Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Logic of Congressional Action

R. Douglas Arnold

This book aims to provide a theory of how Congress works. For example, why do they sometimes pass laws benefiting targeted groups and other times focus on more diffuse benefits? The book suggests that there are three levels to consider. Individuals make decisions about policies either before-hand (what they believe the policy will do) or after the fact (whether they think a policy worked). Congress members try to anticipate the preferences of individuals, and how they will take the Congress person’s actions into account when voting. Coalition leaders try to frame issues in a way that takes into account these calculations by the Congressmembers, making it easier for them to vote for a particular proposal. Coalition leaders can use persuasion, procedures, or modification to help build support for a particular bill.

Chapter 1: Explaining Congressional Action
Three groups are involved in explaining congressional action. Individuals need to assess how they are affected by policy decisions and how policy decisions will affect their voting. Legislators need to decide what to vote for. Coalition leaders need to formulate policy that will be supported by legislators. Arnold lays out these steps to explain the logic of Congressional action:
1. Citizens establish policy preferences by evaluating both policy proposals and policy effects.
2. Citizens choose among congressional candidates by evaluating both the candidates’ policy positions and their connections with policy effects.
3. Legislators choose among policy proposals by estimating citizens potential policy preferences and by estimating the likelihood that citizens might incorporate these policy preferences into their choices among candidates in subsequent congressional elections.
4. Coalition leaders adopt strategies for enacting their policy proposals by anticipating legislators’ electoral calculations, which in turn requires that they estimate both citizens’ potential policy preferences and the likelihood that citizens might incorporate these policy preferences into their choices among congressional candidates.

Chapter 2: Policy Attributes and Policy Preferences
We first need a better understanding of how individuals develop policy preferences. Their decision may be based on their understanding of cause and effect and on their understanding of the distribution of costs and benefits. A citizen’s policy preferences at any given time are going to depend on the magnitude, timing, proximity, and availability of an instigator. If the magnitude of the costs or benefits are large, or if they directly affect the citizen, the citizen is more likely to perceive it. The timing of the costs and benefits are also important. A citizen’s ability to evaluate policy proposals may depend on the number of intermediate steps needed for a policy to produce its intended effects. For multi-stage policies, the early order effects will be much more visible and traceable than the later-order events, so that citizens will pay more attention to early order effects than later-order ones. General benefits or costs fall uniformly on members of society and may be less perceptible, while group costs or benefits (including geographic costs and benefits) affect only specific groups, and are more likely to be noticed by those groups. The proximity of the citizen to others closely affected by a cost of benefit affects perceptibility. If the citizen interacts with others affected, either through an interest group or geographical group, they will be more likely to notice it. Finally, an instigator can have a major impact on perceptibility. This person can help reveal citizens’ stakes in outcomes. Ralph Nader was an instigator for consumer products.

Chapter 3: Policy Preferences and Congressional Elections
Once citizens have developed policy preferences, there are a number of ways they may incorporate this information into their congressional election voting decisions. Arnold suggests four decision rules for citizens: the party position rule, the candidate position rule, the party performance rule, and the incumbent performance rule. A citizen using the party position rule first chooses their favorite party, based on the parties’ positions, and then selects the candidate representing that party. For this, citizens only need to know where the party stands on issues. A citizen using the candidate position rule chooses between candidates by comparing their positions on the issues. To do this, a citizen must know at least some of the candidate’s positions, or at least know that they don’t like the other candidate’s positions. A citizen using the party performance rule first decides whether the party in power deserves to be rewarded or punished for the effects it has produced and then selects the candidate representing the favored party. To do this, the person must have some idea of whether conditions in society are improving or deteriorating, and must know which party controls the government. (If there is divided control, this is usually considered to be the president’s party.) A citizen using the incumbent performance rule decides whether the incumbent legislator deserves to be rewarded or punished for his connection with various pleasing or displeasing effects. To do this, the effects must be traceable – i.e. the citizens must be able to plausibly trace an observed effect back to a government action (law) and then back to their own representatives individual contribution (roll-call votes, committee activity). This is easier for early order effects. Though these rules may seem to take a lot of effort, it is important to note that citizens are constantly receiving and processing political information, so all these calculations don’t need to be made during campaign season.

Chapter 4: Electoral Calculations and Legislators’ Decisions
Legislators must estimate the impact of their decisions on votes on future elections at home, and make decisions about what to do. The book assumes that the quest for reelection is the legislator’s dominant goal – when choosing between two alternatives, he’ll choose the alternative that most contributes to his chances for reelection. Since the legislator has little control over the party positions, he will focus on his own policy positions, refusing to join unpopular coalitions. The legislator must consider the effect of his actions on both attentive and inattentive publics. Attentive publics are citizens that are aware of specific issues on the agenda, know the alternatives, and have preferences about what Congress should do. Inattentive publics are those who don’t have firm policy preferences about an issue. In this case, the Congressman must guess what the potential preferences of these publics would be if they were made aware of the issue, and what the likelihood is that an instigator will exist to make them aware. They might ask themselves how a particular vote might be used against them by an opponent in their next electoral race.

