Andrew Clem home

R. Douglas Arnold
on Congress

(This is a synopsis of a book report submitted to Prof. Martha Derthick, in her Seminar in American National Institutions at the University of Virginia, December 10, 1991, with a May 2002 postscript.)

R. Douglas Arnold's
The Logic of Congressional Action:
A Model to Evaluate Capitol Hill Reform Proposals
by Andrew Clem

I.   Introduction

The capacity of legislative assemblies to enact coherent and responsible policies on behalf of the broad public interest has always been open to question. An inherent weakness of democratic government is that a legislator's pursuit of his or her own constituent's parochial interests often undermines the effective resolution of larger national concerns. As long as a nation prospers, some short-sighted frivolity and "pork barrel" politics can be tolerated. However, amidst the ongoing power shifts in the global economy, many political observers view with alarm the seeming lack of will in the United States Congress to undertake urgent economic reforms. If the threats to our nation's financial integrity posed by fiscal deficits, trade deficits, and bank collapse are as great as many economists say, why is it that so few legislators do more than make symbolic gestures on trivial matters? Why does parochial paralysis in Congress seem to prevail?

The Logic of Congressional Action, by R. Douglas Arnold (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990) poses the opposite question. Taking parochial behavior for granted, he asks instead, "What are the conditions under which a legislature can muster the will to brave the wrath of noisy constituents and enact rational measures for the broader national good?" He elaborates a systematic model of rational decision-making behavior that rather convincingly approximates reality. He thus rescues hard-headed realist analysis from the trap of cynicism, and offers hope for those seeking effective solutions to the parochial rut into which Capitol Hill discourse has sunk.

The majority of this paper will describe the model that Arnold's book expounds; since it follows the same sequence as the book, no specific citations will be made. The final section will examine various proposals for Congressional reform in the context of Arnold's framework.

II.   Arnold's Model: The Interaction of Congressional and Voter Decision-Making Logic

Arnold begins with the simplifying assumption that legislators seek re-election as a priority goal, and may act to attain other goals as long as they don't threaten chances of re-election. He thus abstracts from the likelihood that some individual legislators may choose not to run again, or that they may vote in accordance with their convictions even if it risks defeat at the polls. For purposes of formulating a tight theory, it is safe to discount these as significant considerations.

When members of Congress decide on matters on the legislative agenda, their choices are dichotomous, either yes or no. They vote according to their calculations of electoral effect, but if voters show no strong inclination, they will use other criteria. Their own views of the desirability and effectiveness of the policy at issue may be decisive, just as the custom of trading favors with their colleagues often shapes their votes as well.

Arnold calls the key players who inspire legislative action "coalition leaders." They may be members of Congress or activist outsiders. Coalition leaders are the ones who assign priorities from a multiple list and define the choices that will be voted on by Congress.

The influences that a legislator must pay heed to consist of first, those voter opinions that are expressed out loud, whether by mail, phone call, opinion survey, or in public meetings. But there are also latent sentiments which Arnold labels "potential preferences", which are what voters would want if they actually thought about a particular issue. Experienced legislators' intuition helps to discern potential preferences. Whether public opinion on a given matter is sufficiently strong to change voting behavior is something that legislators must subjectively estimate. Charisma can provide electoral immunity to some politicians such as President Reagan, whose "teflon coating" made people overlook his mistakes.

The incidence of costs and benefits shapes public preferences, as do the perception of links between government policy instruments and actual good and bad effects. Arnold assumes that these policy attributes are what determine preferences. Arnold assumes that citizens have preferences with regard to outcomes, but no well-defined preferences as to the policies for achieving them. The latter depend on formally-elaborated views of how the world works. Given that only a small percentage of Americans have college degrees in social sciences (which themselves contain contrasting paradigms), the causes of social problems and effects of government policies are likely to remain a mysterious muddle.

For policies with few stages leading to the desired outcome, retrospective evaluation is about the same as prospective evaluation. However, for more complex policies, there is an inherent perceptual problem. Few people understand economists' arguments for indirect incentives which require several intermediate stages to "bear fruit," and thus are more apt to favor direct controls and regulations, which are anathema to economic thinkers.

The probability that a citizen will notice particular policy costs or benefits depends on:

  1. Magnitude. Relative effects are especially noted by citizens, which explains why the seemingly modest 10-cent per gallon gasoline tax proposal was so fiercely shouted down.
  2. Timing. Citizens notice early-order effects, but don't understand later effects.
  3. Proximity. The geographic concentration of effects is a central aspect. People first become conscious of an economic recession when one of their neighbors loses his job.
  4. An instigator. The availability of an articulate complainer (such as Ralph Nader) is vital to raise the public's consciousness.

