Broad Bills or Particularistic Policy? Historical Patterns in American State Legislatures

This is a review of Broad Bills of Particularistic Policy? Historical Patterns in American State Legislatures (2010) by Gerald Gamm and Thad Kousser. American Political Science Review 104 (February): 151-170. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

If you want your legislators to pass general policies that benefit the state as a whole, pay them less, make districts bigger, and strive for partisan balance. If you want your legislators to pass pork and other district-focused bills, pay them more, make districts smaller, and promote one-party government.

When will state legislators take on broad revisions to state policy, and when will they focus instead on particularistic bills (that is, bills that benefit only their home district)?

Broad bills ensure that general state policies remain current and fair, but legislators might avoid them for two reasons. First, they are technically complicated; if you wish to revise the state highway code, for example, you will need expert advice and probably a few studies. Second, they are politically difficult to pass; since they influence the entire state, you’ve got to work to bring a coalition of legislators on board with your proposal. By contrast, “district” bills are technically less complicated; the process of campaigning generally gives legislators all the information they need about some pressing local problem. District bills are also politically easier to pass; since they don’t have any impact outside of a small geographical area, other legislators have no reason to oppose most district bills.

By examining every bill introduced in 13 states in 1881, 1901, 1921, 1941, 1961, 1981, and 1997–that’s over 165,000 bills–Gamm and Kousser try to explain why some states produce so many more district bills than others. In Alabama, only 53% of bills had statewide impact; in Nebraska, 77% did. In general, Gamm and Kousser find that states pass more district bills when legislators have incentives to build up their reelection constituency or to make themselves stand out as an individual, but they pass more statewide bills when legislators have incentives to develop their influence and power within the state legislature. There’s more to it than that, though.

Hypotheses and Findings

Gamm and Kousser identify specific conditions under which legislators might prefer to introduce district bills or statewide bills.

Hypothesis 1 (one-party dominance): When the major parties are evenly balanced in a state, you’ll see more statewide bills; when one party dominates, you’ll see more district bills. This prediction is based on Key’s seminal 1949 book, Southern Politics in State and Nation. Key wrote that two-party competition produces “conditions favorable to government according to rule or general principle” (e.g. statewide bills); by contrast,  “in a loose, catch-as-catch-can [one-party] politics highly unstable coalitions must be held together by whatever means is available…. A loose factional system lacks the power to carry out sustained programs of action [e.g. statewide bills]” (pages 305, 308). In other words, two-party competition creates strong incentives for each party to form a statewide brand name by competing over statewide policies; in a one-party system, unstable factional coalitions within the supermajority party need to be held together with pork and other district bills. This hypothesis is confirmed in the analysis.

Hypothesis 2 (legislative salary): Legislators will introduce more district bills if they are paid more. California’s legislators earn six-figure salaries each year; Montana’s earn less than $10,000. Higher salaries create higher incentives to hold onto your job. Thus, higher salaries create incentives to deliver pork and other particularistic bills to voters in your district, even at the expense of pursuing the state’s general interest. This hypothesis is also confirmed in the analysis.

Hypothesis 3 (session length): Legislators will introduce more statewide bills if they are in session longer. California’s legislators are in session almost year round; in other states, legislators meet only one or two months per year. Because statewide bills are more complicated to write and pass than district bills, you will see fewer statewide bills in states with shorter sessions. As it happens, however, the data do not bear out this expectation; session length appears to have no relationship with the types of bills that pass.

Hypothesis 4 (turnover): Legislators can increase their statute within the legislature by building coalitions and passing statewide bills. As turnover decreases and legislators serve longer, they gain incentives to develop their stature within the legislature. As such, decreased turnover should lead to increased statewide bills. That’s the expectation, anyway. In the analysis, Gamm and Kousser find the opposite: Higher turnover leads to more focus on statewide bills. Perhaps their logic was off. Perhaps what’s really going on is this: Legislators who know they won’t stay long have less need to build up their reelection constituency (with district bills), so they can instead focus on statewide needs. I’m sure Kousser would rather not say this, but…score one for term limits?

Hypothesis 6 (district size): If districts are larger, legislators will focus more on statewide bills. Larger districts include more cities and towns, meaning that an individual district bill will reach a smaller portion of the district. In this situation, a more effective way to show the entire district that their legislator is attentive to their needs might be to pass statewide bills rather than district bills. This hypothesis is confirmed in the analysis.

Yes, I skipped hypothesis 5. I found it unpersuasive, and it ended up being statistically insignificant in the final analysis.

Punchline: If you want your legislators to pass general policies that benefit the state as a whole, pay them less, make districts bigger, and strive for partisan balance. If you want your legislators to pass pork and other district-focused bills, pay them more, make districts smaller, and promote one-party government.

Comment and Criticism

Gamm and Kousser are right to look to state legislatures to answer this question. Too often, folks think that they have to look at Congress if they want to study legislative process. The trouble with that is that there are no cross-sectional variations in the variables that we might expect to matter. In any given year, the majority party margin is the same for every member of the U.S. House; so is the salary, session length, average turnover, and so on. Sure, these things vary over time–but ALL of them vary from year to year, making it hard to tell which over-time variation is influencing the results.

Sometimes, folks who give up on Congress try instead to compare countries to one another. This approach is useful, but it introduces a host of other complications (variations in culture, constitutions, voting rules, etc.). The state legislatures are the perfect venue for this research question. The authors are able to study all the variables they care about, but all their observations are similar by virtue of their status as members of a common political system.

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