If we want to improve lawmaking, we need to distinguish capacity from advantage

Citizens, the news media, and legislators themselves have become increasingly concerned about Congress’s ability to carry out its core functions, from lawmaking to representation of public opinion on policy matters to oversight of the executive branch to understanding contemporary technology and the internet. The research and commentary featured on LegBranch reflects those concerns and political science approaches to both understanding and addressing Congress’s capacity problems. A common approach is finding “what works” or “best practices,” then enhancing and replicating those practices to foster more effective operations. My research suggests that we need to be careful in identifying what truly promotes congressional capacity and what simply provides advantages that mask existing deficiencies.

Several years ago, political scientists Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman developed “Legislative Effectiveness” (LE) scores for every House member that reflect a legislator’s ability to advance her bills through the different stages of the process, from introduction to committee consideration to passage to enactment into law. Quoting former Speaker Sam Rayburn that “any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one,” Volden and Wiseman developed their LE scores to help identify what makes for better legislative “carpenters.” I have used the LE scores to calculate a measure of committee Chair Boost: how much a member’s LE score improves just by becoming a committee chair, and why.

In order to create my Chair Boost measure, I first identified every member who became a committee chair between 1973 and 2012, the years for which Volden and Wiseman have calculated LE scores. I then took these 147 chairs’ LE scores in their first term as chair and subtracted their LE scores in the congress just prior to them chairing a committee. Many of the factors that Volden and Wiseman find contribute to LE scores—a member’s gender, race, experience serving in a state legislature, and innate skill—do not change when a member becomes a committee chair. The biggest change the member experiences is their new institutional position.

My own research finds evidence that the increase in LE scores members receive by chairing a committee comes from the size and scope of their legislative jurisdictions. Many of the committees with large Chair Boosts are those that are referred many more bills than others, those with responsibility for a lot of different policy areas, or both. Figure 1 shows the average Chair Boost by committee. Those at the top (Ways and Means, Judiciary, Transportation and Infrastructure, Natural Resources, and Merchant Marines before it was eliminated in 1995) are referred thousands of bills every congress, and in the case of Ways and Means, Judiciary, and Transportation and Infrastructure, the bills they are referred cover a wide array of issues. By contrast, those committees at the bottom of the list have relatively small jurisdictions like the Post Office, D.C., and Small Business Committees or those that fulfill different roles, like the House Administration Committee and the Rules Committee. Worth noting is that Rules Committee members are tasked with advancing other legislators’ bills rather than their own.


Figure 1: Average LE Boost By Committee

Note: The x-axis represents each standing House committee with the number of new chairs between 1973 and 2012 in parentheses next to the committee name. The dots represent the average LE Boost a member received by chairing that committee, with lines representing one standard deviation in each direction.

My research also shows that the LE Boost members receive by chairing committees is not durable. A few members chaired multiple committees during this time period, but I find evidence that chairing one committee does not significantly affect the Boost a member receives by chairing a different committee. Additionally, members who stay in Congress after their term as committee chair ends often see their LE scores drop below what they were before they chaired a committee. Many committee chairs either retire or lose re-election, but 68 of the 147 chairs stayed in the House.

In Figure 2 below, the dots above the solid line represent post-chair LE scores greater than pre-chair scores, while dots below the line represent the opposite. Only three committees display higher post-chair LE scores compared to pre-chair scores; one of those, Homeland Security, represents just one member, while one of the former Judiciary chairmen, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, immediately moved over to chair the Science and Technology Committee.


Figure 2: Difference in Post-Chair and Pre-Chair LE Scores

Note:  The y-axis represents each standing House committee with the number of chairs who remained in Congress after ending their time as chair between 1973 and 2012 in parentheses next to the committee name. The dots represent the average difference between a member’s post-chair Legislative Effectiveness score and her pre-chair LE score, with lines representing one standard deviation in either direction. Dots above the solid line indicate that a member’s post-chair LE score was higher than her pre-chair LE score, while dots below the line indicate that her post-chair score was lower than her pre-chair score.

The fact that experience as committee chair does not impart durable lessons for legislative effectiveness further suggests that institutional position provides advantages—or disadvantages—to members that make it harder to discern who is a truly better “carpenter” and who is simply given a better carpentry job. Committee chairs enjoy some legislative advantages regardless of which committee they lead: more staff and a committee budget, a louder voice in deciding which bills advance past the committee stage, and closer working relationships with executive branch agencies. Perhaps most critically is that chairs are given responsibility for introducing much of the “must-pass” (or what we used to think was “must-pass”) legislation like the major reauthorization bills that keep defense, agriculture, education, and infrastructure programs up and running. Committee chairs get credit for introducing these bills (and, until a few years ago, seeing these bills pass with large bipartisan majorities) regardless of which individuals serve in that position.

Advantage, then, is different from capacity or skill. Chairing a powerful  committee like Transportation or Judiciary can make some members seem more capable than they really are. One recent example might be former Rep. John Mica (R-FL), who as Transportation Committee chairman had a LE score 14 times greater than the average House member, but who also was responsible for what fellow Republican and former Transportation Committee member Ray LaHood called “the worst transportation bill” in 35 years.

On this point, I find evidence (shown in Figure 3 below) that pre-chair LE scores have been declining since the 103rd Congress (1993-1994), which means that the members who are gaining the institutional advantages of chairing a committee, along with much of the responsibility for advancing Congress’s legislative and oversight agendas, have been less and less effective over the past 25 years, according to this measure. Little wonder, then, that so many are underwhelmed by the institution’s recent performance.


Figure 3: Trend in LE Scores of Members Who Become Committee Chair

Note: The y-axis represents the average LE score of members who would become committee chair in the following congress. The blue line represents a smoothed trend line with a shaded area representing standard errors in either direction. The dotted line represents 1, the average LE score for all House members set by Volden and Wiseman/ Dots above the line represent above-average LE scores and dots below the line represent below-average scores. In this case, below-average scores tend to correspond to members who were in the minority party then became chair in the next congress when their party held a majority of House seats.

My research is not meant to suggest that Volden and Wiseman’s LE scores are deficient; they remain good indicators of which members prioritize legislation as part of their job. But we need to look carefully at what efforts would truly improve the institution’s capacity to fulfill its different responsibilities and what would merely provide members with additional resources and advantages.

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Topics: Representation & Leadership
Jonathan Lewallen
Jonathan Lewallen specializes in the public policy process and agenda setting in American political institutions. His research interests also include ...