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The Logic of Congressional Action

The Logic of Congressional Action

R. Douglas Arnold
Copyright Date: 1990
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 293
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  • Book Info
    The Logic of Congressional Action
    Book Description:

    Congress regularly enacts laws that benefit particular groups or localities while imposing costs on everyone else. Sometimes, however, Congress breaks free of such parochial concerns and enacts bills that serve the general public, not just special interest groups. In this important and original book, R. Douglas Arnold offers a theory that explains not only why special interests frequently triumph but also why the general public sometimes wins. By showing how legislative leaders build coalitions for both types of programs, he illuminates recent legislative decisions in such areas as economic, tax, and energy policy.

    Arnold's theory of policy making rests on a reinterpretation of the relationship between legislators' actions and their constituents' policy preferences. Most scholars explore the impact that citizens'existingpolicy preferences have on legislators' decisions. They ignore citizens who have no opinions because they assume that uninformed citizens cannot possibly affect legislators' choices. Arnold examines the influence of citizens'potentialpreferences, however, and argues that legislators also respond to these preferences in order to avoid future electoral problems. He shows how legislators estimate the political consequences of their voting decisions, taking into account both the existing preferences of attentive citizens and the potential preferences of inattentive citizens. He then analyzes how coalition leaders manipulate the legislative situation in order to make it attractive for legislators to support a general interest bill.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16076-5
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Part 1 A Theory of Policy Making

    • 1 Explaining Congressional Action
      (pp. 3-16)

      Why does Congress enact the policies that it does? Why does Congress frequently approve proposals that serve organized interests or that deliver narrowly targeted geographic benefits? Why does Congress sometimes break free of parochial concerns and enact bills that serve more diffuse, general, or unorganized interests? This book attempts to explain both sets of outcomes with a single theory. The theory sets forth both the conditions that encourage legislators to produce particularistic policies and serve organized interests and the conditions that prompt legislators to serve more general interests.

      Political scientists can explain with ease why concentrated interests so often triumph....

    • 2 Policy Attributes and Policy Preferences
      (pp. 17-36)

      Legislators and coalition leaders must estimate citizens’ preferences and potential preferences for the various policy proposals put forth in Congress. Legislators need to know whether enacting a new proposal might generate a storm of protest that might endanger their political careers, to anticipate whether some small part of a complex bill might eventually offend some of their constituents and diminish their political support, and to recognize which proposals might become popular among their constituents so that they can position themselves accordingly. For each issue before Congress, legislators need to estimate which of their constituents might someday acquire policy preferences, how...

    • 3 Policy Preferences and Congressional Elections
      (pp. 37-59)

      Legislators need more than a map of citizens’ preferences and potential preferences for the various policy proposals put forth in Congress. They need to know the conditions under which citizens might incorporate policy preferences into their decisions in subsequent congressional elections. What legislators fear is not merely that citizens might disagree with their positions and actions but that such disagreements might affect voters’ choices. To assess accurately the likelihood of electoral retribution, legislators need to understand the ways in which policy preferences can affect citizens’ electoral decisions.

      If legislators consulted the scholarly literature on congressional elections, they might conclude that...

    • 4 Electoral Calculations and Legislators’ Decisions
      (pp. 60-87)

      How do legislators decide which side to support when a policy proposal comes before Congress? How do they estimate the impact that their decisions in Washington might have on their electoral margins at home? How do they adjust their decisions in Washington in order to maximize their electoral advantages? Now that we have some sense of how legislators estimate citizens’ preferences and potential preferences, and now that we have several models that show how citizens’ policy preferences can affect their choices in congressional elections, we can answer these questions directly.¹

      This chapter rests on the assumption that the quest for...

    • 5 Strategies for Coalition Leaders
      (pp. 88-118)

      How do leaders assemble winning coalitions for the proposals that they put before Congress? How do they anticipate legislators’ electoral needs when they design policies, fashion arguments, and procedures? How do leaders harness legislators’ electoral ambitions to advance their own goals? This chapter examines the strategies available for building coalitions and shows how leaders choose among them. Such strategies are general plans for attracting support, both within Congress and among attentive and inattentive publics.

      Building winning coalitions is hard work. Legislators who merely drop bills in the hopper and wait for something to happen are invariably disappointed. Nothing happens in...

    • 6 Policy Decisions
      (pp. 119-146)

      Now that I have laid out in separate chapters the several aspects of my proposed explanation of decision making in Congress, it is time to return to the question posed at the outset and consider the theory as a whole: Why does Congress enact the policies that it does? Under what conditions does Congress approve proposals that serve organized interests or that deliver narrowly targeted geographic benefits? Under what conditions does Congress break free of parochial concerns and enact bills that serve more diffuse or general interests? In this chapter 1 argue that congressional decisions depend partly on what citizens...

  6. Part II The Theory Applied

    • 7 Economic Policy
      (pp. 149-192)

      What kind of imprint does Congress leave on macroeconomic policy? Is Congress basically a responsible partner in government, working diligently to enact sound fiscal policies? Or is it an irresponsible meddler, repeatedly interfering with the best-laid plans for macroeconomic policy and restrained only by the combined actions of veto-wielding presidents and independent-minded members of the Federal Reserve Board? The truth actually lies somewhere in between. Congress displays both admirable strengths and understandable weaknesses in the field of macroeconomic policy. It appears to be neither more nor less responsible than the president.

      In this chapter (and the next) I attempt to...

    • 8 Tax Policy
      (pp. 193-223)

      How can one account for the general shape of the federal tax code? How have legislators managed to create a tax system that extracts one-fifth of the gross national product for governmental use without ever placing their own careers in jeopardy? Why did legislators first create such a complicated tax code, filled with special exemptions, deductions, and credits, and then suddenly switch course in 1986 and enact a tax reform bill that eliminated many of these particularistic provisions? In the previous chapter I explained how Congress adjusts the level of tax revenues in the pursuit of explicit fiscal policy. This...

    • 9 Energy Policy
      (pp. 224-262)

      Energy policy was a major item on the congressional agenda throughout the 1970s. Energy supplies, which had once seemed cheap and plentiful, were suddenly expensive and hard to obtain. Petroleum shortages first emerged after the Arab oil embargo in 1973 and again during the Iranian revolution in 1979; each resulted in long lines at gasoline stations across America. Natural gas shortages appeared in 1970 and grew more slowly; eventually they became so severe that schools and industries were forced to close in eleven northern states during 1976 and 1977. Energy prices increased more rapidly during this decade than ever before....

  7. Part III Assessing Congressional Action

    • 10 Citizens’ Control of Government
      (pp. 265-276)

      To what extent are citizens able to control their government in a representative system? This is—or should be—one of the central questions in political science, one that should occupy the combined talents of democratic theorists and institutional specialists. All too often scholars avoid addressing the issue directly, hoping that their results speak for themselves (they rarely do). The question is especially difficult to answer for the American system. In the United States, the sharing of power among legislators and an elected executive, coupled with the lack of strong parties to unite the two branches, makes the links among...

  8. Index
    (pp. 277-282)