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date: 17 February 2020

Comparative Legislative behavior

Abstract and Keywords

This article talks about the increase in polarization and heightened partisanship in the United Sates Congress. This is where party leaders firmly control the agenda and where voters in congressional elections are more likely to divide along party lines. It also looks at the constituency demands in parliamentary systems before focusing on the changing role of political parties in legislative institutions, both parliamentary and congressional. One section examines the structural and behavioral roots of legislative behavior, along with the impact of different institutions. The article also includes a discussion of the varying relations between legislators and constituents and the varying informal rules of the game.

Keywords: United States Congress, constituency demands, parliamentary systems, legislative institutions, legislative behavior, partisanship, comparative legislative behavior

Parliamentary legislative systems are orderly. Congressional legislative systems are disorderly. This claim may seem a bit odd when we think about the loudness, sometimes even the rowdiness, of debate in parliaments compared to the more flowery and civil language on the floor of the United States House of Representative and especially the Senate. The orderliness of parliamentary systems (and the disorderliness of congressional systems) refers not to language or style, but rather to how conflict is structured.

Parliamentary procedure is all about the power of political parties. Parliaments are the embodiment of collective responsibility of the prime minister and his/her governing party. In congressional systems, political parties play a much more limited—some would say a subsidiary—role. Individual members answer to their constituencies, their consciences, and especially their committees more than they do to their party leaders. Congressional procedure is disorderly because there is no centralized authority and no sense of collective responsiblity. Woodrow Wilson, the first modern student of Congress (1967, 59), argued in 1885: “It is this multiplicity of [committee] leaders, this many-headed leadership, which makes the organization of the House (p. 393) too complex to afford uninformed people and unskilled observers any easy clue to its methods of rule…. There is no thought of acting in concert.”

The standard explanation for these differences is institutional. Parliaments are majoritarian, centralizing power in party leaders who have the power to punish members who might dare to take an independent course. Congressional systems have weak parties and strong committees and leaders lack the power to discipline legislators who respond more to their constituents than to their parties. These explanations take us far, but in recent years we see growing power for congressional parties and weaker parties in parliametary systems—even as institutional structure remains constant. The critical changes seem to be behavioral—as legislators in the United States represent increasingly homogenous constituencies in polarized parties. Legislators in parliamentary systems have fought to become more independent of party leaders.

We now speak of increasing polarization and heightened partisanship in the United States Congress, where party leaders control the agenda with iron fists (at least in the House) and where voters in congressional elections are more likely than at any time in the past 100 years to divide along party lines. We also speak of greater attention to constituency demands in parliamentary systems. We focus on the changing role of political parties in legislative institutions, both parliamentary and congressional, in this chapter—and examine the structural and behavioral roots of legislative behavior. We examine the impact of different institutions, varying informal rules of the game, and the varying relations between legislators and constituents.

1 Institutional Influences on Partisanship in Legislatures

A. Lawrence Lowell (1901, 332, 346), who pioneered the study of how legislators vote (in England and the United States), argued: “The parliamentary system is … the natural outgrowth and a rational expression of the division of the ruling chamber into two parties … since the ministry may be overturned at any moment, its life depends upon an unintermittent warfare and it must strive to keep its followers constantly in hand…. In America … the machinery of party has … been created outside of the regular organs of government and, hence, it is less effective and more irregular in its action.” Almost three quarters of a century later, David R. Mayhew (1974, 27) wrote: “no theoretical treatment of the United States Congress that posits parties as analytic units will go very far.” Philip Norton observed that for European parliamentary systems, “Political parties have served to … constrain the freedom of individual action by members of legislatures” (Norton 1990, 5).

The collective responsiblity of parliamentary systems binds legislators to their parties. If the government loses on a major bill, it will fall and there will be new (p. 394) elections. The parliamentary party can deny renomination to members who vote against the party. Constitutents vote overwhelmingly along party lines—members of parliament do not establish independent identities to gain “personal votes” as members of Congress do. Within the legislature, the only path to power is through the party organization. None of these factors hold within congressional systems. Members are independent entrepreneurs who serve on legislative committees that have been independent of party pressure—and often at odds with party goals. Members run for reelection with no fear that the national party can deny them renomination—or even cost them another term.

