Volume 25, Number 2, July 2002

  • A Chill in the House: Actor Perspectives on Change and Continuity in the Pursuit of Legislative Success
  • Congress and the Politics of Emerging Rights
  • Discharging Congress: Government by Commission
  • Hitching a Ride: Agenda-Setting in the Shadow of the Omnibus
  • The Impact of Women in Public Office
  • Political Parties and Policy Gridlock in American Government
  • Racialized Coverage of Congress: The News in Black and White
  • Reforming Parliamentary Committees
  • A Chill in the House: Actor Perspectives on Change and Continuity in the Pursuit of Legislative Success. Lewis G. Irwin. State University of New York Press, 2002. ISBN 0791451747. $25.95, paperback. 259 pages.

    Irwin sets out to focus this work not on the changes that have taken place in the House of Representatives since the 1960s (as is common in current scholarly literature), but rather to focus on the element that has remained constant. That constant is the absolute necessity of coalition building to legislative success. Irwin argues that coalition building has become much more difficult in the House, and thus legislative success has become rarer.

    Irwin uses several methods in this study, including comparative case studies (from the 87th, 88th and 103rd Congresses), actor interviews, and aggregate member characteristics. Irwin provides good justification for each of the methods used, as well as appendices detailing the case selection and interview processes. The methods are explained and seem to be used well in tandem to produce stronger support for the argument. 

    At no point in this work does Irwin deny that changes have taken place in the House, especially among the actors, processes and strategies involved in legislating. However, he continues to maintain that the underlying components of legislative success have remained largely the same over the decades.

    Irwin concludes with a new model of legislative success, which accounts for two specific obstacles to building a successful coalition. First, members are constantly in the midst of the "money chase", which leads to an increased workload for all members and less opportunity (and less inclination) to form interpersonal relationships with colleagues. Second, there has been a general net decrease in trust among members. In short, members must work harder to build a support base for any piece of legislation.

    One specific point that Irwin neglected to address adequately is the Republican Congress since 1995. In a very brief epilogue, he glances over the pessimistic views of current and veteran legislators regarding the Republican leadership and its effects on the policymaking process, but that is the end of his treatment of the subject.

     -- Courtney Cullison
    Carl Albert Fellow
    University of Oklahoma

    Congress and the Politics of Emerging Rights. Colton C. Campbell and John F. Stack, Jr. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002.  ISBN 0742516474, $24.95, paper, 208 pages.

    The modern age can be marked by its dedication to and expansion of the concept of rights. Not only has our understanding of rights become more involved and complex, but also we have been faced with the creation of new rights (many of which have come to surface with the advent of advanced technology). In this edited volume, some organization is attempted for understanding this new age of rights, particularly regarding how Congress has dealt with the rise in rights conflicts. As the Constitution only scratched the surface of how far the rights issue would need to be addressed, Campbell and Stack and their contributors attempt to shed light on the unique role of Congress in defining the scope of rights in the American lexicon of justice. 

    While most of the articles in this book offer something closer to a report on how congressional action has shaped the evolution of old rights and the creation of new rights, a few of the articles draw deeper conclusions that help set this work in the camp of rights theory. The Regan chapter on privacy rights develops an important insight into contemporary rights debates: rather than focusing on rights as they exist because of our worth as moral beings, the dialogue of rights has evolved to focus on humans primarily as consumers. Thus, "the individual is protected as a consumer or purchaser, not as a moral being" (63). Rights, conceived as instruments of protection alone and outside the realm of moral inherency, can be dangerous as political actors can use them as bargaining chips in coalitions rather than as benchmarks for a just society. In a separate chapter about the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), Rae reminds us how the label "rights" can be used to frame an issue which might not get attention without that identification. When something is referred to as a "right", it assumes the power of trump. This has had a huge impact on how issues get placed on the policy agenda.

    Each chapter offers a different angle on what rights have become. While the first and second segments of the book focuses on individual rights, the third segment focuses on the rights of institutions, and the final chapter filters American rights theory through a comparative lens. What results is a collection of articles that are very loosely tied together. There seems to be no overarching argument made by the book and, in lieu of a conclusion that ties the works together, the editors provide a reprint of the Constitution and its subsequent amendments.

