Ohio’s Issue 3 Could Influence Federal Decriminalization Efforts

[An earlier version of this blog post was published by The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.  See here.  Thanks to John Sides for his support.]

Last Tuesday, voters in Ohio rejected a constitutional amendment that would have legalized both recreational and medical marijuana usage. Naturally, folks are wondering about the implications of Issue 3’s failure for similar measures in other states.

But there’s a potentially larger question. Could the defeat of Ohio’s Issue 3 influence marijuana policy at the federal level—for instance, efforts to eliminate federal felony charges for non-medical marijuana, or to influence related questions like DEA funding, drug sentencing guidelines, and so on.

It certainly could.

In 2011, Dan SmithJosh Huder, and I published an article  in American Politics Research that explored whether the passage or failure of statewide ballot measures affects how members of Congress vote. In other words, do state ballot measures influence policy outcomes at the federal level?

Our theory was that that when a statewide ballot measure either passes or fails, it tells lawmakers precisely what their constituents want, down to the district level. That helps reduce “policy shirking,” in which lawmakers vote contrary to the wishes of their constituents.

Lawmakers care about one thing above all else: winning reelection. Reelection-minded lawmakers try their best to behave as pure delegates–and to faithfully represent their constituents’ views.

But a number of studies have shown that lawmakers can be poor judges of their constituents’ preferences on specific issues. While they may know how liberal or conservative their district is, lawmakers have incomplete knowledge of voters’ beliefs on more nuanced issues, like marijuana legalization.

And so lawmakers search for reliable information about what their constituents want. Public opinion polls are an obvious resource. But polls are not always accurate. For example, a handful of polls–including one at my alma matter, Bowling Green State University–suggested that Ohio’s decriminalization measure would pass. In fact, a Kent State University poll suggested Issue 3 would pass with a whopping 58 percent support. What’s more, people who respond to polls are not always the same people who turn out to vote, which is one reason polls are inaccurate. But for obvious reasons, lawmakers are especially interested in voters.

And so we theorized that a ballot measure’s results offer the best possible information lawmakers can use to figure out what their constituents want. It offers information that’s specifically about a single issue, as opposed to a lawmaker’s more general intuition about how liberal or conservative constituents are. And it reveals what voters want, not just what poll respondents want.

[A number of readers of the Washington Post article have pointed out that some voters opposed Issue 3 because of concerns about monopolies.  I think it’s a fair point, but here’s my response.  First, I still think Ohio’s congressional delegation will look at Issue 3’s defeat as a piece of information when trying to decide what their constituents want.  I maintain that the vast majority of the votes for or against Issue 3 were ultimately about marijuana legalization.  Indeed, it seems unlikely to me that 36% of Ohioans voted IN FAVOR of monopolies.  Second, if you’re a lawmaker trying to decide where your constituents stand, it’s telling that pro-legalization voters were persuaded to vote against that issue because of something unrelated to legalization.  I think that gives lawmakers some good information how much pro-legalization constitutions care about the issue.]

Here’s how we tested our hypothesis. We took the results of statewide ballot measures on three issues–regulating campaign finance, raising the minimum wage, and banning same­-sex marriage– and compared that to how lawmakers voted on those issues.

Our hypothesis appears to be partly correct. Members of the House do vote in ways that appear to be influenced by how their constituents voted on ballot measures.

But that’s not true for Senators—which makes sense. Senators are more insulated from public opinion than representatives, since they generally have a larger constituency and only have to go up for election every six years.

We also report in this paper that representatives are most likely to respond to what they learn about their median constituent–the constituent a lawmaker needs to win over in order to get at least half the vote.

In other words, the statistical results show that it matters little if the ballot measure passed with 70 percent of the vote or 51 percent of the vote. Both show a member of Congress where at least half of his or her constituency stands.