Even though roll calls are not frequent in many European parliaments, party cohesion in European national parliaments is very high. Beer (1969, 350) remarked about the British House of Commons by the end of the 1960s, that cohesion was so close to 100 percent that there was no longer any point in measuring it.

Parties were weaker in the United States. Yet, Lowell (1901, 336) noted at the turn of the twentieth century: “The amount of party voting varies much from one Congress, and even from one session, to another, and does not follow closely any fixed law of evolution.” Later scholars would invest considerable effort in finding the patterns that eluded Lowell and in comparing the relative power of parties, committees, and constituencies across the House and the Senate. The larger House of Representatives with two-year terms was much more conducive to partisanship than the smaller Senate, where members served six-year terms and were not initially publicly elected.

Saalfeld’s studies (1990, 1995) of the German Bundestag between 1949 and 1987 find strong levels of party voting for each of the three major parties. This finding is supported by other single-country studies for other European parliaments (Cowley and Norton 1999; Müller and Jenny 2000; Norton 1980).

The likelihood of defection is affected by the nature of an issue and the factor that moral as well as local issues are most likely to trigger the defection of single MPs from their party line (Skjaeveland 2001). Particularly in countries with a strong local tradition, such as Norway and Denmark, party leadership is reportedly understanding towards members dissenting for matters of local concern (Damgaard 1997). Other authors suggested that electoral factors such as a “mixed member voting system” (Burkett 1985) or the marginality of a seat (Norton 2002) might explain defections form the party line.

Power in parliamentary systems is centralized in the party leadership. In the German Bundestag party cohesion is the result of lobbying and arm twisting on the part of the party leadership (Saalfeld 1995). Similar conclusions have been reached for other European legislatures such as the Austrian Nationalrat (Müller and Jenny 2000). In the United States Congress, power has been decentralized to committees, which are often autonomous of the party leadership. Parliamentary parties’ organizational clout can be measured in terms of budget, people, and rules. In most European legislatures, individual MPs have little staff support and budget resources to forge a strong link to their constituents and to establish a knowledge and information basis to participate effectively in the parliamentary process. In contrast to this, parliamentary (p. 395) party groups are well equipped in this respect with their own budgets and a sizeable staff. Party groups in European parliaments have developed a multitude of status positions that oversee and manage the decision process within the group.

The scope of party cohesion in European parliaments has been documented on the basis of measures that go beyond floor voting. Andeweg (1997, 118) found that 44 percent of Dutch MPs in 1990 reported asking for prior permission for a written question from the parliamentary party chairperson, even though this is a constitutional right of individual MPs.

Parliamentary parties also enjoy a preeminent legal status. In the German Bundestag, standing orders require that only groups comprising 5 percent of the whole—also the threshhold for a formal caucus—may introduce legislation. Individual members of parliament have few rights to participate such as introducing amendments on the floor or asking questions on the floor. In congressional systems, the individual has far more power.

In Europe and elsewhere, parliament possesses the power to make and break governments. These functions integrate particular groups of members of parliament (MPs) in the process of government formation and government breakdown. It defines MPs in the voters’ perception and thus establishes collective responsibility. Parliamentary systems provide executives with resources such as ministerial appointments that can be used by party leaderships to induce MPs to go along with the policies of the government (Depauw 1999).

Beyond the simple dichtomy of parliamentary versus congressional systems other institutional features of the US Congress should lead to weaker partisanship as well. The president and members of each house of Congress run for election at different times and may not share a common fate, whereas a prime minister comes from parliament and is responsible to it. There is the possibility of divided control of the legislative and executive branches in the United States—and this makes assigning responsibility for legislation problematic. Senators serve six-year terms to insulate them from the whims of public opinion. Senators were initially appointed by state legislatures rather than elected. The upper chamber was designed, in George Washington’s words, to “cool” the passions of the lower house. The House has long had procedures similar to those in parliamentary systems, where the majority, if it willed, could work its will.

