Over the past year, several American politicians have given highly visible legislative speeches. On June 25, 2013, Wendy Davis, a State Senator in Texas, spoke for 11 hours to block the passage of an anti-abortion bill. As a result, she quickly rose to national prominence and became the Democratic candidate in the 2014 Texas Governor’s race. In September 2013, US Senator Ted Cruz, a Tea Party Republican also from Texas, spoke for 21 hours to express his dislike for Obamacare and a bill to fund the federal government. His speech significantly raised his national profile, but also drew the ire of some high-ranking Republican colleagues who were seeking to avoid a government shutdown. Interestingly, both Davis and Cruz knew their efforts would be ineffectual and their speeches would have no impact on the eventual legislative outcomes.
These incidents are even more interesting when placed in comparative perspective. Under Texas State and US Senate rules, both Davis and Cruz had every right to take the floor and say what they wished. Contrast this with a recent debate in Germany. During the European Debt Crisis, the German parliament voted to provide significant financial resources to establish a mechanism to supply emergency loans to troubled Eurozone economies. The legislation led to substantial divisions within the two governing parties. However, the party leaders sought to silence all dissenting views from within their parties. They denied speaking time to their members of parliament who disagreed with the party line, a prerogative that the party-centered German system affords party leaders.
In a 2011 debate, though, the President of the German Bundestag took an unprecedented decision to allot floor time to two dissenters from the governing parties. Both MPs used the opportunity to criticize the euro policy of the German government. The party leaders reacted immediately. They unanimously criticized the President for allowing the rebels to deliver speeches without the prior consent of their parties. Even leaders of parties that supported the rebels’ position expressed their concern.
In the context of American politics, we often consider legislative speech to be the domain of individual legislators, but the German example illustrates that in other political systems party leaders organize debate. Moreover, conventional wisdom suggests that elected representatives deliver speeches as part of a larger policy debate in an attempt to persuade their peers of their policy positions. However, in none of the above examples did legislative speech have any effect on the outcome of policy.
In a recent article in the American Journal of Political Science (July 2012) and in our forthcoming book, “The Politics of Parliamentary Debate: Parties, Rebels, and Representation” (Cambridge University Press), we explain both why in some political systems (e.g. Germany) parties exert more influence over the positions voiced on the floor of parliament than in others (e.g. the US), and why legislative speech matters for politics if it is not a mechanism for persuasion or policy-making.
We argue that legislative speech is, first and foremost, a partisan act meant to stake out policy positions and communicate them to voters, rather than an individual act of deliberation and persuasion. Through legislative speech, legislators raise their profile (or that of their party) and demonstrate to voters that they are standing up for constituents’ views on the floor. While individual legislators may wish to express their personal political views on the floor of parliament, their parliamentary party may have strong incentives to keep their members “on message”, and perhaps keep them off the floor when they refuse to toe the party line. Our research demonstrates that the level of partisan constraints on legislative speech varies significantly with to the electoral incentives created by a political system. In the article, we provide evidence from Germany and the UK. In Germany, with electoral rules that emphasize the role of parties over individual candidates, parties exercise more control over legislative speech. In the UK, where electoral rules give individual candidates a more prominent role, there are fewer legislative and partisan constraints on individual legislators’ ability to take the floor and say what they wish.
About the authors: Sven-Oliver Proksch is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at McGill University in Montreal and Jonathan B. Slapin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston. Their article “Institutional Foundations of Legislative Speech” appeared in the July 2012 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.