Consensus-Building Key to Effectiveness of Female Lawmakers

With so much talk of gridlock in Washington, scholars have begun to turn our focus toward “who gets things done” in Congress.  In our article, When are Women More Effective Lawmakers than Men?“,  we draw on the Legislative Effectiveness Scores created by Volden and Wiseman as part of their forthcoming book on effective lawmaking in the United States Congress.  The scores capture the share of lawmaking in the U.S. House attributable to each member based on his or her sponsored bills, weighted both by bill importance and by how far the bills progress toward enactment.

Clearly, being in the majority party, a committee chair, and more senior all matter in becoming an effective lawmaker.  But, controlling for all these factors, we find that women are more effective than men on average in Congress.  Digging deeper, we establish that such differences arise due to the consensus-building tendencies of women, as illustrated by more cosponsors on their bills and by their success in keeping legislation alive beyond the committee process.

Most notably, this consensus-building has helped women become more effective when in the minority party, where reaching out across party lines is crucial.  Indeed, consistently from the 1970s through today, women are about 33% more effective than their male counterparts in the minority party.  In the majority party, women used to be more effective in the 1970s and 1980s.  But, as Congress became more polarized, and building coalitions with minority-party members became less valued, women in the majority party have recently grown less effective than majority-party men.

Although there is a long way to go to reestablish Congress as a contemplative body that engages in consensual governance, some hope may be found in its most effective members, including many remarkable women lawmakers.  As more women enter Congress and gain seniority, we will look for them to start building norms of consensus within the subcommittees they chair, eventually when they chair committees, and perhaps finally for the Congress as a whole.

About the Authors: Craig Volden is a professor of public policy and politics, with appointments in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. His article, co-authored by Alan E. Wiseman of Vanderbilt University and Dana E. Wittmer of Colorado College, “When are Women More Effective Lawmakers than Men?“ appeared in the April 2013 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.