The Senate’s procedures have always been less majoritarian: In 1806, Senators eliminated a rule that allowed a majority to proceed to a vote and it was not until 1917 that the Senate had any procedure for calling the question. Unlimited debate, the filibuster, is a cherished tradition—now it takes sixty Senators to cut off debate. And most of the time, neither major party has sixty seats (or even when it does, sixty reliable votes). Krehbiel (1998) has argued that the potential for a filibuster means that legislative productivity in Congress does not simply reflect a “median voter” model. Instead, the capacity for enacting legislation depends upon where the “filibuster pivot” is—the positions of the member whose vote can break a filibuster in the Senate. The potential for gridlock (stalemate) is large and ordinarily it takes large majorities to enact major policy changes in the Senate (Krehbiel 1998, 47)—even more (p. 396) so under divided government. The existence of larger districts (states) of the Senate means that constituencies are more heterogeneous—so that it is more difficult for Senators to please their electorates than it is for members of the House. It also means that Senators’ own ideologies will be more diverse, with more liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats than we find in the House. Party is not the common bond for ideology in the Senate as it is in the House—Senators from the same party and the same state are rivals for leadership and often try to distinguish themselves from each other ideologically to bolster claims to power (Schiller 2000). Finally, the Senate has a long tradition of strong bonds among members (what White 1956 called the “Inner Club”), which puts a premium on getting along rather than emphasizing party differences.

Parties have not always been weak in the USA: under Czar rule in 1890–1911, party leaders had extraordinary power: Speaker Thomas Reed (R, ME) chaired the powerful House Rules Committee, made all committee assignments himself, and had complete control over the House floor and the right of recognition. Members were regularly reassigned from one committee to another when they fell out of favor with the Speaker. A division within the Republican party—as Progressives became a more important force—led to the fall of Reed’s successor, Clarence Cannon, on an obscure procedural vote in 1911 (when Progressives aligned with Democrats)—and to a decline in the role of parties in the US Congress.

The constitutional structure of the United States clearly shapes the lesser power of parties compared to parliamentary systems, especially in Europe. Yet students of Congress, from Woodrow Wilson to contemporary formal theorists, have focused more on an institutional feature of Congress that is extra-constitutional: the congressional committee system. The end of Czar rule led to the growth of a committee system that was independent of party pressures and that gave positions of authority to members based upon seniority (longevity on the committee) rather than party loyalty. Legislators seek committee assignments based upon the interests of their constituents and upon their own expertise. Once appointed to a committee, membership becomes a “property right” that cannot be abrogated (a reform enacted following the downfall of Czar rule).

Fenno (1973) stressed committee autonomy from the 1950s to the 1970s and emphasized how committees responded differently to their clienteles and their environments, rather than to a single master such as party leadership. Since conservative Southern Democrats were the most electorally secure, they dominated committee chair positions in both the House and the Senate and often blocked the agenda of the liberals who dominated the party’s legislative contingent through the 1970s.

The new institutionalist perspective of Shepsle and Weingast (1994) focuses on committees as “preference outliers” from others in the chamber and argue that distributive policy-making stems from implicit logrolling among outlier committees (see also Wilson 1967, 121). These logrolls can occur because committees are monopoly agenda setters—they operate under closed rules that prohibit others in the legislature from offering amendments. Committees, then, have an extraordinary degree of power in these models.

(p. 397) An alternative institutionalist perspective focuses on committees as information providers (Krehbiel 1991). This informational power gives committees even greater power over legislation. They may not have monopoly agenda-setting power, but their greater knowledge of policy consequences implies that they can generally get their way within the legislature. Committees are not autonomous in this model—they must respond to the majority position within the legislature (regardless of party). But committees themselves are representative of the full chambers, not preference outliers. While these “new institutionalist” perspectives are at direct variance with each other, both downplay the role of parties in Congress.

Strong committees, under any account, lead to a policy-making arena that is very different from the party-dominated legislative process found in parliamentary systems. Parties in parliamentary systems promote policies in order to get them adopted. In European parliaments, parties control committee assignments and procedures (Damgaard 1995). In the United States, committees are designed to protect constituency interests and this often means blocking rather than passing legislation. The committee system is often seen as a “legislative graveyard” since only about 6 percent of bills introduced by members become law.

The institutional structure of the congressional system is thus insufficient to explain why bills get passed. Legislators rely upon informal institutions (or norms) to build cross-party coalitions. These norms—courtesy, reciprocity, legislative work, specialization, apprenticeship (members traditionally worked their way up from minor committees to more important ones), and institutional patriotism (respecting the rules and prerogatives of each chamber)—were key factors in securing bipartisan majorities for legislation (Matthews 1960). The norms waned during the period of heightened partisanship that took hold in the 1980s (Uslaner 1993). Since parliamentary systems do not depend upon the cooperation of the majority with the minority, a strong set of norms of collegiality never took hold.

