Congress is granted explicit power.  It’s certainly gimmicky and probably ineffective in terms of pressuring Congress to act (see below), but Constitutional nonetheless.

A few interesting points about the bill.  The section quoted above clearly puts the pressure to pass a budget resolution on the individual chambers, not Congress.  In other words, if the House passes a budget resolution and the Senate cannot, senators’ pay will be placed in escrow but not the pay of representatives’.  In other words, Congres--as a whole--can fail to pass a budget resolution and lawmakers will still receive their compensation so long as the two chambers pass competing proposals.  This would seem to undermine the proposal’s effectiveness by not requiring the two chambers agree to a single budget resolution.  It also puts disproportionate pressure on the Senate, as legislating is significantly more difficult in the upper chamber.  But second, if members know they will be paid in January of 2015, where’s the threat?  Indeed, many (most?) members of Congress are independently wealthy.  I’m just not sure this is going to alter the behavior of the John Kerrys, Darrel Issas, and Jay Rockefellers.  In short, I don't think this proposal makes a budget resolution more likely.

As an aside, the history of the 27th amendment is quite interesting.  The 27th amendment was finally ratified in 1992, making it the most recent successful amendment.  However, the 27th amendment was originally passed by the House and Senate in September of 1789.  At that time, ten amendments to the Constitution were summarily ratified by the requisite states, becoming the Bill of Rights.  The 27th amendment, by contrast, languished in a state of constitutional purgatory.  By 1791, only six states had ratified the 27th amendment.  In 1983, Main became the 10th state to ratify after an undergraduate at the University of Texas wrote a college paper on the defunct amendment and began lobbying state legislatures for it's ratification.  Nearly a decade later, the 38th state--Michigan--ratified the amendment.

Most Bizarre Reform Proposal Ever?

Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer seemed to step off the deep end this past Sunday. He gave his short editorial at the end his show on congressional reform. His proposal is so far out there the line between sarcastic commentary and legitimate suggestion is blurred.

“I’ve come up with my own reform plan: just create a second Congress…Here’s the broad outline of how it would work. Members of this new Congress would be elected for one year and barred from ever running again. Since no one would have to worry about reelection, they could dive into all the heavy lifting: entitlement reform, deficit reduction, tax policy, and rebuilding our roads and bridges and schools. It’s not exactly a new idea I sort of modeled it after the First Congress. Getting reelected was the last thing on those guys’ minds. They were worried about being hanged if it didn’t work out. So they put all their chips on the line and went for it…”

It gets even more absurd after that, which leads me to believe this commentary is part serious critique, part sarcasm. So it is a bit disingenuous to take him literally. Regardless of the proposal’s absurdity Schieffer clearly lays blame on reelection. For starters he couldn’t be more wrong about reelection or its history. First, members of the First Congress were concerned about reelection. They may have ‘laid their chips on the table,’ but they tried to do so in a manner that would bring them back to Congress. Roughly 70% of the members from the First Congress sought reelection. Of those members roughly 80% won (early reelection data isn’t perfect but these are the best estimates). Granted, it wasn't nearly as strong as it is today but it was not absent at the Constitutional Convention either.

Furthermore, the Framer’s wanted it this way. Many envisioned reelection as democracy’s fundamental cornerstone. “Frequent elections” were the most direct check necessary to keep elected officials from infringing on the peoples’ liberty (Federalist #52, #53 just to name a few). The pursuit of reelection was not seen as a vice but a virtue that forced members to adjust to their constituents’ demands. It is the fundamental check that allows the people to keep elected officials in line. Schieffer’s proposal (real or not) advocates eliminating this check. In other words he’s suggesting that the best way to get things done is to make Congress less representative. Schieffer suggests Congress is too representative and the solution is to simply eliminate that constraint. But instead of reforming how business is done within Congress he recommends creating a new one unaccountable to the people. In all, it sounds more like a criticism of democracy than a congressional reform.

In short, Schieffer’s criticism follows an all too common populous logic: in order to fix (insert problem here) elect all new people and (insert problem here) will be solved. This banal complaint wrongly assumes that new people in the same system will somehow radically change how Congress does business. A landslide election may introduce a shock to the system, but it doesn’t touch the underlying framework that shapes how elected officials interact within Congress.