So how could the defeat of Ohio’s Issue 3 hurt federal efforts to decriminalize non-medical marijuana use and so forth? First, it could influence Ohio’s 16 representatives. Second, it could affect how lawmakers in similar Midwestern states vote–although that’s a theory we do not test that in the paper.

Ohio’s decision on marijuana, in other words, has national implications.

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When Does Congress Repeal Legislation? A New Dataset of Major Repeals from 1877-2012 Provides Answers

Our understanding of Congress—and how we evaluate the institution—is shaped by the laws it enacts.  Yet Congress often performs the opposite of law creation: repealing landmark laws.  But despite the regularity and importance of repeals, we know very little about when and why repeals happen.  One reason for the lack of research on repeals is methodological.  Unlike lists of bills voted on or laws enacted, no government publication catalogues these important outcomes.

In new research, Nate Birkhead and I describe a new dataset of major congressional repeals enacted from 1877-2012.  For this project we catalogued repeals by culling historical newspapers, historical reference volumes, and period-specific texts.

Needless to say, the importance of this research was elevated in 2011 when Republicans took control of the House and promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”).  Like the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the repeals in our dataset represent some of the most contentious, salient, and long-running disputes over national policy.  Examples include the repeal of multiple New Deal statutes following the 1994 Republican Revolution, dramatic statutory changes in monetary policy in the 1890s, the repeal numerous tax statutes in the 1920s, and the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts in the 1940s.

Beside the fact that they are understudied, repeals provide congressional researchers a unique perspective on Congress.  Analytically, repeals allow us to compare lawmaking in two time periods: the enacting Congress and the repealing Congress.  And theoretically, one of our central claims is that the causes of repeal differ from those which explain law creation.  In particular, we believe that although shifts in Congress’s membership—known as changing “pivot points” in the literature—are a key cause of law creation, we believe the ebb and flow of party strength is critical to explaining law reversal.

Figure 1 (below) presents our data.  We can see that repeals do not occur uniformly over time: there are clear “spikes” in repealing activity.  In brief, the spikes are generally consistent with our theoretical claims.  We see increases in repealing activity when (1) the majority party is ideologically unified and (2) the majority came into power after a long stint in the minority.


But because there are other factors that can cause repeal, we developed a statistical model that predicts when repeals happen. Our specific model is known as a “survival analysis.”  Survival analysis is frequently used in epidemiology to understand how long patients survive some illness and the effects of surgical procedures and drugs.  In the context of our study, the model predicts how long laws “survive” before being repealed.

Our model shows that some of the “usual suspects” explain when and why repeals happen.  When the enacting coalition is voted out of office over time, and the distribution of preferences shift to the left or right, repeals are more likely to occur.  We also find that the larger the distance between the House and Senate, the less likely repeals are to happen.  Both findings fit well-established conclusions in the congressional literature regarding the creation of laws.  We also find that repeals are more likely in two policy domains.  First, tax laws are among the most likely to be repealed.  And second, laws created for war purposes are often repealed soon after the war ends.

Although these findings help us understand when repeals are most likely, we find that the partisan factors in our model have the greatest overall effects on the probability of repeal.  Like the descriptive results in Figure 1, the model reveals that repeals are most likely when the majority party is ideologically unified and the majority came into power after a long stint in the minority.  We also find that these two effects are not just additive, but instead have an interactive effect.  Figure 2 presents this interaction effect.  On the x-axis is the measure of how long the majority was in the minority prior to winning control of the House and Senate (coded as the number of chambers in the minority over the past 10 years).  The y-axis represents a higher or lower likelihood of repeal.  And the dots represent the estimated effect of the majority party’s ideological cohesion.


Figure 2 (above) shows that when the majority party was in the minority for an extended time, and members of the majority are ideologically unified, there is an increased likelihood of repeal beyond what is predicted by these factors individually.  As an example, when Republicans regained control of the House and Senate in 1995 after being the so-called “permanent minority,” a standard deviation increase in their ideological cohesion is predicted by the model to have increased the probability of repeal by 208 percent.  And indeed, the Republican controlled congresses from 1995-2000 enacted a number of major repeals (most notably, the repeal of Glass-Steagall).  At the other extreme, Figure 2 shows that when the majority has been in complete control of both chambers over the past decade (coded as zero chambers in the figure), there is no effect of greater ideological cohesion.