2 The Behavioral Foundations of Partisanship

The institutional structure of Congress laid the foundation for strong ties between legislators and their constituents. Members of the House faced election frequently and both House and Senate elections occurred in years when the president was not on the ballot. The weak parties meant that legislators were free to pay attention to the people who elected them—and committees were devoted to protection of constituency interests, even at the expense of party programs. Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neill (1977–1986) had a famous line that he told to junior members contemplating whether to support their party or their constituency: “All politics is local.”

(p. 398) A large literature, developed mostly during the period of weak parties, posited that members of Congress were torn between serving two masters: their parties and their constituents. In the eighteenth century, British MP (and political philosopher) Edmund Burke told his electors in his Bristol constituency that he did not feel bound to abide by their views—that he would follow his own conscience and would accept the verdict of the voters as to whether they believed he was correct (they turned him out of office).

Burke’s speech became the basis for role theory in the study of legislatures where legislators chose between the roles of delegates, who followed constituency opinion, or trustees, who followed their own conscience or their parties. Wahlke, Eulau, Buchanan, and Ferguson (1962) found, perhaps surprisingly, that most American state legislators in the five states they examined in the 1950s considered themselves trustees—with figures ranging from 55 percent in California to 81 percent in Tennessee. Only between 6 and 20 percent took on the pure “delegate” role, with the rest in between as “politicos.” A decade later Davidson (1969) found similar results for members of the US Congress.

The Burkean distinction has been used in the European context as well (Barnes 1977; Converse and Pierce 1986; Searing 1994). Only a small minority of European MPs would consider themselves delegates. In the late 1970s only 3 percent of the members of the German Bundestag regarded themselves as instructed delegates (Farah 1980, 238). Compared to their American colleagues, many European MPs spend less time communicating with constituents. An analysis of the time budget of members of the German Bundestag found that about one quarter of an average member’s time is devoted to “information and contact activities,” a summary category which also includes time spent with constituency communication (Herzog et al. 1990, 83–92).

Searing (1994) interviewed 521 British MPs to distinguish between four preference roles (policy advocate, ministerial aspirant, constituency member, parliament man) and four position roles (parliamentary private secretary, whip, junior minister, minister). Searing found many policy advocates and few parliament men among the backbenchers he interviewed. While parliament men resemble the classical concept of an amateur who enjoys being a Member of Parliament and who is absorbed by the conduct of parliamentary business, policy advocates aim at influencing government policy and develop carrying degrees of issue familiarity and expertise.

Patzelt’s (1997) interviews with German MPs from 1989 to 1992 demonstrated that MPs aim to reconcile and to synthesize the roles of trustee and delegate. European MPs are characterized by complex role sets that cannot be reduced to any single role type and that, at the same time, incorporate the notion of a partisan as a strong and predominant element within this role set (Müller and Saalfeld 1997).

In Europe, constituency has always taken a back seat to party. For the United States from the 1890s until 1911, partisanship reigned supreme and there was no conflict between party and constituency for legislators. Czar rule came to an end because of growing factionalism within the Republican Party, leading the Progressives in the House to side with the minority party (the Democrats) to defeat a routine procedural motion—marking the end of the strong Speaker. With the downfall of strong party (p. 399) leadership, members of Congress established committees with tenure not touchable by party leaders, and legislative authority of their own. Members looked more and more to their constituencies rather than to parties. Legislators were torn between which to support on the floor, as we saw as early as the 1920s, as shown by Julius Turner (later revised by Edward Schneier in Turner and Schneier 1970).

The parliamentary model of solidarity with one’s party fell by the wayside in the United States: Some issues (states rights, legislative–executive relations, patronage) showing high levels of party conflict and others (foreign policy, business, agriculture, social welfare) dividing the parties less frequently. Clausen showed for the House (and Sinclair 1982 for both houses) that levels of voting along party lines depended heavily on the nature of the issue. Economic issues were the most heavily partisan and foreign policy and social issues were the least partisan.

