legislative capacity is not zero-sum

One way to think about the power of any legislature is the decisions it can make–for instance, to raise or lower taxes or to ban or legalize various things. Its power is almost always limited by other institutions, such as an executive or courts. And its power is finite, which means that the distribution of power within the body is zero-sum. If one party bloc makes a decision, the other parties do not. If the speaker, prime minister, or legislative leader gains influence, the rank-and-file loses power. If the committees are powerful, the whole body is weaker.

Given this model, it is puzzling why power sometimes centralizes within a legislature (as it has in the Massachusetts State House). Since each member has an equal vote, why would most members vote for leaders and rules that empower the leaders as opposed to the rank-and-file?

Perhaps the members of a large body face a classic coordination problem: they don’t really like the distribution of power but cannot organize themselves to challenge it. Perhaps they would rather have a strong leader than be walked over by the executive branch. Perhaps the party leadership obtains loyalty by influencing election outcomes. Or perhaps the average member is simply content without a lot of influence. There could be a vicious cycle, in which the kind of person who wants to influence legislation gets frustrated and leaves, and the remainder vote to empower the leadership.

The other way to think about this issue is in terms of capacity rather than power. A legislature does many things. It collects input from stakeholders, investigates the other branches of government and public problems, considers policy proposals, assimilates research, develops proposals, builds consensus within and beyond the body, amends and refines bills, and (finally) makes decisions by voting.

It can do more or less of this. At a minimum, it may barely scrape by, passing the laws that are constitutionally required, such as a budget (or may even fail to accomplish that). At the maximum, it can operate like the US Congress in 1965, which wrote, refined, and passed landmark bills to create Medicare and Medicaid (plus the NEH and NEA), enfranchise people of color, involve the federal government in K-12 and higher education, and open the US to mass immigration. Whether you like those laws or not, they represented much more lawmaking than usual. In fact, the year 1965 perhaps saw more federal lawmaking than has occurred during my entire lifetime, and I was born in 1967.

Power (in the sense of the first paragraph) is zero-sum. But capacity is not. Just because one group of legislators is working away on school reform does not mean that a different committee can’t be holding hearings on taxes.

Total legislative capacity can be expanded. That requires attracting talented and dedicated legislators. It may require a favorable climate beyond the legislature. It also requires nuts-and-bolts support. For example, legislators have more capacity if they have more staff, both in their own offices and shared by the body. In the Massachusetts legislature, the typical House member has one employee, which is not enough to do much legislative business.

Less capacity in the legislature can mean more power for the other branches, particularly the executive. That is a finding of Bolton & Thrower, “Legislative Capacity and Executive Unilateralism,” American Journal of Political Science, 60(3), (2016), pp. 649-663. However, it is also possible for an entire government to lose capacity.

Newt Gingrich cut congressional staff in Washington, especially the staff of the nonpartisan legislative-branch bureaus, which employ fewer than one third as many people as they did before 1990. This made sense for what he wanted to accomplish. If total capacity is smaller, it is easier for the leadership to control the body. (In that way, zero-sum power is related to capacity.) Besides, Gingrich’s legislative agenda was very simple–tax cuts, above all–and it didn’t require nearly as much capacity as center-left legislation would. Still, the result was a national legislature that cannot do much legislating of any kind.

There is an interesting wrinkle in the two graphs below, taken from Bolton & Thrower 2016. Congress was at its most active and ambitious while its staffing was rapidly rising, but not yet at its peak. The peak lagged a decade or so behind. That fits my general impression that the modern welfare state proved challenging to manage and sometimes overburdened our institutions–meaning all three branches of the federal government, states and localities, interest groups, and the press. After Congress enacted the major elements of the Great Society, it turned to managing those programs and gave that task serious attention for about fifteen years. Then conservatives tried to cut the programs (consistent with their principles and their mandate) but also cut the capacity to manage them without actually abolishing them. The result has been successively worse implementation.

From Bolton, A., & Thrower, S. (2016). Legislative Capacity and Executive Unilateralism. American Journal of Political Science, 60(3), 649-663.

Today’s Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress recognizes the problem. They call for increasing the capacity of Congress, “increas[ing] the funds allocated to each Member office for staff,” raising staff pay, and hiring “bipartisan [committee[ staff approved by both the Chair and Ranking Member to promote strong institutional knowledge [and] evidence-based policy making.”

This is an important agenda, and we need similar changes in Massachusetts.

See also: an agenda for political reform in Massachusetts; a different explanation of dispiriting political news coverage and debate; civic renewal in a state legislature; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.