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Cox and McCubbins: Setting the agenda

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Cox and McCubbins. 2004. Setting the agenda. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Place in Literature

An elaboration of Cox and McCubbins's earlier (1993) theory. Argues against Krehbiel (who claims parties don't matter) and Rohde (who argues for "conditional" party government).

Main Argument

They develop and extend the procedural cartel theory. Legislative parties are best analogized to legal or accountancy partnerships, with various gradations of junior and senior partners. They specialize in controlling the agenda, rather than in controlling votes. That is, they seek to determine what is voted on to begin with, in order to lessen the pressure on determining how their members' votes are cast (negative agenda control).

Given that one party's legislative accomplishments are another party's failures, then each member shares, within his or her party, a desire to control the agenda such that their legislation gets on the agenda and the opposing party's does not. The opportunity costs are large. To the extent possible, members of the majority party will want to monopolize (or cartelize) control of the legislative agenda onto themselves, within the legislature.

The agenda is cartelized when (1) special agenda-setting powers are formally delegated to various offices, such as committee chairs, the Speakership, and the Rules Committee; (2) the majority party's members secure most of these offices, so that "agenda-setting services" can be procured only from members of the procedural cartel, just as certain kinds of economic services or goods can be procured only from the relevant economic cartel; and (3) the majority party's "senior partners," who hold these agenda-setting offices, act according to a minimal fiduciary standard--namely, that they do not use their official powers to push legislation that would pass on the floor against the wishes of most in their party. (this is a quote from ch 1)

It is not just agenda-setting offices but legislative resources more generally that a cartel will seek to control. Yet for good reasons a cartel will not simply take everything for itself; allowing minority rights is important. There is evidence that legislative resource distribution in the House is biased towards the majority party.

The Model

Procedural cartel theory rests on the following assumptions:

  • Members of Congress seek reelection to the House, internal advancement within the House, and majority status.
  • The reputation (or brand name) of a member's party affects both the member's personal probability of reelection and, more substantially, the party's probability of securing a majority. [Comment: But the latter matters only if parties matter, so it alone can't explain why members of Congress would want a strong party.]
  • The value of a party's reputation in promoting the (re)election of its candidates depends significantly on the party's record of legislative accomplishment. A party's reputation is a public good, and legislation that affects that reputation is itself a public good for members of the party.
  • Legislating--hence compiling favorable records of legislative accomplishment--is akin to team production and entails overcoming an array of cooperation and coordination problems. Managing the party label is the primary collective action problem that members of a party must solve, and their collective goal of solving this and other collective action problems is accomplished by the partnership.
  • The primary means by which a (majority) party regulates its members' actions, in order to overcome problems of team production, is by delegating to a central authority.
  • The key resource that majority parties delegate to their senior partners is the power to set the legislative agenda; the majority party forms a procedural cartel that collectively monopolizes agenda-setting power.

The Mechanism: How the Cartel Works

There exist offices endowed with special agenda-setting powers in the House and these offices' powers were in some sense chosen by the majority party. "Special agenda-setting powers," or agenda power for short, means any special ability to determine which bills are considered on the floor and under what procedures. The majority party sets up a procedure for selecting the occupants of the agenda-setting offices that is likely to lead in principle, and does lead in practice, to its members winning most of the agenda-setting offices. Controlling procedures then enables the majority party to prevent unwanted legislation reaching the floor (negative agenda control).


Chapter-by-Chapter

Chapter 4: Empirical Tests

From chapter 4 intro: "In this chapter, we examine the rules and organization of the Post-Reconstruction House of Representatives. We begin by systematically describing changes in House rules and organization in the period 1880-1988 (the 46th to 100th Congresses). We then make three main points: first, that the modern structure of agenda power in the House--in which access to the floor is regulated by the Rules Committee and the delegation of privilege to selected committees--was erected primarily in the period 1880-94, especially with the implementation of the "Reed rules;" second, and more importantly, that this structure of agenda power greatly advantages the majority party; third, that subsequent changes in House rules and organization have not greatly altered the structure erected in the 1880s.

"In order to test our main points--that the Reed rules permanently and significantly changed voting behavior and policy outcomes in the House and that subsequent rule changes have not undone these changes--we employ a dataset of House final passage votes that we will use repeatedly throughout the book. This set of bills, which we shall heretofore refer to as our Post-Reconstruction data, consists of observations on all House final passage votes on bills in the H.R. series, for Congresses 45-105 (1877-1998). For each final passage vote, we ascertain whether the bill in question proposed to move policy left, right or neither. (The basis for such assessments is simply whether one can predict support for the bill on each vote in terms of each member's left-right ideology, as measured by Poole-Rosenthal DW-NOMINATE scores). We find that the proportion of proposed moves toward the majority party (i.e., left for Democratic majorities, right for Republican majorities) increases abruptly, substantially, and permanently with the adoption and later re-adoption of Reed's rules. Indeed, as we will show, after Reed's rules became a permanent part of House organization, over 80% of the bills allowed to reach the final passage stage in the typical Congress proposed to move policy toward the majority-party median."

From later in the chapter: "Our view is that the rules of the legislative game have been heavily stacked in the majority party's favor since the re-adoption of Reed's rules in 1894. Reed set out at the beginning of the 1880s to change the House's rules, to enable the majority party to enact its agenda. He succeeded. Rule changes since then have not returned the House to anything like the playing field it had prior to Reed's reforms." (117 in .doc). Why? Because in the 1870s, both the minority and majority were veto players. The minority had tactics allowing it to frustrate the majority. Reed wanted to put the House in control of the majority only. Reed in 1880: "The best system is to have one party govern and the other party watch; and on general principles I think it would be better for us to govern and for the Democrats to watch" (from pg 120).