Arnold stresses how objective material motivations interact with subjective philosophical orientations: "Politics is simultaneously a struggle among individuals attempting to advance their own private interests and a competition among citizens who have different conceptions of the public interest." He acknowledges that policy preferences are subject to change, but they change in predictable ways that leaves his theory intact.

Voters generally apply one of the four basic decision rules that Arnold outlines. The first two are anticipatory (prospective), focusing on the campaign policy positions (promises) of either the party or the individual candidate, and the latter two focus on the actual performance (results) of past government policy (retrospective).

  1. Party position (prospective): Some people are ideologically-oriented party loyalists, while others switch according to issues raised by parties in the campaign.
  2. Candidate position (prospective): Decision making with limited information is possible, as voters can choose candidates by knowing only one of the candidate's position, either by voting against any candidates with contrary positions or by voting for candidates with "good" positions.
  3. Party performance (retrospective): V.O. Key showed this decision rule is used often by voters, but his study was made in 1961. This rule requires very little information for voters to choose: the voter need only know what party has been in power and whether conditions have been improving or declining. The party performance rule is said to be effective in holding government accountable for its policies, and was used very astutely during the Reagan campaign of 1980.
  4. Candidate performance (retrospective): There is an unknown extent of use of this rule. It requires voters to trace effects of specific decisions made by their representatives, but it's hard to pin blame for broad problems such as inflation or crime.

Arnold then begins to analyze how policy decisions affect elections. He notes that "Most legislators win elections by at least 5 - 10% points, and few single issues could possibly diminish their winning margins by that much. Yet legislators are a cautious lot." The slight effects of several "wrong" votes can add up, and single issue groups punish Congressmen who abstain on crucial votes. They thus are driven to "defensive voting" that seeks to avoid offending the loudest constituent groups.

To avoid electoral retribution for bad incumbent performance, legislators can refuse to join any action that produces large, traceable costs. But to avoid electoral retribution for bad party performance, they must join with other legislators to produce pleasing effects. The risks taken by a courageous individual legislator to initiate an action often outweigh the benefits that will be "spread around" among his colleagues. Thus, the collective action problem impedes action.

Most "attentive publics" (activists and others who read the news voice their concerns on particular issues) are interested in a variety of issues, so legislators must stake positions carefully to hold together a winning electoral coalition. Legislators side with inattentive publics if they are sufficiently numerous, if the intensity of preferences isn't too strong among attentive publics, and if effects are traceable. These conditions don't often hold.

Arnold classified four types of policies according to how their attributes affect the legislators' electoral prospects:

  1. Politically infeasible policies: those with large, direct early order costs on constituents with late-order benefits to diffuse publics. Legislators' fear of retrospective voting makes them shun these.
  2. Politically attractive policies: where local benefits are obvious, but the costs are hidden and diffuse. Pork barrel projects such as hydroelectric dams are a favorite, but nobody notices the economic and environmental costs until it's too late.
  3. Politically compelling policies: The popularity of the intended effects outweighs the legislator's doubts that the means will actually work, because his opposition would be construed as lack of sympathy. The recent rush by the Senate to vote on Alphonse D'Amato's proposal to cap credit card interest rates was a classic example.
  4. Politically repellant policies: When citizens can't see the link between proposed policy instruments and intended effects. E.g., pollution tax looks like a sell-out to corporations, and President Bush's capital gains tax appears to many as a mere favor to the rich.

Ideally, rational legislators who seek re-election should follow a four step procedure in order to decide how to vote on a given policy question. But since in practice, they lack the information to systematically evaluate preferences thus, legislators are apt to "take cues" from colleagues with expertise in the subject and with similar constituencies.

  1. Identify all attentive and inattentive publics that might care about an issue.
  2. Estimate the direction and intensity of actual and potential preferences.
  3. Estimate the probability that potential preferences will become actual.
  4. Weigh all these preferences according to size of attentive and inattentive publics, giving special weight to loyal voters.

In order for legislators and outsider activists who act as legislative coalition leaders to win battles on the floor and in committees, they must devise and skillfully implement strategies that will focus attention on (or deflect it from) the links between public policy and effects. Arnold notes that policies that promise large early-order benefits tend to attract coalition leaders more than those promising later benefits. It is the application of these strategies that provides the key to overcoming the inherent proclivity of Congressmen to yield to the demands of particular constituent groups in spite of their own better judgment.

