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Arnold: The logic of Congressional action

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Arnold. 1990. The logic of Congressional action.


Members of Congress (MCs) want to provide policies with concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, but voters want policies with diffuse benefits (and perhaps concentrated costs). The purpose of this book: What makes us move from one to the other?

Legislators estimate the political consequences of their voting decisions, taking into account both (1) the degree to which the particular issue is (at least potentially) salient to a large number of voters and (2) the availability of talented coalition leaders who can use strategies to help legislators receive credit for diffuse policy benefits.

The Main Argument, In Brief

Main variable: Strategies of procedure (explained below). Provide diffuse benefits without having your fingers on the concentrated costs.

  • E.g.: Congress closes military bases. Diffuse benefits, concentrated costs. Strategy of procedures: Congress sets up a commission to come up with a package of base closures, and Congress pre-commits to vote on the list as a package. Congress takes a non-up-or-down vote. Since a majority of MCs aren't losing their bases, it passes, and they successfully close their base.
  • E.g.: To get rid of a bunch of specialized tax breaks (and thus lower the general population's taxes), the committee chairman had a closed-door session (so nobody in committee could be hurt). He changed the status quo by starting with all the tax breaks gone, and said you would have to add them back in by amendment--but the amendments have to be revenue neutral (you've got to cut the cost of the tax break from somewhere else in the budget). Procedurally, this helped Congress pass a difficult policy without hurting anybody electorally.


Uses Mayhew's reelection assumption to show how Congress passes politically difficult policies. Mayhew's analysis created the puzzle (how does Congress overcome common pool resource problems), Arnold attmempted to solve it it.

Detailed Overview

Concept #1: Inside an MC's Mind

MC's (Members of Congress) care intensely about reelection, although they are not single-minded reelection seekers. When they have to make a decision, they first ask which policy alternative contributes more to their chances of reelection. (If they do not see any difference, they base their choice on any other relevant criteria.)

To reach a decision, MCs have to identify all attentive and inattentive publics who might care about a policy; estimate the direction and the intensity of their preferences and potential preferences; estimate the probability that the potential preferences will be transformed into real preferences; weight all these preferences according to the size of the various attentive and inattentive publics; and finally give special weight to the preferences of the legislator's consistent supporters.

Concept #2: Citizen Preferences and Voting

Citizens express their views at the ballot box either prospectively (based on issue platforms) or retrospectively (based on perceived outcomes). When making their prospective or retrospective judgments, some voters focus on party while others focus on candidates.

Informed citizens have preferences, while uninformed citizens have only potential preferences. The probability that preferences will matter depends on four factors:

  1. Magnitude. Relative effects are especially noted by citizens, which explains why the seemingly modest 10-cent per gallon gasoline tax proposal was so fiercely shouted down.
  2. Timing. Citizens notice early-order effects, but don't understand later effects.
  3. Proximity. The geographic concentration of effects is a central aspect. People first become conscious of an economic recession when one of their neighbors loses his job.
  4. An instigator. The availability of an articulate complainer (such as Ralph Nader) is vital to raise the public's consciousness.

Concept #3: Coalition Leaders

Coalition leaders (either MCs or outside activists) adopt strategies for enacting their policy proposals by anticipating legislators' electoral calculations, which in turn requires that they think about citizen preferences the way MCs do. Coalition leaders select a strategy (from the list below) in an effort to convince MCs to vote for a particular policy.

  1. Strategies of persuasion: Coalition leaders contend that the proposal is a good idea on its own merits and that it won't cause electoral retribution. National defense is a favorite justification. This is the best strategy in the long run, but often has sharp short-term costs.
  2. Strategies of procedure: Coalition leaders maneuver the legislative situation to either raise or lower the ability of instigators to rouse inattentive publics; e.g., camouflage pay raise votes in riders to other bills. The key is to break the "traceable link" between policy and effect when passing politically risky laws. Omnibus bills are a frequent ploy. Procedural strategies were essential for enacting gasoline rationing, for deregulating oil and natural gas, for Reagan's spending cuts, and for reforming the tax system.
  3. Strategies of modification: Coalition leaders alter a proposal (i.e. make side payments) to attract more coalition leaders without sacrificing the core values. Good for targeting groups to build a coalition early on.