Those who study Congress have engaged in long arguments about the importance (or lack thereof) of Congressional leaders in influencing outcomes. Among others, see Cox and McCubbins 1993 and 2005, Krehbiel 1993 and 1998, Binder 1996, and so on. But in a recent article published in SPPQ, Battista asks an important prior question: Do we even know what “leadership” is? All these theories argue whether policy outcomes change depending on the strength of leadership. Battista wonders whether we even know how to measure the strength of leadership in the first place.

Battista looks to the literature on state legislatures, where we’ve seen two general approaches to measuring leadership strength.

  • First, we can look at the formal rules and award the leadership more “strength” points based on the Speaker’s written powers. Can the speaker appoint other legislators to internal positions without a vote? Can the speaker appoint committees? Can the speaker control chamber resources? Can the speaker control floor procedure?
  • Second, we can simply poll legislators in every state and ask them to rate the strength of their chamber leadership relative to other political actors in their state.

If I read correctly, Battista didn’t calculate either of these measures. He wisely collected them from researchers who had used them in the past, and then he compared them. If both measurement approaches are getting at the same underlying construct–leadership strength–then they should correlate.

Trouble is, these two measures don’t really correlate, especially when we exclude southern states from the analysis. The correlation coefficients are close to zero, and they fluctuate between statistical insignificance and borderline significance depending on the specification Battista uses.

As such, if we want to study the effects of leadership strength, we need to think carefully about how to measure it appropriately. Perhaps formal leadership powers have one set of effects, whereas perceived leadership power has a different set of effects.