Stocks and Members of Congress

This weekend 60 Minutes' aired an excellent piece on members legally trading stocks on insider information. Earlier this year we reviewed some research on this exact topic. The authors find that representatives' stocks do abnormally well compared to the average American or even business executives. This confirms earlier research on senators' trading habits. Here is the abstract from the Ziobrowski, Boyd, Cheng, and Ziobrowski article from Business and Politics:

A previous study suggests that U.S. Senators trade common stock with a substantial informational advantage compared to ordinary investors and even corporate insiders. We apply precisely the same methods to test for abnormal returns from the common stock investments of Members of the U.S. House of Representatives. We measure abnormal returns for more than 16,000 common stock transactions made by approximately 300 House delegates from 1985 to 2001. Consistent with the study of Senatorial trading activity, we find stocks purchased by Representatives also earn significant positive abnormal returns (albeit considerably smaller returns). A portfolio that mimics the purchases of House Members beats the market by 55 basis points per month (approximately 6% annually).

Update 11/17: Eggers and Hainmueller find that members' stock holdings from 2004-2008 underperformed the market by roughly 2-3% annually. This study takes into account members' stock transactions as well as stock holdings. This makes it a bit more comprehensive than the Ziobrowski article. However, the fact that members underperformed the market doesn't exactly free them from ethical culpability. The fact members didn't benefit from their transactions doesn't change that they potentially acted on insider information.

And it happened...

This is what happens when you play chicken with an economic freight train. If you're interested in academic takes on the credit downgrade, I recommend the following links: Layna Mosley, Seth Masket, John Sides and Ezra Klein. I'll have more on this later to discuss S&P's indictment of our governing institutions. For now, bask in the glory of dysfunctional politics.

Dodging the Ryan Budget: Republican Schadenfreude

Politico notes that the Ryan budget is quickly becoming a litmus test for Republicans.  The trick, David Catanese argues, is catering to conservative primary voters while dodging the unpopular Ryan budget for the general election.

Across the Senate election map, in swing state after swing state, the House Budget Committee chairman’s plan for overhauling the popular entitlement program is emerging as a serious point of tension, a pick-your-poison proposition, forcing GOP candidates to choose between the narrow dictates of conservative primary voters and the imperatives of the broader general election.

Politico didn't reference it, but Mike Haridopolos (current President of the Florida Senate and a candidate the U.S. Senate in 2012) provided a cringe-worthy glimpse of this challenge a month ago.  Watch as Haridopolos gets booted from a radio interview after repreatedly dodging a question about the Ryan budget.


Hat tip to Dan Smith for the link.

Members of Congress have Better Stocks Than You

Congress has had its share of financial, fundraising, and pork-barrel scandals. Well, add this to the mix. There is an interesting article in the Business and Politics Journal, by Ziobrowski, Boyd, Cheng, and Ziobrowski, on members’ stock returns. There are some interesting, though not surprising findings, concluding with: “we find that stocks purchased by Members of the U.S. House of Representatives earn statistically significant positive abnormal returns.” In other words, members of Congress perform far better in the stock market than the average citizen. The authors attribute this to members’ informational advantages. Because members have access to non-public financial information, the authors conclude that they are able to leverage this information to benefit financially. The study supports previous research done on the Senate. Although, they find that Senators tend to out perform Representatives on their returns. Of the many findings, one caught my eye. The results indicate that freshman members do much better financially than their senior counterparts. The authors report that senior members “show no indication of information advantage.” This is an interesting because it is exactly the opposite of what we would expect. Senior members hold higher ranks in committees and subcommittees, and therefore privileged to more information. They tend to have larger social networks with greater access to multiple strands of information. On the other hand, members serving less than 6-years in the House severely outperform the market. In fact, this group of legislators seems to drive the findings. The authors stipulate that freshmen face precarious reelections, and therefore, are the most likely to employ their informational advantages. In other words, because freshmen are less likely than senior members to be reelected, they will accumulate personal wealth to boost their chances in the upcoming election. This seems plausible but it isn't a clear-cut conclusion. Incumbents are the least likely to use their own personal finances to run a campaign. Since 1984, on average less than 1% of House incumbents used personal finances to fund their campaigns. And in only three elections during this period did that percentage reach higher than 1% (2% in ’84, ’86, and ’90). Of course, further analysis should look into whether this stat is even distributed across the membership or concentrated in freshmen or senior members.