Many of the least loyal Democrats were from the South and the least loyal Republicans were from the East. Southern Democrats often voted more frequently with Republicans than with Northern Democrats, forming an informal “conservative coalition.” Yet, the very diversity of the Democratic Party may have been the key to the party’s long-term electoral dominance.

Mayhew (1966) argued that House Democrats were the party of “inclusive compromise.” The Republicans, with a much narrower ideological base, were the party of “exclusive compromise,” destined to maintain minority status.

Miller and Stokes (1963) earlier showed that the connections between legislators’ votes and constituency attitudes were frequently weak because members of Congress often misperceived public opinion. Most studies reported at best moderate correlations between legislators’ votes and public opinion. Achen (1975) corrected the Miller–Stokes constituency opinions for measurement error and found much stronger correlations with legislators’ votes.

Fenno (1978) argued that legislators focus not on just one constituency (the entire district), but have multiple masters. Of particular importance is the reelection constituency—mostly comprised of fellow partisans. Using data on public opinion derived from statewide exit polls in the states (Erikson, Wright, and McIver 1993) for both the full constituency (the state) and the reelection constituency (fellow state partisans), Uslaner (1999) showed that Senators respond primarily to their fellow partisans—and that there is generally a close correspondence between their own ideology and that of their reelection constituencies. His findings mirror Kingdon’s (1973) analysis of House members’ explanations for their voting behavior: the “field of forces” members face on roll calls—constituency opinion, interest group pressure, leadership mobilization, the administration, fellow members, their staff, and their own values—mostly have the bare minimum of conflict. This strikes a key blow at both the notion that legislators “shirk” their constituents in favor of their party or their own ideology—or that members must adopt either a delegate or a trustee role.

Yet, there remains tension between party and constituency demands. Members of Congress expanded their electoral base beyond their own partisans in the 1960s and 1970s by developing a strong “personal vote” apart from party identification. They attracted support across party lines through a combination of bringing back (p. 400) projects to the district, personal attention to constituents and their problems, and the ability to raise large amounts of money for their campaigns (Fiorina 1977; Jacobson and Kernell 1983). During the period of weak partisanship, the two major parties’ constituencies were not ideologically polarized. However, even as the party coalitions began to diverge more sharply in presidential politics in the 1970s, the rise in candidate-centered (as opposed to party-centered) campaigns shielded congressional incumbents from national tides favoring one party or another (Brady and Hahn 2004).

Members of Congress focused on developing “home styles” to convince constituents that they were “one of them.” Members use these “home styles” to broaden their bases of support—and they generally treat issues gingerly because ideological appeals may repel some constituents. Legislators do claim that they have power in Washington, but they are hardly above tearing down the institution to make themselves look good (Fenno 1978, 245–6). Much as Wilson feared a century earlier, “running for Congress by running against Congress” leads to a lack of concern for the collective good of the institution.

Members care more about their own electoral fates than about how well their party does—the reelection rates for the House now approach 100 percent while Senators fare less well but still prevail in about 85 percent of their races. Even in the Democratic debacle of 1994, when the party lost control of both houses (losing the House for the first time since 1954), 84 percent of Democratic Representatives seeking an additional term won (Jacobson 2004, 23). By developing home styles that focus on members’ character and service to the district, incumbents have largely insulated themselves against national political tides—and even congressional performance. The level of gridlock (or stalemate) in Congress, Binder (2003, 110) reports, has little effect on the reelection prospects of incumbents.

3 The Rise and Fall in Partisanship: Institutional and Behavioral Explanations

Cox and McCubbins (1993) argue that other “new institutionalists” have underestimated the impact of parties in Congress. Even during periods of strong committees, parties played a key role in shaping committee membership—and party leaders rarely lost votes on the floor when pitted against recalcitrant committee leaders. Poole and Rosenthal (1997) also argue that legislative voting has always been unidimensional. This single dimension encompasses both ideology and partisanship (Poole and Rosenthal 1997, 6)—so models focusing on ideology and models focusing on party are actually examining the same thing using different terms.

(p. 401) Most analysts still stand by the argument that American legislative parties were weak for much of the twentieth century, even as Brady and Hahn (2004) argue that American political life has normally been highly partisan and that the weak party era was exceptional rather than the norm. There is also general agreement that partisanship in the 1960s and especially the 1970s was much lower than normal. Beginning in 1981 with the inauguration of the Reagan administration, partisanship increased more dramatically and has continued to grow almost unabated (Rohde 1991, 51). Partisanship has now reached levels not seen in the Congress since the era of Czar rule (marked by an all-powerful Speaker) in the House at the turn of the century.