While there are various ways in which statutes can be “undone” (invalidation by the Supreme Court, defunding, sunsets, etc.), Congress regularly voids its own statutes via repeals.  Given our findings about the importance of political parties to when and why repeals happen, in particular the ebb and flow of party strength, we characterize repeals as long-term contests between two great “teams” over national policy.  Simply put, when Congress enacts a new law, it is hardly the end of the game.  Anyone observing Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act will recognize this feature.  However, our results suggest that these kinds of partisan contests are an enduring feature of our politics.

A future post will discuss the implications of our research for Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”).


Another version of this post was publisher on the London School of Economics USAPP blog.  See here.


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Gun Control Remains Unlikely in this Congress

A post in July explained why gun control is unlikely to happen in this Congress.  It was prompted by the shootings Tennessee and Louisiana.  A shortened version of that post appeared in a letter to the editor in South Carolina’s The State newspaper.  What follows is a copy of that post with a few updates.


It happened after the Aurora shooting.  It happened after Sandy Hook.  It happened after the shooting in Charleston.  It happened after the killing of five service members in Tennessee and two moviegoers in Louisiana.  And it’s happening again after a shooter killed ten at a community college in Oregon.

I’m referring, of course, to calls for stricter gun laws.  According to the non-partisan Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans favor policies such as background checks, mental health restrictions, the creation of a federal gun database, and bans on assault-style weapons.

But despite calls for stricter gun laws, equally predictable is the fact that gun control isn’t likely to happen.  It’s something of a paradox: Congress repeatedly fails to pass gun control despite mass support.

It is also the case that gun control is unlikely despite Obama’s urgent plea for action in yesterday’s press conference.  A number of authors (citing research in political science) dismiss what has been pejoratively labeled the “Green Lantern Theory” of the presidency (that the president can simply “will” or “compel” Congress to pass legislation).  According to some research, the opposite is true: If the president comes out in support of legislation, the opposition party digs in their heels making passage less likely.

Political scientists have a number of explanations for why stricter gun laws are so difficult to pass even though surveys show support for specific gun measures.

Institutional Reasons

At the macro level, there are big structural impediments to gun control in the current Congress.  One is obvious to even casual political observers while the other is not so obvious.

First, the obvious reason.  With Republicans controlling the House and Senate in the 114th Congress, stricter gun laws are unlikely to be enacted into law.  Consider the fact that no gun control measures were passed in the previous 113th Congress after the Sandy Hook shooting.  In the Democratic-controlled Senate, just four Republicans voted for the bipartisan amendment to require background checks on all commercial gun sales.  It was the closest gun control came in that session of Congress.  In the Republican-controlled House, while a gun measure did pass, the amendment actually weakened gun control.

A less obvious structural impediment to gun control is the Senate’s bias against large states.  Among the Constitution’s many compromises, the decision to give states equal representation in the Senate (irrespective of population) was among the most significant.

Why does this matter for gun control?  In establishing a “malapportioned” Senate, the Framers created an undemocratic body that gives disproportionate power to small, rural states.  While it’s a simple feature, it has enormous implications.  For example, research by political scientists Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer shows that small states receive more federal funding on a per capita basis than the large states.  In the context of gun control, senators from rural states (even Democratic ones) are less likely to support gun control.

Consider Montana.  With just over 1 million residents, Montana is about 1/40th the size of California.  And because Montana and California have just two senators, Montana’s rural population is over represented in the Senate by the inverse proportion.  But despite these differences, both states had two Democratic senators in the 113th Congress.  Montana’s Max Baucus and Jon Tester cast just four liberal votes on gun measures in the 113th Congress (on seven gun amendments, for a possible total of fourteen votes).  California’s Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer cast fourteen total liberal votes on gun measures.