Legislators are particularly concerned with policies that will produce large, direct, early-order costs on constituents, because effects can easily be traced back to their roll-call votes. They will be more likely to vote for policies with perceptible benefits for their constituents – particularly geographic benefits. They also must consider how their policy positions will sound to constituents. If the intended effects of a policy are popular, even if the proposed means may not work, citizens may see a vote against the policy as a lack of support for the ends. Citizens are also less likely to support policies when they don’t understand the relationship between the proposed instruments and the intended effects. For example, efficient cap-and-trade policies have less citizen support than strict regulation.

Chapter 5: Strategies for Coalition Leaders
When a particular coalition leader wants to build support for a bill, there are three primary strategies that she can use: persuasion, procedural, and modification. In general, coalition leaders would like to use these strategies to get the largest coalition possible, since it will better able to survive over time, however, they must trade-off this benefit with the costs of modifying policies to bring in more supporters.

The strategy for persuasion involves influencing the preferences of legislators, attentive publics, and inattentive publics so that they support the proposal. This can be done by mounting a campaign to shift mass opinion, convincing people it’s a problem government should tackle (i.e. tie it to security, economic growth or define it as a public good), convincing legislators the policy instruments will work to produce the intended effects, and altering the perception of costs and benefits (by mobilizing those who get disproportionate benefit, for example). Under normal circumstances, the persuasion strategy is the best, because it produces long-term support and doesn’t require that the policy be modified. However, it is difficult and time-consuming, and it may be impossible to convince people that they should favor policies that would impose large costs on them in the near term. Presidents and other visible figures are the most successful with this method, since they are in a good position to influence the opinions of the public.

Procedural strategies attempt to influence the legislators’ political calculations by using legislative rules and procedures. The aim is to decrease the ability of an instigator to rouse inattentive publics or of a challenger to make a campaign issue out of a particular roll-call vote. The rules are used to strengthen or break the traceability chain for policy effects. Traceability should be broken if you want to impose large, direct or early order costs, or strengthened to deliver large, early-order benefits. Traceability can be broken by delegating responsibility for unpleasant decisions to the president or others (i.e. Congress passes across the board budget cuts and lets the president decide how to allocate cuts across problems). It can also be done by working behind closed doors or using unrecorded votes. Traceability is also broken by passing omnibus bills (bills with one large, complicated package) under closed or restrictive rules (i.e. the bill is an all-or-nothing vote). However, this strategy could be used equally well by opponents, and it really depends whether agreement can be reached in rules committees, party leadership, and other groups within Congress.

Strategies of modification involve altering the various components of a policy, ranging from the policy instrument to the incidence of costs and benefits. The aim is to most a policy so that it conforms better with legislators’ and citizens’ preferences and potential preferences. This can be done by enacting incremental rather than comprehensive reforms. However, this can backfire by removing the political pressure for solving the broader problem. (For example, medicare alleviated the most serious problem in financing health care, but also eliminated the most potent argument for national health insurance.) Also, sometimes incremental reforms do not deliver sufficient benefits to make them worth the trouble. (For example, eliminating individual tax loopholes doesn’t generate much revenue, but each has passionate defenders, therefore comprehensive tax reform is likely easier than incremental tax reform.) Another strategy is to disperse costs widely to minimize intensity of the opposition, or to offset group or geographic costs by adding benefits targeted to these same groups. Similarly, geographic benefits can be added to attract additional supporters. Modification almost always happens to some extent in the evolution of a policy.

Chapter 6: Policy Decisions
This chapter looks at why Congress sometimes approves proposals that serve organized interest and sometimes approve those that serve a wider public, and why it sometimes seems to favor geographic benefits, but other times focuses on general group benefits.

Congress often serves particular interest groups because they are attentive to what’s happening in Washington, communicate a precise policy message to legislators, and possess considerable information about what legislators are doing to advance their causes. They also have the ability to reward or punish legislators based on their actions. Legislators are particularly likely to serve the interest or organized groups (attentive publics) if the issue is important to those groups, but not potentially salient to substantial numbers of inattentive citizens. They can do this by introducing amendments, demanding roll-call votes, and using procedures that allow interest groups to hold legislators accountable for their actions. Legislators are particularly likely to serve inattentive publics if the issue is salient or potentially salient to substantial numbers of inattentive citizens, which is usually the case if there are large, concentrated, early-order costs. Inattentive publics are served when leaders in Congress use procedures to create a connection between legislators individual actions and the policy effects (i.e. the costs imposed on the public). In either case, opponents can reverse these methods by meeting behind closed doors, drafting omnibus bills, and reporting to the floor under restrictive rules.