The major institutional explanations focus on structural reforms in the House of Representatives in the 1970s. The “Subcommittee Bill of Rights” transferred power from full committees to subcommittees. The initiation of electronic voting increased amending activity sharply. Party leaders also gained power at the expense of committees: the Speaker was given greater control over assigning members to committees and over referring bills to committees. There was also an expanded leadership system in the House that gave the Speaker and his aides more information. These reforms weakened most norms, especially courtesy, reciprocity, and institutional patriotism (Sinclair 1989; Smith 1989)—and placed greater power in the hands of both the party leaders and junior members. Three Southern committee chairs were removed from their positions in 1975 by the House Democratic caucus, one of the first steps in the move toward stronger parties. An even bigger boost in partisanship occcured in 1995, when the Republicans took control of Congress. Committees became much less independent of party leadership—the Speaker and his allies now control the committee appointment process, committee chairs are limited to three terms, and party renegades have found themselves relegated to minor committees and unable to advance within the party (Evans and Oleszek 1997). Recalcitrant committees faced the prospect that the leadership would take favored legislation out of their jurisdictions to be handled by special “task forces” appointed by the Speaker.

Strong party institutions and weaker committees, these institutional accounts argue, provide the foundation for greater partisanship on the part of the rank and file. Members of Congress will be more likely to toe the party line when parties are stronger. Demonstrating the effects of strong leadership on legislative voting is not so simple. Krehbiel (1993) argues that party influence in legislative voting is a mirage. Partisanship in legislative voting is simply a proxy for members’ own ideologies—Democrats are more liberal, Republicans are more conservative. As each party becomes more homogenous, partisan polarization in the legislature increases. Finding an independent effect for leadership mobilization is elusive. On precisely those issues that are most important to the parties, the leaders make the greatest efforts to mobilize their bases. What appears to be strong mobilization by leaders is really little more than homogenous preferences among followers—real party pressure would involve voting for a bill favored by the leadership even when the member does not agree with it. Without information about members’ “true preferences,” there is no way to verify this claim.

(p. 402) There have been a few studies that attempt to get past this conondrum: Sinclair (2001) examines the selection of procedural rules in the House of Representatives from 1987 to 1996. She finds that majority party members are more likely to vote for the rule than for the bill—especially when the rule restricts the freedom of the minority. Ansolabehere, Snyder, and Stewart (2001) use surveys of candidate attitudes to obtain independent measures of policy preferences and show that the legislators’ party shapes voting on roll calls even beyond the effect of member attitudes. Neither of these studies, however, measure leadership effects directly. Perhaps the only studies that get directly at leadership effects are Kingdon (1973) and Burden and Frisby (2004). Kingdon asked members of the House what factors shaped their roll call voting right after the legislators cast their ballots. He conducted his study in the weak party era (1969), so it is no surprise that he reported (Kingdon 1973, 121): “the sanctions [of party leaders] are not very effective, simply because many congressmen care more about voting as they see fit, either for ideological or political reasons, than about the risk of negative party sanctions. Members repeatedly voiced perfect willingness to defy the leadership and take whaetever consequences might come.” Burden and Frisby examine previously private Democratic whip counts in 1971–2 (also the weak party era) to see if party pressure can switch votes. These data have preferences before party efforts and on the votes on the House floor. Only a small share of votes were changed. Consistent with Krehbiel’s (1993) argument, there was general agreement within the Democratic Party (even during this period of relatively low cohesion) on the sixteen bills analyzed.

One key problem with these institutional approaches beyond the difficulty in establishing party leader effects is that the structural reforms that many posit as key to the rise in partisanship and polarization were restricted to the House of Representatives. Polarization increased in both the House and the Senate (Binder 2003; Brady and Hahn 2004; Poole and Rosenthal 1997; Uslaner 1993). The Senate was not the subject for widespread structural change at any point during the past fifty years—yet the trends in party polarization almost exactly mirror those of the House. This should not be so surprising: About 120 years ago Wilson (1967, 152–3) wrote (even as the Senate was still not directly elected): “there is a ‘latent unity’ between the Senate and the House, which makes continued antagonism between them next to impossible…. The Senate and the House are of different origins, but virtually of the same nature.”