So, even if Democrats controlled both chambers, there would still be a major structural impediment to stricter gun laws given the Senate’s bias in favor of rural interests.  And I didn’t even mention the fact that in the modern Senate, almost everything requires 60 votes!

Individual Reasons

At the micro level, passing gun control requires the support of individual lawmakers.  Understanding why lawmakers support (and oppose) gun control is a key piece of the puzzle.

Let’s begin with the most contentious topic: the NRA.  Does the NRA cause lawmakers to vote against gun control?  Some research says yes.  Studies by Lipford (here) and Langbein and Lotwis (here) show that campaign contributions from the NRA indeed affect how members of Congress vote on gun legislation even after controlling for a lawmaker’s party affiliation and ideology.

However, there’s an important caveat.  While the effect of the NRA is “significant” in these studies, the magnitude of this effect pales in comparison to the effects of ideology and party affiliation.  Simply put, the NRA is unlikely to be the deciding factor in whether gun control passes or fails.  Indeed, the NRA typically gives campaign contributions to conservative Republicans who already oppose gun control.  Of course, this caveat needs a caveat: this does not dismiss the NRA’s importance.  Rather, research suggests that the NRA’s greatest influences are electoral—helping to defeat lawmakers—or in the policymaking process—through it’s informational powers.

Another effect on how individual lawmakers vote is public opinion.  In general, researchers have established a clear connection between what citizens want and how elected leaders vote.  In the context of gun control, however, this general pattern raises major questions.  As noted earlier, there is something of a “paradox” between mass support for stricter gun laws and the fact that individual lawmakers are unlikely to pass gun control.

A popular explanation for these contradictory conclusions is that proponents of stricter gun laws, while more numerous, are simply less enthusiastic about the issue than opponents of gun control.  For example, the Pew Research Center survey cited earlier asked respondents whether they would vote for a candidate who disagreed with their position on gun control.  According to the results:

Among those who prioritize gun rights, 41% say they would not vote for a candidate with whom they disagreed on gun policy, even if they agreed with the candidate on most other issues. Fewer gun control supporters (31%) say gun policy is a make-or-break voting issue for them.

Simply put, from a lawmaker’s perspective, responsiveness to one’s constituents is not a function of what surveys reveal, but who is likely to write letters, give campaign donations, and vote (all of which are more likely among opponents of gun control according to the Pew Survey).  In addition to this enthusiasm gap, while Americans support specific gun control policies—like background checks—people are generally lukewarm to the issue of “gun control” (see here and here).

As a whole, yes, gun control has widespread support when you ask Americans on a survey about specific policies like background checks, mental health restrictions, and bans on assault weapons.  And it may seem like the public outcry in the wake of recent shootings in South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana and now Oregon will compel Congress to act.  Unfortunately for proponents of stricter gun laws, however, there are major institutional and individual-level obstacles in the way.

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The Fallout: Does Boehner’s Absence Change Anything?

Speaker John Boehner finally succumbed to the three-year pressure campaign waged by House conservatives. As politically weak as Boehner was in his conference, he was never going to be forced out of his position. He’s powerful enough that he could leave on his own terms. On Friday, he did just that. The question now is: where does that leave a divided and unwieldy House majority?

Over the next month this potentially untethers Speaker Boehner from the hard right. A short-term continuing resolution (CR) will pass next week and potentially set the stage to pass the Highway Trust Fund bill and other priorities currently stuck in limbo. In short, Boehner is free to do what he has done for the last five years: enable Republicans to get out of their own way on what should be easily passed bills. Boehner has deftly moved his conference around problems that truly threatened the Republican brand and fundraising from the Doc-Fix, the Violence Against Women Act, trade promotion authority, to the debt ceiling and his handling of the shutdown in 2013. In his last month, that will likely remain his focus. This time, however, he likely won’t feel tied to demands from the right that could endanger these deals or the party.