Congress is often dominated by geographic concerns because they are elected from geographic districts and have a natural concern with how specific programs affect their constituents. Obtaining benefits for their districts provides them with free publicity, which is valuable for reelection. Legislators are particularly likely to make decisions based on geographic considerations when their votes are public (traceable), and programs provide copious geographic benefits but only meager group or general benefits or when they’re asked to make explicit choices about geographical allocation of costs and benefits (for example, closing military bases). The strongest coalitions tend to be those in support of programs that deliver large and regular funds to the same citizens year after year. Geographical considerations are less important when there are abundant group and general benefits (such as in medical research, the national park program, and defense expenditures). However, legislators are still likely to fight for the locations of these things unless questions of allocation are kept off the floor.

Legislators are forced to serve the diffuse or general interest only if the general costs or benefits of the program are salient or potentially salient to substantial numbers of citizens, and if leaders employ procedures that encourage traceability for general effects rather than group or geographic effects. This can also be done when coalition leaders place organized groups in direct conflict with one another.

Chapter 7: Economic Policy
There is an important distinction between explicit economic policy and derivative economic policy. Explicit economic policy is a policy that is proposed to solve a specific macroeconomic problem (fiscal policy, wage and price controls, investment tax credits, etc.) The focus is on general costs and benefits rather than group costs and benefits. Derivative economic policy is proposed to ameliorate some other condition, although it also has macroeconomic effects (expenditure programs, tax modifications for non-economic goals, etc.). The focus is on group costs/benefits rather than general costs/benefits. This can be seen in recent history. From 1846 to 1961, Congress maintained a balanced budget. In the 1960’s, Kennedy (following Keynesian Theory) suggested increasing the deficit as explicit economic policy. During this time, congress voted on parts of the budget – tax reductions, spending increases – but not the budget as a whole; this allowed them to avoid voting in favor of deficits. In the 1970s, Congress increased the president’s proposed expenditures and decreased recommended revenues. However, the theory that deficits would improve the economy did not turn out to be correct in this case.

Chapter 8: Tax Policy
Some wonder, how is it possible for legislators to sometimes increase taxes, when this seems like it would be a very unpopular activity. The original creation of the income tax occurred during the war and was on very small proportion of public. The tax gradually expanded the number of people involved, and inflation caused more people to move into higher tax brackets. In general, tax increases require working behind closed doors, ensuring difficult votes can’t be tracked back to individual legislators. It is also beneficial to group together many cuts so that organized groups aren’t targeted one at a time. Working ‘in the sunshine’ makes tax cuts difficult, because legislators tend to vote to keep or increase tax breaks for particular groups when being closely monitored. Work done in public benefits interest groups who can monitor the procedures more closely than the general, inattentive public.

Chapter 9: Energy Policy
In energy policy legislators sometimes pass regulations favoring producers, and other times pass regulation favoring consumers. In general, legislators focus on producer needs when it isn’t visible to the consumers (general public). For example, consumers could have had lower prices with deregulation early on, but consumers did not notice the missed opportunity. Price controls were implemented for oil and natural gas, through an unanticipated result of a law. Though the price controls were inadvertent, they were very difficult to get rid of, since their removal would result in near term, large increases in costs to consumers (even though the long term benefits would be high). Deregulation that would cause higher prices for consumers had to be done gradually and behind closed doors to pass

Chapter 10: Citizens Control of Government
Given the logic presented in this book, it is important to understand what effect citizen decision-making has on legislators. If citizens use the party performance rule or party position rule, then when there is a conflict between an individual legislator and their party, they will aim to make themselves look better personally, rather than have a small marginal effect on improving party performance, since they can’t do much to affect these citizens votes either way. If citizens use the incumbent performance rule or candidate position rule then legislators will try to avoid voting on issues that will be unpopular and can be traced back to their actions. However, which citizens the legislator is attentive to varies – when voting on specific issues, hemay be more attentive to interest groups, so citizens may suffer (or not get benefits they could get); but legislators do consider potential preferences when policies may have a large effect on citizens. In addition to looking at roll-call votes to understand what legislators do, it’s important to consider what issues come up for a vote to start with. It is possible that interest groups and consideration of potential preferences has an effect on which issues make it on the agenda – things that would be controversial or unpopular to the public may not be considered in the first place.

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