Center for Effective Lawmaking

Working Paper Series

Patrick W. Buhr, Craig Volden, and Alan E. Wiseman

Political scientists have emphasized the rightward ideological movement of congressional Republicans across recent decades, relative to a more limited leftward shift by Democrats. However, we argue that this asymmetric polarization has not translated into an equally conservative shift in lawmaking. Drawing on data on the lawmaking effectiveness of Representatives and Senators between 1973- 2021, we demonstrate that conservative Republicans in both chambers are notably less effective than their moderate Republican counterparts in advancing their bills, even when Republicans are in the majority party. In contrast, for Democrats, their liberal wing is more effective at lawmaking than are moderate Democrats. The conservative wing of the Republican Party has been limited in its effectiveness due to lower seniority, fewer committee chair positions, and less frequent bipartisan coalition-building attempts than among other Republicans. As a result, the ideological center of congressional lawmaking has not shifted to the right, instead remaining remarkably stable over time.

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 that they sponsor, how far those bills move through the lawmaking process, and their substantive importance. We assess the scores through criterion and construct validation, and reveal new insights about effective lawmaking across legislators. We then offer two illustrations of the immense opportunities that these scores provide for new scholarship on legislative behavior. First, we demonstrate greater majority-party influence over lawmaking in states featuring ideological polarization, majority-party cohesion, and where there is greater electoral competition for chamber control. Second, we show how institutional design choices – from legislative rules to the scope of professionalization – affect the distributions of policymaking power from state to state. (To view the previous version of this working paper prepared for the 2020 American Political Science Association Conference, go here)

Are LGBTQ legislators effective lawmakers? We build on theories linking voter discrimination to effective lawmaking (Anzia and Berry 2011) by arguing that voters’ prejudice toward LGBTQ candidates produce effective LGBTQ lawmakers. To test this expectation, we pair data on state legislators’ sexual identity (Haider-Markel 2010) with Bucchianeri, Volden, and Wiseman’s (Forthcoming) state legislative effectiveness scores (SLES). We find that LGBTQ lawmakers are 28% more effective than non-LGBTQ lawmakers. Additionally, we create an original measure indicating the year that LGBTQ lawmakers publicly came out. We leverage this data to show that out LGBTQ lawmakers—those who have revealed their sexual identity to voters—are 43% more effective than non-out LGBTQ lawmakers.

Jesse M. Crosson, Alexander C. Furnas, and Geoffrey M. Lorenz

Lawmakers vary considerably in how effectively they advance their priorities through Congress. However, the actual proposal-writing strategies undergirding these differences have remained largely unexplored, due to measurement and methodological difficulties. These obstacles have included prohibitively small sample sizes, costly data requirements, and strong theoretical assumptions. In this paper, we address these obstacles and analyze the proposal strategies of effective lawmakers directly, using original measures of the spatial locations of congressional bill proposals and associated status quos generated by jointly scaling cosponsorship, roll-call, and interest group position-taking data for 1,007 bills from the 110th through 114th Congresses. Because interest groups take positions on bills before they receive votes, at the time of introduction, our measures cover many bills that die in committee, permitting comparisons between successful and unsuccessful bills. We demonstrate that legislative advancement favors moderate proposals over partisan ones, and that effective lawmakers are those who make proposals closer to the median even at the expense of their preferred policy.

In a complex information environment, members of Congress must communicate to their constituents their value as a representative. Specifically, they aim to convince voters that they are effective representatives and therefore ought to be reelected. Modern scholarship has focused largely on legislators’ effectiveness as lawmakers in areas like bill introduction, sponsorship, and shepherding of legislation through congressional procedures (Volden and Wiseman 2014). But legislators do more than traditional lawmaking activities; they also engage in representational acts of advocacy and district-focused activity. This expanded notion of representational effectiveness is what legislators must publicize to constituents in order to maintain and build support and stay in office. Drawing on textual analysis of nearly 90,000 official newsletters from House members to their constituents from 2009-2020 (Cormack 2021), we demonstrate that legislators actively publicize these three types of effectiveness, and the ways in which their communication strategies depend on personal, electoral, and institutional factors.

Christian Fong, Kenneth Lowande, and Adam Rauh

According to many, the U.S. Congress desperately needs reform because its capacity to govern has declined. Congressional capacity cannot be understood without examining how the expertise available to members is fostered or discouraged. We present a theory of expertise acquisition and apply it to the problem of overseeing the Executive. We use this theory to organize a dataset of congressional staff employment merged with new records of invitations, applications, and attendance at training sessions produced by three nonprofit organizations in Washington, D.C. We find that staffers are more likely to acquire expertise when their jobs are more secure and there are more opportunities to use their expertise in careers outside of Congress—most notably, when their party takes control of the presidency. Our analysis suggests that oversight expertise is generally not sufficiently valuable outside of Congress to entice many staffers to acquire it without subsidies.