Once he leaves Republican politics become trickier. Conservatives waged this rebellion, finally succeeding after nearly three years. They will want a successor with proven conservatism or at least gain assurances their demands will gain more traction in the legislative process. In this scenario more distant obstacles may become even more difficult. Critical legislation such as the December continuing resolution and the debt ceiling may become the battlefield in which newly emboldened conservatives will challenge the rest of the party to follow their lead. The problem is the structural features of government that have prevented conservative wins in several showdowns remain in place. The President will still veto any legislation that defunds Planned Parenthood, undermines Obamacare, undermines non-defense programs in unacceptable ways. Senate Democrata will still filibuster spending bills. 

In other words, this potentially makes an already bad situation worse in the time remaining in the 114th Congress. It’s unclear who will succeed Boehner, how they’ll manage the factions within the conference, and if they can chart a path toward victory in 2016. However, removing Boehner won’t change the broader dynamics causing dysfunction. It arguably makes them worse.

Conservatives won the battle they’ve been fighting for years. However, it’s unclear they’ve furthered their cause in the war.

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How John Boehner would Lose his Job: He Chooses to.

This is the week Speaker John Boehner will supposedly face a vote to remove him from the speakership on the House floor. Don’t buy the hype. Amid multiple headlines claiming Speaker Boehner is facing his most strident rebellion yet, it’s important to keep the procedural context in mind. The only way John Boehner will vacate the speakership is if he decides he no longer wants the job.

Some have claimed they can force a vote to remove Boehner through a “privileged resolution.” Privileged status doesn’t guarantee a vote. Privileged status means a member can interrupt regular business to bring up a bill up. But it does not guarantee that it will be considered. For example, several current bills with privileged status remain in limbo. Agriculture, Financial Services, DHS, Interior and Environment, State and Foreign Ops appropriations bills are all privileged but have yet to receive a vote. Until the Speaker officially recognizes a member on the floor, even a privileged bill will fail to be debated, let alone receive a vote. Greg Koger has a nice summary of how that kind of conversation would unfold on the floor. That is a key point. The Speaker must recognize a member for the explicit purpose of bringing forward a vote to fire him. It’s not likely.

Another consideration is that the current resolution is not written in privileged form. In other words, the only way the current resolution, sponsored by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), would come to the floor is through the Rules Committee – which is handpicked by the Speaker – or by the suspension of the rules – which would require 2/3rds majority to vacate the chair. Neither of those routes are particularly likely either.

This is a pressure campaign. The right-wing of the caucus is attempting to place enough pressure on Boehner that he is forced to step aside so [insert unknown and unclear successor here] can lead a divided and unwieldy majority. It should be noted, it is a pressure campaign the right has waged, on and off, for nearly four years. It’s possible Boehner folds to the pressure. Many lieutenants are reportedly jockeying for jobs, anticipating a potential chance to move up the leadership ladder. But the chances Boehner is fired prior to the shutdown are practically zero, and the likelihood he’s removed at all are slim.

The Speaker may be politically weak but procedurally he’s very strong. And for all intents and purposes, Boehner retains the power to determine his own retirement.

Posted in Legislative Politics, Legislative Procedure | 2 Comments

Conservatives’ Playcalling: Hail Mary… Repeat.

(Hail Mary, noun, 2. (FOOTBALL) a very long, typically unsuccessful pass made in a desperate attempt to score late in the game.)

It appears Speaker Boehner may have another rebellion on his hands. Will this be the toughest challenge to his speakership? Maybe. That is if you don’t include the last two speakership elections, multiple Hastert violations, DHS funding, or any of the other events that sparked overthrow rumors the last four years.

Speaker Boehner’s demise has received at least as much press as many former speakers who eventually resigned their positions. But this is different from those historical examples. The difference between speakers Reed, Henderson, Gingrich, et al., is this rebellion will almost certainly not succeed in the 114th Congress. Conservatives do not have the votes to vacate the chair. They’d need Democratic votes on multiple series to accomplish that. And short of nominating a member even more moderate than Boehner, the minority has little to gain from helping the right overthrow their leader.

