Making Washington Work: Legislative Entrepreneurship and the Personal Vote from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression

By Charles Finocchiaro and Scott A. MacKenzie

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled  “Making Washington Work: Legislative Entrepreneurship and the Personal Vote from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression”.

The modern Congress is often characterized as an institution comprised of legislators motivated primarily by the desire to be reelected.  Much scholarship documents the ways in which senators and representatives cultivate a “personal vote”— relationships with constituents based on accessibility and trust rather than partisan or ideological affinity—in pursuit of this goal.  These tools range from the franking privilege, which is used to advertise their names and services, to plum committee assignments that allow them to build reputations for attending to constituents’ interests.  Another tool in the congressional arsenal is bill sponsorship, which unlike roll-call votes, is unencumbered by limits on floor time, committee access, etc.

Making Washington Work: Legislative Entrepreneurship and the Personal Vote from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression

While research on the modern Congress has a great deal to say about the incentives that drive the institution both internally and with respect to the broader electoral and political landscape, much of what we know is constrained by the relative stability of several factors that give rise to the electoral connection.  For example, the candidate-centered electoral politics of the post-World War II era offers little variation in the electoral rules governing elections, with nearly all members of Congress elected via direct primaries and general election contests that use official ballots that voters cast in secret.

In this article, we leverage the variation in electoral rules and other contextual factors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to explore bill introduction patterns in the pre-modern U.S. House of Representatives.  Focusing on bill introductions in the pre-modern House is particularly useful because of the extent to which private claims that today are referred to legislative staff and the bureaucracy spilled onto the legislative agenda.  In addition to addressing pressing national challenges, bill introductions were used to resolve the individual concerns of Civil War pensioners and others.  Thus, bill introductions in the pre-modern House offer a more complete picture of members’ time and resource allocation.

Our analysis employs original data on more than 417,000 House bills introduced from 1881 to 1931 and illuminates the various factors driving bill sponsorship in this era.  Much like their modern counterparts, members of the pre-modern House with prominent positions of institutional power and greater political experience introduce more policy-oriented bills dealing with salient national issues. Across a range of issue areas, the characteristics of members’ constituencies also influence the number and type of bills they introduce.

Of primary interest to us, however, is the finding that two major reforms to the electoral system—the Australian (secret) ballot and the nominating primary—are crucial in explaining the uptick in private bills serving individual constituents and public works legislation targeting local constituencies.  We believe that these findings shed light on the origins of many behavioral hallmarks of the modern Congress and address debates over its institutional development and performance.  In particular, they highlight the importance of these two reforms in shaping the legislative orientation of Congress, and with it, the nature of contemporary representation.

About the Authors: Charles Finocchiaro is an Associate Professor in the Carl Albert Center and the Department of Political Science at University of Oklahoma, and Scott A. MacKenzie is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of California, Davis. Their article “Making Washington Work: Legislative Entrepreneurship and the Personal Vote from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The Editor of the AJPS is at Michigan State University and the Editorial Office is supported by
the Michigan State University Department of Political Science and the School of Social Sciences.

  Michigan State University 
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