Similarly, the study would benefit by controlling for committee jurisdictions. Information does not flow evenly across Congress. Not all members of Congress command the same amount, or even type, of information. For example, committee members on the Energy and Commerce Committee will have much more insight on oil prices than members on the Judiciary Committee. This would help specify whether members were using their policy expertise and informational advantages to specifically inform their trading strategies.

Regardless, it’s an interesting study. It does note that not all members actively trade stock. But examining out how members organize their stock portfolios may give insight into how (and what) information flows through Congress.

How You Can Become Parliamentarian

I was reading Gregory Wawro, Sarah Binder, Steven Smith and Gregory Koger's Senate testimony earlier today when I came across the comments of Robert Dove, a former Senate parliamentarian (Wikipedia entry here).  What is a parliamentarian, you ask?  The parliamentarian is a non-partisan congressional figure who advises lawmakers and interprets the rules and procedures of the House and Senate.  Dove, currently a professor of political science at George Washington University, had a number of excellent anecdotes about efforts to reform the filibuster; that is, "excellent" if you're into that kind of stuff.  I wondered: How does one become a parliamentarian?, it turns out, had an article a while back aptly titled "How to become a parliamentarian."  I'm not kidding, it's an interesting read.

Obama's Birth Certificate: Diminishing Marginal Utility and Finite Agenda Space

I posted this on Seth Masket's facebook page a moment ago (see his blog here).  Seth asked why Obama released his birth certificate now when there is presumably an electoral incentive to keep the issue alive (given that it makes Republican candidates like Donald Trump look silly and lose credibility).  Some of the responses from to Seth's question included:

  • Public opinion is starting to turn against Obama on this issue
  • Obama is tired of refuting Republicans on this point
  • Birthers will look even more stupid trying to refute his birth certificate

My thoughts are somewhat different.  I think the answer has to do with  (1) diminishing marginal utility (a concept from economics which says that every additional unit of some good will yield less beneficial outcomes or "diminishing returns") and (2) the limited amount of agenda space. Here is a reprint of my facebook post (edited slightly):

If all else were equal, Obama would love to let Republicans continue to look foolish over the birther issue. Clearly, in my eyes, they have intentionally kept the issue alive rather than squashing it months ago.  However, all else is not equal in this case. With the media's obsession with Trump and the birthers, other political issues are getting crowded out or ignored entirely (political agendas are finite, after all). In particular, there is less attention on the Ryan budget plan, which the Obama White House probably views as a winner for their side (polls show that upwards of 80% are against cutting Medicare, for example). To win in 2012, Obama needs more than the birther issue. Diminishing marginal utility makes sense of this because "additional units of crazy" produced by the right are likely to yield diminishing returns. In other words, people have made their mind up on the birth certificate issue so the benefit to Obama and Democrats has already been awarded (to the extent that large segments are turned off by the birther issue).  Keeping the issue alive will produce few additional gains while keeping the budget issue out of the media.  Thus, Obama made a strategic calculation, deciding to get his birth off the agenda and return the people's focus to a substantive issue in which they can beat Republicans in 2012 (Ryan's draconian cuts).

Anyway, that's my 2 cents.  Back to my dissertation...

The Colbert "Bump" in Reverse?

Josh's previous post was about Steven Colbert's address before Congress on the topic of immigration.  The reaction to Colbert's testimony has been negative on average; even some Democrats have stated their opposition to Colbert's statements. A well known paper by political scientist James Fowler explored a phonomon he termed the "Colbert Bump."  Using FEC data, Fowler found that candidates appearing on the Colbert Report improved their fundraising in the period immediatley after their appearance (though this effect was larger for Democrats than for Republicans).  Fowler tempers the signifiancnce of this finding, noting that the methods are far from perfect and that similar trends likely exist with other television shows like Oprah Winfrey's.