Sean M. Theriault, Jared J. Hrebenar, and Isabel Reyna

Since the early 1970s, fewer than 10 percent of all those who run against sitting members of Congress win. In this paper, we examine the legislative effectiveness of those rare challengers who knock off incumbents, which we name, “Giant Killers.” We find that they have greater than expected legislative success. Either because they are simply stellar politicians (as one might expect from challengers who defeat incumbents) or because their party leadership celebrates their victories by prioritizing their legislation or giving them plum committee assignments, we argue that being a Giant Killer is an important component in understanding legislators’ early successes in Congress. Over the first part of their careers in the House, we find that these Giant Killers have around 20 percent higher legislative effectiveness scores than their counterparts; although Senate Giant Killers do not enjoy as large a bonus, it is still real and statistically significant.

Collaboration is essential to how Congress works, and members who build large networks are more likely to be entrepreneurial and effective policymakers. Yet less is known about how these same skills carry over to non-policymaking activities. This research argues the same skills that make legislators effective producers of policy also influence more representational activities. Using data from over 33,000 Congressional contacts with the USDA between the 110th and 114th sessions of Congress, this work challenges the classic paradox between representational activities and lawmaking. Results indicate first, effective policymakers are also skilled in other areas, writing to agencies with a greater frequency and larger and more politically diverse network of collaborators. Second, effective policymakers are often more responsive to institutional constraints, working with significantly fewer and less diverse colleagues on distributive requests to agencies when Congressional rules disincentivize collaboration – suggesting institutional rules forcing legislators to compete rather than cooperate can have deleterious consequences on the legislative branch, even beyond policymaking activities.

Marco Battaglini, Valerio Leone Sciabolazza, and Eleonora Patacchini

Logrolling is a form of cooperation among politicians that plays a role in the legislative process, being a manifestation of the web of alliances that legislators make to pass bills for their constituencies. This paper studies logrolling among members of the U.S. Congress by tracking roll-call votes within bills across five legislatures and politicians’ personal connections made via their alumni networks. The authors document a propensity of connected legislators to vote together depending on how salient the bill is to the politicians’ legislative agenda. Although this activity does not seem to enhance members’ legislative effectiveness, logrolling is a strong predictor of future promotions to position of leadership. As part of this process, the authors created a logrolling graph, a network representation of the market for votes that allows them to assess the effect of both direct and indirect voting alliances.

Throughout the country’s history, some politicians and elites have argued that white-collar Americans are more qualified than working-class Americans to govern. To date, however, relatively little is known about the legislative effectiveness of working-class lawmakers. To address this knowledge gap, Jacob M. Lollis, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, creates a data set merging the occupational background of over 14,000 individual state legislators with their state legislative effectiveness score (SLES) as designed by the CEL. He finds that working-class lawmakers do not underperform white-collar lawmakers. Further, he provides evidence that the gap between working-class and white-collar legislators’ effectiveness is negligible. Given that working-class lawmakers do not underperform their white-collar peers, the primary cause of their numerical underrepresentation in legislatures is likely not their lawmaking abilities.

Military service is often touted as an important benefit for legislating in Congress. With fewer military veterans serving in Congress, candidates with military experience and their supporters often argue that electing more veterans will help reduce legislative dysfunction and gridlock. Are veteran legislators more effective lawmakers than those who have not served in the military? Are they more bipartisan in their legislative activities? Major Joseph Amoroso, an Instructor of American Politics at the United States Military Academy at West Point, draws on U.S. House data from the 104th to 116th congresses (1995-2021) to examine the extent to which military experience influences a Representative’s capacity to advance legislation and engage in bipartisan behavior. He found that legislators with military experience are more effective at advancing consequential bills through the lawmaking process. Additionally, veterans appear more willing to collaborate with members of the opposite party, particularly during recent congresses.

Andrew J. Clarke, Daniel Markovits

American lawmakers have held over 23,000 town hall meetings with constituents in the last eight years. These unscripted and often raucous gatherings provide the public with a direct line of communication to their representatives. While lawmakers and activists clearly think these events are meaningful, there are almost no systematic studies on town hall meetings. This paper presents new data on every congressional town hall meeting from August 2013-December 2021 and provides a descriptive analysis of the relationship between lawmaking and town hall representation. Contrary to expectations, it found no evidence that high-performing lawmakers neglected their district. Instead, it found that legislators with few legislative accomplishments also chose to hold fewer town hall meetings. In addition, members of the party not in the White House hold substantially more town halls. These findings contribute to a growing body of research on congressional representation, lawmaking, and democratic accountability.

A lot has changed since we conducted the first wave of the Citizen Political Ambition Study in 2001. The number of women serving in Congress has doubled (to 28%). Women’s organizations have made it a priority to recruit women to run for office. And famous female politicians, glass-shattering candidacies, increased attention to women’s under-representation, women’s marches, and #MeToo are features of the contemporary political environment. These changes and efforts have helped propel a record number of women into office in recent elections, but they haven’t been sufficient to change society’s broader attitudes about women’s place in electoral politics. They haven’t been sufficient to close the gender gap in political ambition.

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. 

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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