Center for Effective Lawmaking

Working Paper Series

Legislators employ policy tools to ensure downstream actors comply with their policy goals. While existing scholarship has identified a multitude of tools that legislators can use to constrain downstream actors when drafting legislation, we currently lack a systematic way to measure their use. Given the extensive role that these actors play in the policymaking process, this limits our understanding of how Congress shapes our laws. This paper develops a new method to assess and measure variation in the content of legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Using this approach to code 13,770 bills that were introduced between 2005-2012, this paper introduces bill level policy content scores. These scores can be used to shed light on important questions related to institutions, elite behavior, and lawmaking. The scores show demonstrated utility through an application of the measure to examine two competing hypotheses about policymaking in committees

Congress enacted sweeping reforms of the foreign policymaking process in the 1970s. These legislative initiatives constituted a direct challenge to presidential powers, which had grown since U.S. involvement in World War II, culminating in the ‘imperial’ presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Since 1981, there has been a steady erosion of congressional powers to shape national security policies. This study examines the fate of congressional reforms enacted in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, asking: what became of these reform laws? How has congressional authority and accountability been weakened? Interviews with key policymakers inform the study and a bibliographic essay surveying recent research and academic literature provides grounding in extant scholarship. The study concludes with delineation of options for 2021 and beyond for policymakers seeking to restore the constitutional powers of Congress for greater engagement in advancing sustainable national foreign policy commitments.

Laurel Harbridge-Yong, Craig Volden and Alan E. Wiseman

Even in these politically polarized times, being a bipartisan lawmaker yields legislative payoffs. Drawing on data from the 93rd-114th Congresses (1973-2016), we explore whether attracting a larger proportion of cosponsors from the opposing party helps Senators and Representatives advance their legislative proposals. We find that such bipartisanship increases members’ legislative effectiveness overall, and especially helps in moving legislation through committee and on the floor. We show these patterns to be robust to both majority-party and minority-party lawmakers and across congressional eras. We also demonstrate the value of reciprocity, in that members of Congress who offer cosponsorships across party lines are more likely to also attract such bipartisan cosponsors to their own bills. Collectively, these results imply that engaging in bipartisan behaviors contributes to a virtuous cycle: those who cosponsor across party lines attract cross-party cosponsors to their own bills, which translates into greater legislative success for their agendas. 

Peter Bucchianeri, Craig Volden and Alan E. Wiseman

We develop State Legislative Effectiveness Scores for state legislators across 97 legislative chambers over recent decades based on the number of bills they sponsor, how far those bills move through the lawmaking process, and their substantive importance. We then offer three illustrations of the immense opportunities these scores provide for new scholarship on legislative behavior. First, we show that majority-party lawmaking influence is linked to ideological polarization and to electoral competition for chamber control. Second, we identify the varying lawmaking challenges faced by female legislators across different state legislative chambers. And third, we show how institutional design choices – from legislative rules to the scope of professionalization – affect the distribution of policymaking powers across the states.

Members of Congress are naturally generalists, needing to vote on a wide array of issues in each session. In formulating their own legislative portfolios, however, they face greater opportunities to specialize and gain expertise in specific policy areas, perhaps positioning them to be more effective lawmakers. We compare members of the U.S. Congress who have specialized to those with more diverse agendas in both the House and Senate from 1973 to 2016. We find that a balanced legislative portfolio, neither scattered across numerous areas nor focused entirely on a single issue, is associated with the greatest lawmaking effectiveness. This optimal balance varies across settings, with greater specialization being more valuable in the House than in the Senate, and more valuable among subcommittee chairs than among committee chairs. Moreover, the value of specialization has declined in recent Congresses. Finally, we find that the vast majority of lawmakers in Congress have unbalanced legislative portfolios, such that they are insufficiently specialized to cultivate expertise and to achieve their highest lawmaking potential.

Craig Volden, Jonathan Wai, and Alan E. Wiseman

About a third of the U.S. Congress is comprised of legislators who attended elite colleges, universities, and law schools. We study how legislative behaviors within this group have differed from those of other legislators between 1973 and 2014. We find that, both among Republicans and Democrats, both in the House and the Senate, those who acquired degrees from elite educational institutions tend to be more liberal than others in their respective parties. They also tend to put forward more substantively significant legislative proposals at a greater rate. These elite-educated lawmakers are more successful with these proposals when Democrats control Congress, and when these lawmakers are embedded in larger networks of similarly educated legislators. Such proposals do not fare as well, however, given Republican control of Congress, or when legislators are situated in smaller networks, such as those found in the Senate. This research suggests that there is still something of a “power elite” within the congressional Democratic Party. In contrast, ineffective and out of step with their party, elite-educated Republicans are disappearing from Congress.

There has been a steady decline in the number of military veterans in Congress since 1973. While conventional wisdom suggests that these members with unique experiences would have observable influence on the legislative body, efforts to discover a difference between members with military experience and those without have found null results. This paper explores whether or not military experience is related to a representative’s ability to push their legislative agenda in the House of Representatives. While military service does not generally increase a representative’s Legislative Effectiveness Score, Hagner finds representatives with military experience who deployed following 9/11 are more effective lawmakers than representatives without military experience and representatives with military experience who have not deployed post-9/11. This is a significant finding given the growing number of candidates with post-9/11 deployments being recruited and elected into the House of Representatives.