A more behavioral approach focuses on changes outside the legislature—mostly in the electorate. Cohesive floor voting as well as party driven role conceptions and institutional choices are seen as the result of common ideologies and shared values that become manifest in strong party structures at the social level. This, in turn, is seen as the result of historical and antecedent cultural factors such as the strength of localism in society or the pattern of cleavages underlying the party system.

Cooper and Brady (1981) argue that partisanship in the United States varies over time in a cylical fashion. When partisan and constituency ties overlap (as under Czar rule and from the 1980s to the present), parties will be strong. When they do not (as in the 1940s through the 1960s), parties will be weak. Rohde (1991) argues that the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 was the turning point leading to stronger parties (p. 403) in the United States. By enfranchising African-Americans in the South, the VRA pushed white Southern conservatives into the Republican Party (where they now predominate) and made the Southern Democratic Party largely African-American (and liberal). As the Republican Party moved right, the Democrats became dominant in formerly Republican areas such as the northeast and the parties polarized. Rohde’s (1991, 35–6) argument, following upon Cooper and Brady, is called “conditional party government:” “instead of strong party leaders being the cause of high party cohesion, cohesive parties are the main precondition for strong leadership.”

While American congressmen seem to move toward the European pattern of legislative behavior, there are signs that their European colleagues are focusing less on parties and more on individual member initiative. European legislatures have reallocated resources to the benefit of individual MPs. Personal staff has increased in many legislatures since the late 1960s. In 1969, the German Bundestag bestowed German members of parliament with a moderate budget that can be used to employ staff or to pay for office expenses. Since then the figure has increased substantially. When the number of districts in Germany was reduced from 328 to 298 prior to the 2002 election, parts of the savings were used to increase the budget of individual MPs (Saalfeld 2002, 59). Similar reallocations of resources have also been reported regarding other European legislatures (Gladdish 1990).

European MPs take constituency communication and constituency services more seriously. Cain, Ferejohn, and Fiorina (1984) showed over two decades ago that paying attention to constituencies through weekly surgeries (among other things) did have a payoff in a “personal vote” for British MPs. Norton reports more recently that newly elected British MPs increasingly took up residence in their constituencies and spent more time there compared to their older colleagues (Norton 2002, 25).

Carey and Shugart (1995) and Norris (2004, ch. 10), pinpoint the ballot structure as the most important incentive to cultivate a personal vote and to stress constituency rather than party. Some European countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden apply flexible list systems which provide incentives to forge a closer link between constituents and MPs. This ballot form allows voters to move candidates up the list and to ignore the rank order as determined by party elites. However, factors such as a large district size counter-balance the initial effect of the ballot structure towards personalization.

The UK has a single member district with plurality elections system that is similar to the one in the United States. It should act as an incentive to cultivate a direct bond between MPs and constituents, since there is greater accountability than in a multimember proportional representation system. This works regarding service responsiveness to some respect but it obviously does not affect party discipline in the House of Commons and the predominance of party structures in this parliament. One might assume that the British parliamentary system as well as the social environment counter-balances the effects of the electoral system. Bogdanor (1985, 193) sees this districting system as an empty vessel because it does not allow voters choices between different party candidates like in flexible list systems. An extra device is needed, such as the primary, if they are to provide for the choice of a candidate.

(p. 404) There are other signs of greater independence for legislators in parliamentary systems as well: European national parliaments have experienced increases in individual member initiatives such as questions to the government (Gladdish 1990). Patzelt (1997) argues that European MPs are no longer simply torn between party and constituency. Instead, they are increasingly using their new resources to assert their own influence within the party—and with independent policy networks. Legislators are now increasingly becoming policy specialists (Searing 1994).

4 Consequences of Changes in Partisanship

We see two trends moving in opposite directions: stronger partisanship with a closer linkage between party and constituency in the United States; and declining partisanship and a weakening of historically strong bonds between parties and their followers in many other places, especially in Europe.