    -- Lynsey Morris
    Carl Albert Fellow
    University of Oklahoma

    Discharging Congress: Government by Commission.  Colton C. Campbell. Praeger Press, 2002. ISBN 0275975118, $62.95, cloth, 216 pages.

    In Discharging Congress, Campbell explores the proliferation in Congress of ad hoc commissions, i.e. "blue-ribbon commissions, committees, councils, boards, or task forces" (xiii). Commissions have become increasingly popular congressional tools, consisting of both elected and nonelected officials to address a wide range of policy issues. Critics of congressional commissions argue that they allow Congress to shirk its legislative responsibilities. Colton suggests, however, that "the circumstances that surround the creation of ad hoc commissions are complex and vary widely" (xvi). Avoidance is only one of many justifications for congressional commissions.

    After examining the evolution and structure of commissions, the book turns to the "path and politics of the delegation process" (xvi). Campbell suggests that Congress delegates issues to ad hoc commissions for expertise, workload, and avoidance. The next three chapters present examples of issues delegated by Congress because of information deficiency or the need for issue expertise, because of workload constraints, or because of blame avoidance. In the end, the author concludes that commissions are used by the modern Congress to reach a number of goals through delegation. 

    Combining both interview and non-interview data, Campbell surveys the congressional commissions established between the 93rd and 106th Congresses, while conducting interviews during the 103rd through the 106th Congresses. The contribution of this work to congressional theory is three-fold. First, this book examines a critical aspect of the modern Congress largely neglected by congressional theorists -- the proliferation of congressional commissions. Secondly, as the author suggests, it is the first study of congressional commissions to span a number of commissions rather than a single case study. Finally and perhaps most notably, the author develops a three-pronged theoretical framework (expertise, workload, and avoidance) for understanding the delegation of issues to commissions. 

    In the end, Campbell contends: "When used astutely, ad hoc commissions foster bargaining, consensus, and compromise in relation to policy proposals, mitigating conflict within Congress that might incapacitate the institution" (132). We must be aware, however, that commissions can also be used to shirk congressional responsiveness. It is the responsibility of Congress to use the ad hoc commission sparingly, when it is actually "better suited to resolving the policy problems... than is the normal legislative process" (134).

    -- Jocelyn Jones
    Carl Albert Fellow
    University of Oklahoma

    Hitching a Ride: Agenda-Setting in the Shadow of the Omnibus.  Glen S. Krutz.  Ohio State University Press, 2001. ISBN 0814208703, $60.00, cloth, 232 pages.

    Krutz begins this compact and tightly written book with two general goals: to investigate why Congress has made the move toward omnibus legislation; and secondly, to define omnibus legislation more clearly than the literature has to date. He succeeds in fulfilling both, and uses the omnibus vehicle aptly to address questions that are institutional in nature and pose some interesting challenges to existing assumptions about the nature of congressional and presidential behavior.

    Krutz frames this investigation within Schattschneider's scope of conflict, and thus highlights the major fear of those who oppose this sort of legislation: omnibus bills focus on a necessary activity that Congress performs (such as the passage of a budget reconciliation bill), but may contain numerous controversial provisions that go relatively unnoticed. Omnibus bills enjoy fast-tracking through committees because they are often considered "essential" business, and therefore debate over legislation remains largely in the realm of the bill's broader issues. This overshadowing of more contentious agenda items serves two general purposes: first, it allows Congressional leadership the ability to minimize debate surrounding policy proposals that may not enjoy either broad support from Congress as a whole or more particularistic support from committees; and second, prior to the presidential line-item veto, it served as a means for Congress to push through legislation that it knew the president would find distasteful. By lessening the visibility of controversial issues and increasing the complexity of the legislative assessment process, the scope of conflict over such amendments remains narrow.