However, this rebellion is notable in that it is part of a string of more aggressive tactics emerging from the conservative wing of the party. Just before recess Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) tried to circumvent Majority Leader McConnell to force votes on amendments to kill the Iran deal and Obamacare. Their procedural gambits ended when neither could produce enough supporters for a  roll call vote (a very low threshold of only 11 in the Senate). Around the same time Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) offered a resolution to declare the speakership vacant, attempting to force a family discussion about the direction of the party. Changing Senate process or unseating a sitting Speaker can only be described as Hail Marys, plays with such low odds they are only called in moments of desperation.

The irony is that conservatives are winning on several issues. Leadership has gone out of their way to accommodate conservatives on a variety of votes. CQ recently released a study (gated) showing that the most frequent party defectors do not come from the House Freedom Caucus or the Tea Party. Moderate Republicans are the ones most likely to vote against the party’s position. To put it differently, when scheduling floor votes House leaders appease the right’s requests more often.

This makes these high profile attempts puzzling. They are Hail Mary throws to the end zone. And just like in football, 99% of these plays will end in failure. The question is: at what cost?

Unlike football, there is a lot of time left on the political clock. The game will go on. For conservatives, this likely won’t end well. In the process of flexing their muscles they may turn the ball over to Democrats, giving them leverage on many issues from highway funding to budgetary issues. Boehner will have to move forward on a continuing resolution (CR) that does not include an amendment for Planned Parenthood. Once that is passed, a highway bill, omnibus spending package, and other issues remain.

Hail Marys are entertaining plays but they fail more often than not. And unless conservatives temper their play calling, they risk losing a lot of policy games.

Posted in College Football, Legislative Politics | 2 Comments

Why the House is to blame for the Senate’s polarization

In the American political lexicon, the Senate is said to possess “coolness” and “wisdom.”  Words like “decorum,” “comity,” and “respect” are frequently used to describe the institution as well.  In recent years, however, cracks have appeared in the Senate’s high-minded veneer.  For example, in July of this year, Ted Cruz was admonished by his own party for calling Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a “liar” on the Senate floor.  A number of political observers have remarked that senators seem to be behaving more like the “uncivilized masses” in the House of Representatives.

Academic studies confirm that the Senate has become a more extreme place over the past two decades.  By just about any measure, the Senate has polarized ideologically at about the same rate as the House.  According to political scientist Keith Poole, both chambers are more polarized than at any period since the late 1800s.  What’s puzzling about the synchronous polarization of the House and Senate is the fact that the chambers should respond the polarizing pressures very differently.  With longer terms and more diverse constituencies, senators should move toward the extremes at a much slower rate than the representatives.

All this begs the question: Why do we see similar patterns of polarization in both chambers?

Although the House and Senate are quite different from electoral and institutional standpoints, they share one important thing in common: the same members.  In the current Senate, about half of senators first served in the House.  Examples include staunch liberals like Barbara Boxer and Dick Durbin as well as staunch conservatives like James Inhofe and David Vitter.  Notably, this seems to be a modern development.  In the 80th Congress (1947-1949), just 19 percent of senators came from the House.

Can the increase in the volume of shared members explain the Senate’s polarization?

In a forthcoming paper, I argue that it can (see here and here).  In the paper I argue that lawmakers learn extreme partisan behaviors in the House and simply continue those learned routines after winning election to the Senate.  Although this theory has intuitive appeal and fits the timing of the Senate’s polarization, it is unconventional in the congressional literature.  Indeed, virtually all studies view polarization as a function of lawmakers’ rational or goal-seeking actions (designed to secure preferable policy outcomes or win re-election).  In contrast, my work theorizes that lawmakers’ roll-call behaviors are also the product of social-psychological processes.

