Cardinals or Clerics? Congressional Committees and the Distribution of Pork

The forthcoming article “Cardinals or Clerics? Congressional Committees and the Distribution of Pork” by Christopher R. Berry and Anthony Fowler is summarized here:

Congressional scholars have long argued that important committee positions allow members of Congress to procure more pork. However, previous studies cover only one or a few committees and generally fail to distinguish the effects of committee membership from selection onto committees. While members of important committees are known to procure more pork, we previously had no way of knowing whether this difference arises because committee positions increase pork or because different kinds of members (from different kinds of constituencies) select onto certain committees. Figure 1 illustrates the point.

Figure 1

Figure 1


Here we show the earmarks procured by three groups of senators in the 110th and 111th Congresses. When we look within either Congress, we see that senators on Appropriations brought home more than twice as much earmark money as those not on the committee. However, we should not assume that membership on the committee caused the difference. Committee members may represent high-need constituencies, or the senators who otherwise procure many earmarks may be more likely to join Appropriations.

To illustrate the pitfalls of interpreting the cross-sectional differences, we plot earmarks for those senators who did not serve on Appropriations in the 110th but joined the committee for the 111th. Even before these senators joined Appropriations, they were procuring significantly more earmarks and at virtually the same level as members of Appropriations. There is strong selection onto committees but little apparent effect of the committee position.

In our paper, we go beyond this simple example and assemble decades of data on federal outlays and congressional committee and subcommittee assignments. To distinguish between selection and the effects of committees, we utilize a within-member design, comparing changes in pork for legislators who join or leave important committee positions to changes in pork for other legislators who do not change committee positions at the same time. In doing so, we account for the fact that members of certain committees may differ from non-members in their abilities, priorities, or the type of constituents they represent.

In general, our results confirm the impression from Figure 1: committee positions produce little additional federal funding for an individual legislator. Even a seat on the vaunted Appropriations Committees in the House or Senate produces no detectable change in pork. Moreover, a seat on an authorizing committee or an Appropriations subcommittee produces no additional spending even when focusing on programs within the domain of that committee or subcommittee.

The chairs and ranking minority members of the Appropriations subcommittees—the so called “cardinals” of Congress—are exceptions. These positions do generate significantly more funding for constituents but only from programs under their subcommittee’s jurisdiction. Our results paint a new picture of distributive politics and call for a reexamination of canonical theories. The cardinals are perhaps more important than previously thought, but in contrast to expectations, other members are merely clerics whose constituents receive no detectable benefit from their committee positions.

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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.