In an interesting turn, Politico has a story today suggesting that lawamakers may be changing their mind about appearing on the show.  The gist is that Colbert's testimony may have underscored the risks of appearing on the Colbert Report.  Here is one interesting part, with a nice quote:

“My experience with that show is like herpes. It never goes away, and it itches and sometimes flares up,” said a former aide to Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, after his boss appeared on the show in 2006. The conservative Georgia Republican, co-sponsor of a bill requiring that the Ten Commandments be displayed in Congress, was skewered by Colbert in a segment of “Better Know a District” for appearing to be able to name only three of the commandments.

Read more:

Colbert in Congress

Stephen Colbert testified in front of House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law. He spent one day with the UFW (United Farm Workers) to pick vegetables. This was enough to warrant his congressional testimony. Here are some of the highlights: "Americans are far too dependent on immigrant labor to pick fruits and vegetables. The obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables."

"Maybe this Ag jobs bill will help. I don't know. Like most members of Congress, I haven't read it."

"Apparently, the invisible hand doesn't want to pick beans."

"We should genetically engineer vegetables to pick themselves."

Responses to Questions:

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX): How many of the workers there with you were legal and how many of them were illegal?

"I don't know. I didn't ask them for their papers but I had a strong urge to."

Do you know how much they were paid?

"I don't know. I didn't do a good enough job to get paid. They asked me to leave."

Does one day of work in the field enough make you an expert witness?

"I believe one day of me studying anything makes me an expert."

Here's the link for his opening statement.

A History of Congressional Absurdity

Teaching a class on Congress is not easy. While procedural nuances and institutional norms are sometimes difficult to articulate, the most difficult obstacle I encounter is students' hatred for American political institutions. More often than not they echo the common charges: Congress is slow, it is corrupt, members of Congress are stupid... you get the idea. So when I teach my legislative process class I often harp on the old adage, "You're only as strong as your weakest link." I try to remind students that Congress is a representative institution meant to reflect all parts of American society.  And while people mostly lament Congress's inability to represent the people, at times it represents them too well. With that in mind, I thought I'd start a series of absurd congressional moments.  I don't mean to undermine the integrity of the institution.  Rather, I'd like to add a humorous element to the study of Congress.  Congress, too, can be funny.  At the same time, I hope to illustrate the difficulties of representative institutions.  A fundamental purpose of Congress is to reflect constituent preferences.  And while plenty of the time Congress tackles the difficult and serious issues, there are also times when serving their constituencies initiates a venture into the absurd.

This weeks entry: Reforming the bars?

1961 was a difficult time in American history.  America was locked in the Cold War with the USSR.  President Kennedy attempting to find ways to spur a fairly stagnant economy. However, other problems challenged American culture.  The FDA approved "the pill" a year earlier and introduced a social changes that threatened traditional family values.

However, there were other serious issues before Congress.  Among those threats was drinking.  By 1961, prohibition was an afterthought.  However, how one should drink legal alcohol was another matter altogether.  On August 16th, a measure was proposed to reform drinking laws in the District of Columbia.  Previous to 1961, the law decreed the sitting posture was "essential for the safety and morals of the hard drinker" (Washington Post, August 17th, 1961).  It's safe to say that standing under the influence presented several moral hazards.

First and foremost, it was believed that "blondes on  bar stools" were responsible for leading faithful men away from their loving wives.  To me this seems to overemphasize the quality of woman sitting on said bar stool, but I digress.  If moral hazards weren't deterrent enough, the sheer feat of standing and drinking was.  Members of Congress knew all too well the difficulties of standing upright while drinking.  Regardless, in 1961 they were willing to spend several hours reflecting on their previous position.

I never tracked down the final vote on the proper posture for the hard drinker.  If anybody has seen it, please let me know.  For now though, if you visit the nation's Capitol and decide to stroll into a nearby bar, remember the time and effort Congress put forth to allow you to stand and consume.  Also, please do so carefully.  If not for your safety, do so for your morals.