I propose that there are two main ways this “partisan learning” happens.  First, political parties use their organizational powers to intentionally socialize junior members.  What junior members learn in this context is the utility of party loyalty and a norm valuing teamsmanship.  While uncommon in the contemporary congressional literature, research by Sinclair, Loomis, and Dodd make similar arguments.  Second, lawmakers learn partisan behaviors as a by-product of the House’s hyper-partisan environment.  Political scientists Arthur Lupia and Matt McCubbins summed it up best: “Legislators, like most people, learn by watching what others do and listening to what they say”.

I test the theory of partisan learning in a series of statistical models.  In simple terms, the models tell us why some senators are so extreme in their voting behavior and others are relatively moderate.  A key aspect of these models is that they account for the “usual” explanations of polarization (things like party identification and state characteristics).  More importantly, however, they account for possible selection effects caused by electoral dynamics (maybe extremists are more likely to run for the Senate?) as well as a senator’s ideological extremism before they won election to the House.

Ultimately, the results validate the theory that senators adopt partisan behaviors in the House and continue those behavioral patterns after winning election to the Senate.  Among results, I find that senators who came from the House display greater ideological extremism if they (a) served in the House within an extreme partisan cohort and (b) won election to the Senate after representing a partisan district.  In other words, ideological extremism is fostered when lawmakers are surrounded by extreme co-partisans as well as when they represent extreme constituents.

Figure 1 shows just how substantively important the two factors are for Democrats and Republicans.  In the figure, the causes of ideological extremism are broken down by era according to whether a senator served before Newt Gingrich was elected in 1978, during Gingrich’s time in the House, and after Gingrich resigned in 1999.  The blue “base” causes of a senator’s ideological extremism represent the “usual”.  Needless to say, factors like party identification and state characteristics have the biggest overall effects in both parties and in every time period.  At the same time, however, we can see that the effect of a senator’s House cohort (red bar) is quite large as well.  This effect is most visible on the Republican side in the post-Gingrich era, where the cohort effect accounts for roughly 35 percent of a senator’s ideological extremism.


It is important to note that my paper is not the only one that documents these patterns.  Sean Theriault and David Rohde were the first to report that the replacement of moderate senators by extremists from the House has been a major cause of the Senate’s polarization.  And Theriault followed up on that article with an excellent book on the same topic.  But like most landmark studies, their work raised additional questions.  Namely, neither project was able to isolate what–exactly–happens in the House that causes ideological extremism in the Senate.  In a review of Theriault’s book, political scientist Gerald C. Wright noted the following:

“More could be done to address the question of why these senators are so different. Theriault deals with the question indirectly in some rough quantitative controls for state characteristics, but he does not confront the question head on.”

In both projects, Theriault and Rohde refer to the House’s effect on Senate polarization as a consequence of a peculiar cohort of lawmakers they call the “Gingrich Senators”.  In simple terms, their work identifies Republican senators who came from the House after Gingrich’s election (from 1978-2010) as key to explaining the Senate’s polarization.  My results, by comparison, show that the underlying causes of this effect are not isolated to Newt Gingrich or the Republican Party but are, instead, part of a more broadly generalizable behavioral process.  In fact, some of the most partisan senators in the past decade (Jim DeMint, Pat Toomey, and David Vitter) entered in the House after Gingrich had resigned.

In the end, I prefer the term the “Housification” of the Senate.  It may seem like academic quibbling over vocabulary, but the distinction has important implications for conveying why the Senate has polarized as well as our theoretical understanding of legislative behavior.  In my view, one of the biggest takeaways from both projects is that legislative behavior is not just the product of rational, goal-seeking motivations.  Congressional behaviors–like ideological extremism–can be learned as well.


Note: Another version of this post was published on the London School of Economics and Political Science’s blog.

Posted in Empirical Theory, Legislative Politics, Legislative Theory, Polarization, Political Institutions, Political Parties | Leave a comment