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Polsby: The institutionalization of the US House of Representatives

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Polsby. 1968. The institutionalization of the US House of Representatives. APSR 62:145.

In Brief

Polsby's primary task is descriptive. He wants to show that the House has grown more institutionalized over time. In the end, he speculates about the causes and consequences of this institutionalization. However, his primary contribution is in his suggestions of ways to measure institutionalization.

Institutionalization Defined

When Polsby refers to the House's institutionalization, he has three concepts in mind.

  1. "Well-bounded": Membership and leadership in the House has been increasingly walled-off. This has two aspects. First, membership is less open. Incumbents tend to serve longer (Fig 2) and the proportion of first-term members in any given Congress has fallen over time (Fig 1). Second, leadership positions in the House have increasingly been reserved for the most senior incumbents (Fig 3). Moreover, Congressional leaders leave their positions less frequently than they once did (Fig 4).
  2. "Internally complex": House functions have been regularized and specialized. This has three aspects. First, the committees have grown more autonomous and more specialized (though not necessarily more numerous). Second, the party leadership has acquired specialized leadership agencies (e.g. whips). Third, Representatives have allocated themselves more staff, office space, and committee staff (see Table 6).
  3. Universalistic: The House now follows impersonal, universal decision criteria rather than particularistic criteria. "Precedents and rules are followed; merit systems replace favoritism and nepotism" (p 145). For example, committee chairs are assigned almost exclusively by a seniority rule now (Fig 5). Also, when the House makes a judgment about a contested election, the decision is likely to be made on the case's merits, not on partisan lines (p 163; Fig 6).

Causes of Institutionalization

A sociological approach to explanation: Polsby credits Durkheim's ideas as the "best theoretical guess": Institutionalization increases when a body's responsibilities (and complexity) do. As the national government grew, its need for institutionalization increased.

  • Plenty of room for more research here. What do these things happen in the US House? Why at this particular time?

Consequences of Institutionalization

First, it has grown easier to block legislation than to produce it (p 165). Second, the incentives of staying within the system has increased (since decentralization has "created a great many important and interesting jobs within the House, and thus increased the attractiveness of service therein as a career" (p 166). Third, institutionalization seems to promote professionalism. Thus, we see fewer physical attacks on the House floor than we did a century ago.

Comments and criticism

  1. Why is Table 6 not adjusted to inflation? Doesn't that make it useless?
  2. Can we really conclude that decreased violence in the House isn't a result of societal changes?
  3. The curious prediction about contested seats (p 163, top of right column) seems to imply that we should see less partisan rankering about procedural matters--partisanship is only for ideological matters. But why would we expect this, since procedural matters directly affect policy outcomes?