Peter Bucchianeri, Craig Volden and Alan E. Wiseman

What experiences contribute to a legislator becoming an effective lawmaker in Congress? In this paper we draw on new estimates of legislative effectiveness from 46 states between 1989 and 2018 to explore the role of state legislative experience and state lawmaking effectiveness in shaping effectiveness at the federal level. Specifically, we demonstrate that highly effective state legislators who are elected to Congress from more professional state legislatures are more effective than their congressional counterparts who either did not serve at the state level or who served in less-professional legislatures. Such lawmakers behave similarly to much more senior members of Congress; they introduce more legislation and successfully address issues of greater substantive significance. Our findings raise the potential importance of looking to state legislatures for the next generation of highly skilled federal lawmakers, and they speak to broader questions about the identification of candidate traits that are related to their subsequent lawmaking effectiveness in the U.S. Congress.

Danielle Thomsen, Sarah Treul, Craig Volden, Alan E. Wiseman

Effective lawmakers are the workhorses of the U.S. Congress; yet we know little about the electoral payoff of their efforts.  Are elective members better at warding off challengers in the next election? Do they win at a greater rate? To answer these questions, we draw on original data on congressional primary elections from 1980 to 2016, which allows us to focus on elections that lack partisan cues, and where voters tend to be highly knowledgeable about politics. We find that incumbents receive an electoral boost in congressional primaries from their legislative work in Congress. Effective lawmakers face fewer quality challengers and win their primaries at a greater rate than do less effective lawmakers. These benefits are enhanced when incumbents are ideologically well-aligned with primary voters, but diminished in the complex informational environment of a primary with multiple challengers. These findings provide important insights into the conditions under which voters hold lawmakers accountable for their legislative successes and failures.

We examine gender differences in policy influence and  advancement within the congressional office context using US Congress payroll system data between 2001 and 2014. We document how congressional careers share structural features with non-political occupations with gender gaps. We find that women staffers experience slower promotion and less compensation than men at the same rank and that the gender gap is most salient for positions presenting
the greatest structural challenges for women. However, these differences are shaped by the salience of gender equality issues within the office, varying by legislators’ party and gender and by the roles of other women within the office.
Our analysis offers leverage for assessing previous explanations for women’s underrepresentation among policymakers, suggesting that electoral factors, supply lag, and institutional inertia do not solely account for gender differences. However, the political context mitigates gender disparity because of the salience of gender equality within the political workplace.

Daniel M. Butler, Adam G. Hughes, Craig Volden, and Alan E. Wiseman.

Substantial Evidence exists that members of the U.S. Congress vary in their lawmaking effectiveness. Less known, however, is whether constituents have the knowledge and inclination to hold their representatives accountable, based on their effectiveness. We conducted three separate survey experiments to explore such accountability, informing some constituents about lawmakers’ effectiveness and comparing their responses to those with a baseline level of information. Across experiments, we find that citizens, municipal officials, and voters demonstrate little knowledge of the lawmaking effectiveness of their elected officials. When presented with objective and credible information about lawmaking effectiveness, however, these groups express greater approval of more effective lawmakers. Effects were strongest among ideological moderates, but were even more pronounced among partisans, who approved of effective representatives of the opposing party and disapproved of ineffective representatives from their own party. In contrast, the new information we provided had little effect on the subset of municipal officials who already had extensive prior contact with their representatives.

Andrew J. Clarke, Craig Volden, and Alan E. Wiseman. 

Does joining an ideological caucus help or hurt the advancement of a lawmaker’s legislative agenda? We argue that joining a faction creates opportunities for policy advancement, but also potential backlash for party leaders. In combination, these considerations yield conditions under which lawmaking effectiveness of faction numbers is enhanced. We explore the relationship between caucus membership and a Representative’s legislative effectiveness by drawing on data on the membership of eight different ideological caucuses between 1995-2016 in the United States House of Representatives. The analysis supports our main hypothesis that minority-party lawmakers – but not those in the majority party – enhance their legislative effectiveness through faction membership. Moreover, contrary to conventional arguments, we find that lawmaking effectiveness is not a product of the pivotal ideological centrist position of factions or of faction size, apart from their party status. 

Craig Volden, Alan Wiseman, Jesse M. Crosson, and Geoffrey M. Lorenz. 

Members of Congress seek to allocate their scarce staff resources carefully, given their multiple, sometimes competing objectives. Using data on House members’ staff allocations from 1994 to 2013, we demonstrate that legislators advance more (and more significant) legislation when they retain a more experienced legislative staff. This benefit, however, accrues mostly committee chairs, whose institutional privileges allow them to leverage experienced staff, and to the most junior legislators whose inexperience can be best supplemented by experienced aides. Finally, we show that legislators do not generally benefit from large legislative staffs, but rather from having individual legislative staffers with high levels of experience. This finding suggests that a targeted strategy to retain the most experienced legislative staff in Congress may pay the greatest dividends in regards to lawmaking. 

Craig Volden and Alan E. Wiseman 

Journal of Politics 

Just like members of the House, U.S. Senators vary in how effective they are at lawmaking. We adapt the approach of Volden and Wiseman (2014) to create Legislative Effectiveness Scores for each Senator in each to the 93rd to the 113th Congresses (1973 – 2015). We use these scores to explore common claims about institutional differences in lawmaking between the House and the Senate. Our analysis offers strong support for the claim that the Senate is a more egalitarian and individualistic lawmaking body, in comparison to the relatively hierarchical institutional structure of the House. The Scores developed here offer scholars numerous opportunities to explore important lawmaking phenomena. 

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