Five legislative styles of members of Congress

Workhorses are but one of the sorts of legislator. Source: WestCoastHorsemen.com.

Workhorses are but one of the sorts of legislator. Source: WestCoastHorsemen.com.

By Casey Burgat

Even the most casual observer of American politics recognizes stylistic differences between members of Congress (MCs) and how they approach their jobs. Some MCs are more vocal, consistently making the rounds on cable news to explain their positions, while others are more comfortable cracking down on the details of policy and avoiding the spotlight altogether. Still others spend a greater portion of their time and resources fundraising for themselves and their co-partisans.

We know lawmakers differ in their goals, tactics and approaches to their congressional work. But, a new paper authored by political scientists William Bernhard and Tracy Sulkin, with an assist from biostatistics assistant professor Daniel Sewell, reveals that MCs cluster into legislative styles that are far more stable and predictable than many would have thought. In the words of the authors, members “engage in patterns or “packages” of activity that correspond to a particular constellation of goals. These patterns are characteristic of individual MCs, but not unique to each.”

Within their August 2017 Legislative Studies Quarterly article, “A Clustering Approach to Legislative Styles”, the authors show that patterns of member decisions, behaviors, and activities ultimately produce five distinct legislative styles of lawmakers: district advocates, party builders, ambitious entrepreneurs, party soldiers, and policy specialists.

To construct these five typologies, the authors identify 16 “everyday behaviors available to all members” that measure variance in MC activity across a host of behavioral domains. Such lawmaker activities include the number of district offices maintained for each MC, the number of bills and amendments introduced, and the amount of money raised and transferred to their colleagues. These lawmaker inputs are then standardized (which allows comparisons across variables of different scales) and put into indices.

Source: William Bernhard, Tracy Sulkin, and Daniel Sewell, "A Clustering Approach to Legislative Styles."

Source: William Bernhard, Tracy Sulkin, and Daniel Sewell, "A Clustering Approach to Legislative Styles."

The above table presents the variables used to create the eight indices of legislative behaviors. For example, lawmakers that score high on the “showboat” index are those that give more 1-minute speeches within the chamber and publish more op-eds (bylines). Alternatively, “bipartisan” MCs are those that cosponsor a higher percentage of bills introduced by the opposition party.

After standardizing the indices, the authors then use clustering analysis to identify “groups of observations that are similar to one another and distinct from those in other groups.” This creates distinct clusters of relationships between the indices used and produces the five discrete legislative styles.

The authors’ heat map (below) enables readers to visualize the relationship between each index and legislative style cluster. The lighter the shade, the stronger the connection. For example, lawmakers with a policy specialist legislative style score higher than their counterparts on the policy focus index. Party builders are those that give more in campaign contributions to their party, both to their colleagues and respective party committees.

William Bernhard, Tracy Sulkin, and Daniel Sewell, "A Clustering Approach to Legislative Styles."

William Bernhard, Tracy Sulkin, and Daniel Sewell, "A Clustering Approach to Legislative Styles."

So then, what is the breakdown in legislative styles? The figure below presents the distribution of legislative styles for lawmakers who served within the 101st to 110th Congresses (1989-2008). The three most common legislative styles---district advocates, party soldiers, and policy specialists---characterize between 26% and 32% of MCs. Party builders represent about 12% of the lawmakers studied, while ambitious entrepreneurs, those MCs that scored high on the fundraising and showboater indices, make up the smallest cluster at 3.7% of members.

William Bernhard, Tracy Sulkin, and Daniel Sewell, "A Clustering Approach to Legislative Styles."

William Bernhard, Tracy Sulkin, and Daniel Sewell, "A Clustering Approach to Legislative Styles."

Within the paper the authors point out several additional interesting and important features of MC legislative styles. First, once adopted by lawmakers, legislative styles are relatively stable---77% of members retain their legislative styles from one Congress to the next.

Second, nearly 60% of members begin their congressional careers as party soldiers, meaning they vote regularly with their party and are active in fundraising and lawmaking as freshman. As MCs gain seniority, though, the percentage of lawmakers who fall into the party soldier cluster drops, with just 17% of MCs fitting this description by their fourth term. As MCs serve longer, they are likely to transition from party soldiers to policy specialists or party builders. (This finding may have implications for those who advocate for term limits.)

Third, the authors find that the legislative styles of freshman MCs are dependent on a variety of political and demographic factors. For example, freshman MCs with previous state legislative experience are more likely to start their congressional careers as policy specialists, and freshman that represent diverse districts are more likely to take on a district advocate legislative style when compared to MCs elected within homogenous districts.

This research aides our understanding of how and why lawmakers vary in their approaches in executing their responsibilities as members of Congress. While we have always known that their individual goals and institutional factors and constraints help shape their legislative styles, Bernhard, Sulkin, and Sewell’s paper highlights that despite the many differences in member personalities and district attributes, MCs largely operate within the same political context. As a result, legislative behaviors do cluster into distinct and consistent legislative styles.

Casey Burgat is a governance fellow at the R Street Institute.