  1. Strategies of persuasion: Coalition leaders contend that the proposal is a good idea on its own merits and it won't cause electoral retribution. National defense is a favorite justification. This is the best strategy in the long run, but often has sharp short-term costs.
  2. Strategies of procedure: Coalition leaders maneuver the legislative situation to either raise or lower the ability of instigators to rouse inattentive publics; e.g., camouflage pay raise votes in riders to other bills. The key is to break the "traceable link" between policy and effect. Omnibus bills are a frequent ploy. Procedural strategies were essential for enacting gasoline rationing, for deregulating oil and natural gas, for cutting spending as requested by Reagan, and for reforming the tax system.
  3. Strategies of modification: Coalition leaders alter a proposal to attract more coalition leaders without sacrificing the core values. Good for targeting groups to build a coalition early on.

Four broad factors determine the decisions that members of Congress make, of which only the second and third are dealt with in this book:

  1. Which proposals the coalition leaders introduce;
  2. Which strategies proponents and opponents employ;
  3. Which actions attentive and inattentive citizens will allow;
  4. Which policies the individual legislators prefer.

Since a minor change in any of the above can change a decision, an indeterminacy often obtains in the causal model. Nevertheless, there is still a large role for theory to play. Arnold cited the milk and sugar support programs to show how policy attributes do lead to predictable outcomes. Both programs imposed small relative costs on the general public, but they worked in different ways. Since dairy support costs were obscured in the Federal budget, they had no visible impact on consumers. However, retail sugar prices reflected the effects of the import quotas, and after inflation skyrocketed in 1974, opponents succeeded in labelling the program as inflationary. So, the dairy program survived and the sugar program was allowed to lapse.

Arnold then proceeds to specify the conditions that force legislators to serve the interests of various segments of the citizenry. Legislators are forced to act on behalf of inattentive, attentive, or diffuse publics depending upon:

  1. The degree to which the particular issue is (at least potentially) salient to a large number of the respective voter groups, and
  2. The availability of talented legislative leaders who will use strategies to focus attention on the link between an individual legislator's action and the resulting policy effects. Attentive citizens are more apt to hold legislators accountable. The interests of the diffuse public at large are served when coalition leaders are able to use procedures to highlight the traceability of general effects.

The procedural tactics of secrecy, unrecorded votes, and restrictive rules don't necessarily favor either attentive or inattentive voters; they can be used for the benefit either concentrated or diffuse interests. The most durable legislative coalitions are those which support programs that deliver regular, big benefits to the same people. Legislators can seldom bear the political costs of terminating the "addiction" of particular localities to military bases that would be closed if only rational criteria applied. General benefits to the overall public acquire greater political importance when coalition leaders can play competing parochial groups off each other. Thus, Arnold's theory provides several venues that crusading public-spirited rationalistic economizers might profitably take in Congress, but it also points out roadblocks that should be avoided.

III.   Arnold's Model Applied to Policy Analysis

In Chapters 7, 8, and 9 Arnold proceeded to apply his model of rational decision-making to three policy areas: economics, taxes, and energy. Regarding derivative economic policies (those with noneconomic primary aims), legislators' political calculations revolve around the noneconomic components, and expect citizens to focus on particular group costs, not general costs. Still, effective coalition leaders can sometimes raise legislators' consciousness of economic and political impacts. For example, in 1975 Sen. Edmund Muskie used that tactic to turn back the proposed expansion of school lunch and military procurement programs. Conversely, explicit economic policies have a larger potential for retrospective voting behavior that "punishes" and "rewards;" legislators expect citizens to focus on general costs, not group costs.

Arnold disputes the conventional wisdom that the Executive Branch is more fiscally responsible than the Legislative because the latter is allegedly more sensitive to parochial demands for spending. He notes that from 1947 to 1984, Congress appropriated an average of $1 billion less per year than the President had requested. Arnold concludes that Congress can respond to general concerns under the right conditions, and if anything has been more conservative than the President regarding the budget.

Sympathy for the late President Kennedy helped passage in 1964 of the tax cut which he had proposed. Legislators were not philosophically converted to Keynesianism, but they did become more receptive to spending boosts as long as they didn't have to vote on the overall deficit per se. However, it wasn't generally realized at the time that the necessary counterpart to stimulative deficits was not politically feasible; Keynes had called for offsetting budget surpluses in good years, but the positive effects would be too hard to trace. The asymmetrical political incentives later gave rise to truly gigantic deficits in the 1970's and 1980's.