The polarization of constituents along partisan lines in the United States, together with the decline in competitive congressional districts, has heightened the level of partisan conflict in Congress. Even though voters began to sort themselves out ideologically (and by party) as early as the 1960s, it was not until the 1980s that voters’ partisanship and ideological identification began to correlate strongly with their votes for Congress (Jacobson 2004, 248–52; Brady and Hahn 2004). As older members who were out of step with their constituents (especially Southern Democrats) retired, their replacements were much more ideologically in tune—and relied less on a “personal” than an ideological (party) vote to get reelected.

Wilson argued that the weakness of the American party system, especially in comparison to stronger parties in Europe, meant less governmental responsibility and a reduced capacity for informed policy-making. The stronger partisanship, measured by both roll call voting and the strength of congressional party leadership (especially at the expense of committee leaders), would have led a “resuscitated” Wilson to rejoice. He would see a political system that has a stronger capacity for policy-making.

Yet, there remain institutional obstacles to legislative productivity, even as congressional parties behave in the manner of their majoritarian counterparts in congressional systems. An institutional factor that observers from Wilson onward have long believed to hinder the enactment of legislation is divided government. Even as the electorate has become more polarized since the 1980s, it has also shown a tendency to give both parties at least some share of the legislative and executive branches. From 1981 to 2006, there has been divided control of government 77 percent of the time. With high levels of polarization, this should be a recipe for legislative stalemate. Yet, Mayhew (1991) argues that divided government does not affect the number of (p. 405) major laws passed in Congress. Binder (2003, ch. 4), however, argues that Mayhew’s simple count of major laws does not take into account the size of the congressional agenda—and her measure of gridlock, which is the share of legislation on the nation’s agenda (as determined by daily editorials in the New York Times) that does not pass, is strongly shaped by divided control of the legislative and executive branches. Conley (2003) provides a more nuanced view of structural factors: In the era of weak parties, divided government had no significant effect on the president’s success in getting his agenda enacted by Congress. Only since party polarization has increased does divided government matter. As the level of partisanship has increased, the capacity for policy-making has decreased. Legislative stalemate became more frequent as party polarization rose (Binder 2003, 80). This polarization, among both elites and the public, has led to the waning of the norms that helped promote legislative policy-making in Congress (Uslaner 1993).

In European parliamentary systems, party voting remains as high as ever. The European Parliament is a different story: Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) overwhelmingly stick with their national parties, but are more likely to defect from their European party group. Even though this defection level is not high (about 13 percent from July 1999 to June 2000), voting contrary to one’s European party was greatest when: (1) the electoral system for an MEP is candidate-centered and decentralized; and (2) there is policy conflict between European and the national party (Hix 2004).

Increased citizen demands for more responsiveness stimulated MPs to provide more opportunities for direct communication and interaction (Saalfeld 2002; Norton 2002, 180). Changes in technological opportunity structures decrease the costs of constituency communication and also remove practical obstacles in linking MPs and their constituents, bypassing political parties (Zittel 2003). Last but not least, the weakness of political parties themselves, their loss of membership, and the erosion of their social roots raises serious questions regarding the future of party government in European democracies.

Ironically, even though norms of cooperation have not been a major focus of parliamentary systems, there is at least anecdotal evidence (from British Labour MP Tony Colman to the senior author) that incivility has become a problem. In a chamber where booing and hissing have long been part of the legislative show, it is ironic that Europe and the United States are both experiencing more hostile legislative chambers, even as one becomes more partisan and the other less ruled by parties.

We know much about what American legislators do outside of Congress and what members in parliamentary systems (especially in Europe) do inside the legislature. Future research should help us understand what we don’t know. In parliamentary systems, we should shift our emphasis away from roll calls toward behavior such as campaign strategies, constituency service, and constituency communication, or the use of parliamentary privileges such as asking questions to ministers. These are less visible and less consequential activities that will help us understand the weakening of parliamentary parties. In the United States, the key puzzle is over the “real” power of party leaders. Can leaders change members’ votes in more than a handful of cases? (p. 406) These questions, mixing quantitative research with the more intensive qualitative designs of Fenno (1973) and Kingdon (1973)—and perhaps also a greater focus on state legislatures—will help us understand why congressional parties are growing stronger and parliamentary parties are becoming weaker.


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(*) Eric M. Uslaner is grateful to the General Research Board, University of Maryland, College Park, for support on this and other projects.