Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why Congress isn't doing anything (and what I was doing last week)

I spent the latter part of last week at the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference in Chicago.  Most of what happens at these things is that people present new, and not-very-well-formed research projects.  (That, and people schmoozing in the Palmer House lobby).

So guess what I did!  (I didn't schmooze).

Unfortunately, I can't add a link to the conference paper suppository (they call it a "repository") because the site is gated, but here's the gist.  I work in an area called spatial theory.  In legislative politics, we put everyone on a line from liberal to conservative.  We then put policies on a line from liberal to conservative.  If a bill is closer to a legislator's ideal point than the status quo, they vote yes.  Otherwise, they vote no.  So, if my ideal point is .5, and the status quo is .3, I'll vote for a bill at .6, but against a bill at .8.

That's not how everyone in Congress acts, though.  People in the House Freedom Caucus, for example, ignore what policy is now, and just vote "no" (or threaten to do so) unless the bill is basically perfect, as far as they are concerned, meaning arbitrarily close to their "ideal points," in spatial theory jargon.  So, if the status quo is at -0.2, and their ideal points are at .8, they will vote no on a bill that moves policy to .5, even though it is way better, from their perspective, than -0.2, because it isn't close enough to .8.  Rationally, that... isn't.

What happens when people in Congress act this way?

Nothing.  Here's the implication:  unless you have a cluster of legislators of 50%+1, who are very close together, then absolutely nothing can possibly pass because some jackass will complain about the bill being not absolutely perfect and vote "no."

This isn't how legislatures normally work.  This is what happens when legislators treat the roll call voting process, not as a rational, policy-making choice, but as an expressive act.  If you don't treat roll call voting as a policy-making choice, you won't make policy.

So guess who isn't making policy!

Anyway, the paper was "Expressive Voting and Legislative Gridlock: The Changing Meaning of a No Vote."  I'd link to it if it weren't gated.  I'll put it up on my faculty page at some point, but I can email it to anyone who asks.


  1. Well, me, given our conversations.

    1. Remember when the paper links on MPSA's web site worked properly?

    2. Yep. Prior to this year.

      Rare misstep for MPSA, which has been the superior organization (over APSA) for at least a decade.