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Burns, Evans, Gamm, and McConnaughy: Pockets of expertise in American state legislatures

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Burns, Evans, Gamm, and McConnaughy. 2005. Pockets of expertise in American state legislatures. APSA paper.


"It is commonplace in work on state legislatures to say that, professionalization is a recent phenomenon, a product of the legislative reforms of the '60s and '70s. Given the constraints on legislatures and legislators before that era, one wonders where members turned to make their way through the legislative process. In this paper, we look back at this history, trying to understand just where legislators turned for information and expertise in a world filled with too many bills, too little staff, and too little time. We analyze the relationship between the growth of careerist legislatures and the emergence of professionalism.

"We examine thirteen states--Alabama, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington--from the late 19th century until the present day. With a new dataset, drawn from an array of books and legislative journals scattered in state libraries and archives, we reconstruct the memberships of state legislatures as well as their internal structure.

"In the end, we see three key results. The first result is the powerful impact of careerism on professionalization, evident both in the early advances in Massachusetts, New York, and, to a lesser extent, Illinois, and in the extent to which careerism and salaries had already advanced by the early 1960s. Second, our analysis of careerism reveals that even non-careerist legislators could still draw on various career experiences as basic sources of expertise, such as some previous time in office, some previous occupations. The third tendency, seen in our analysis of professionalism, is imperfect routinization--a paucity of impersonal and automatic arrangements--coupled with institutional designs that take special advantage of what little expertise is available.

"What we find is, perhaps, surprising: in some respects, some of the most institutionally impoverished legislatures were relatively rich in the expertise necessary to enable decent legislation to make its way through the legislative process. We find pockets of expertise and pockets of professionalism in these legislatures."