Arnold pointed out that across-the-board tax cuts are hardly noticed by people, so legislators prefer to target key groups in order to maximize the political benefit. This has low short-term costs and is easier than voting actual benefits for those favored groups.

Congress went along with Reagan's "Economic Recovery Tax Act" in 1981 not because they believed in Supply Side theory, but because they could easily be punished by voters for blocking the President's program, while if it failed and deficits rose the blame would be on the President. The Fiscal Year 1982 tax and spending cuts were achieved by combining budget reductions into a single package, decreasing the chances that voters would blame their legislators for the loss of specific benefits.

After budget deficits soared during Reagan's first term, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings automatic deficit reduction scheme was concocted. Congress was vainly striving to put itself in the position of voting for fiscal responsibility without ever having to vote to cut specific group/geographic benefits and thus suffer the electoral consequences from voters. This could be seen as the ultimate "procedural" strategy, but the Supreme Court's negative ruling crippled it. Bob Packwood noted that the open budget conferences raised the power of parochial lobbyists, posing a major obstacle to reforming the budget process.

Arnold's closing chapter deals with proposed reforms to reassert "citizens' control of government." He says that if all voters used the party performance rule, legislators from the governing party would have a strong incentive to anticipate citizen needs and pass programs to produce results. But if it's not the predominant rule, citizen control is not guaranteed. Likewise, the party position rule is inadequate given the lack of binding mechanisms on individual legislators.

Arnold doubts that American political parties can be substantially reinvigorated, and says that in a system with weak parties, citizen control becomes a multi-step process of individual responsiveness, control of the agenda, and policy responsiveness. Arnold believes that Congressional procedures should be reformed to permit the effectiveness of the incumbent performance rule and responsiveness to general interests. Caution is much in order, because mistakes can be costly. The reforms of the 1970's that "opened" Congressional decision-making to the people tragically backfired, being based on a faulty understanding of citizen control mechanisms. Ironically, lobbyists and pressure groups were the main beneficiaries, as Packwood's experience with tax reform showed. Restricting the practice of attaching parochial amendments to unrelated bills should not be seen as anti-democratic, but as a necessary safeguard of the expression of the broad democratic will. Above all, says Arnold, voters must demand that their legislators stand up and be counted on broad policy issues!

(May, 2002)
Ten Years Later: A Triumph of Reform?

Though the issues have changed, Arnold's classic book has instructive lessons for us today. How soon people forget just how bleak the fiscal prospects for the United States looked a decade ago. People like me working in the Concord Coalition wondered if the country was going down the tubes permanently, as partisan bickering in Washington made any fundamental reform impossible, or so it seemed. George Bush Sr. was locked in a losing battle with the Democratic-controlled Congress, backing down at every showdown with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. It was largely because of the widening budget deficit and despair over the ability of the government in Washington to ever "get its house in order" that outsiders such as H. Ross Perot came to the fore. Though fatally flawed as a politician, Perot's surprising 20% share of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election did at least spark a movement demanding that fundamental changes be made. Fortunately, President Bill Clinton heeded the words of his economic-minded advisers (above all, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin), and reneged on his campaign promise to enact a broad-based Keyesian-style "economic stimulus program." In 1994 Newt Gingrich plotted a winning strategy by mobilizing the undercurrent of anti-Washington anger, and the Republican's Contract With America can in large part be ascribed to Perot, the Concord Coalition, and other "hyper-attentive" citizen activists. It just happened that short-term tactical political considerations created a fortuitous opportunity for one side or the other to enact a major long-term shift in policy. This was not a hand-holding love-fest among enlightened statesmen, but a bitterly contentious wrestling match that could easily have turned out much differently. Arnold's book makes sense of the strange connection between political expediency and policy imperatives, and to me it is one of the best, most insightful treatments of U.S. policy-making I have ever read. As a result of the permanent cap on both spending AND revenues, the Federal Government budget began to dwindle away during the mid-1990s. As the fiscal crisis melted away, the availabilty of capital for long-term investment skyrocketed, launching the greatest economic boom in the history of the Republic.

So are we living happily ever after? Will people remember the lessons that were learned so painfully? That depends on the courage and forthrightness of political leaders in BOTH parties. Leaders on both the Republican side AND the Democratic side "did the right thing" to some extent during the 1990s, and neither side should rewrite history and falsely try to claim all the credit for themselves.