    Since, as Krutz points out, omnibus bills are by and large successful in passing through the gauntlet of congressional and presidential approval, one might wonder why the majority of legislation debated by Congress is still traditional legislation, sponsored by one or two members, and far more likely to meet with failure. Krutz addresses this question by examining why, as he puts it, "some bills 'hitch a ride on the omnibus' while most must go it alone" (7), and by investigating who benefits from such legislation, Congress or the president? The book's theoretical framework addresses the longstanding "discussion" between institutional scholars and behavioralists. As Krutz points out, these two camps offer competing theories as to what is responsible for change in the structure of institutional rules over time: pressures of the environment in which Congress operates; or the purposive actions of key members. Krutz then enters a discussion of the "organizational perspective" in congressional literature, which despite its obvious pertinence to the broader arguments laid out already, does not quite seem to gel. In contrast, his discussion of the "purposive explanations of institutional change" is far more cohesive, probably because he focuses primarily on two types of approaches: partisan and distributive, where the literature is better developed (and cross-referenced, one might add). This is a pity, since the organizational perspective is, as Krutz himself observed, an obvious fit for the thrust of his research questions, but sorely underutilized in research on political (as opposed to administrative) institutions. Perhaps the most telling point is Krutz' conclusion at the end of this chapter that in reality, the argument that these are competing theories of congressional change is really a straw man: both contribute to institutional change over time. Krutz then develops an integrated framework that allows an examination of both micro-level (individual action) and macro-level (institutional action) developments as well as the influence that both levels exert on each other. The key to the integrated model is both the differentiation between major influences for each level and the expectation that it is the interaction of these influences that creates the institutional capacity for change. Macro-level influences are those that affect both the behavior of individuals and the behavior of Congress in its relationship with the executive. Micro-level influences are the incentives that prompt individual members to form coalitions and thereby pass legislation. 

    In order to answer the questions posed above through the framework, the omnibus is described as a way for Congress and its members to "manage uncertainty in the legislative process" (32). Thus one would expect that the more complicated and unwieldy the process becomes, the more likely members of Congress would be to see omnibus legislation as viable. One of the implications of his observations of the benefits of omnibus legislation for party leadership is that the omnibus may also serve to coalesce party power and build solidarity among members. As he points out, the omnibus offers advantages to both leaders and rogue members who may want, in essence, to ride the bus for free. However, if such legislation is perceived as a tool of power wielded only by the majority party in Congress, this raises questions about how minority party leadership may view efforts to push such legislation through. The question of power distribution across party lines, especially under conditions of divided government, is addressed by noting that congressional party leadership is careful to craft such legislation "within certain limits observed by the actors" (13). However, this question returns as a potential challenger to some of the conclusions drawn, even after an extensive and careful analysis of the circumstances surrounding the creation, debate and passage of omnibus legislation.

    The book's strengths are its attention to the detail and logic of the argument (or as Krutz puts it, the "logic of omnibus legislation") and the sound nature of the discussion of the extension of work done on the Baumgartner and Jones Policy Agendas Project. Krutz' definition of omnibus legislation is a notable addition to the existing selection and may arguably become the benchmark for such research in the future. The nature of the omnibus is interesting in its lack of formal rule definition, existing as Krutz describes it, within "the informal policy subsystems that abound in Washington" (89). The irony of this development, of course, lies in the first usage of omnibus legislation in 1950 as an attempt to consolidate the budget reconciliation into one bill in order to ensure that Congress not exceed its mandated ceiling. The push for professionalism in Congress and the presidency was at a peak on the heels of a number of reorganization acts meant to consolidate and formalize procedures in the name of efficiency. Thus, Krutz argues, there was a moment when institutional (collective) and individual incentives to change the way in which the game was played coincided. Thus Congress evolved by incorporating the omnibus into its repetoire, to be used on an increasingly frequent basis as a tool to strengthen the political power of the institution during years of divided government and to overcome gridlock within Congress itself. The discussion of how this takes place and its importance in defining the role of Congress as an institution is aptly executed and well worth reading.

    If there is a weakness in the book's approach, it lies perhaps in the nature of the straw man at the beginning. A return to the roots of organizational theory may have provided a more satisfying bridge across the individual-collective divide, as well as a more compelling discussion of the endogeneity-exogeneity problem when dealing with institutions that appear to be more than the sum of their parts. However, Krutz is in good company when he leaves the development of this discussion for another day, and one might argue that he does so in a manner that makes waiting for the next ride a pleasure.

    -- Jill Tao
    Associate Professor of Political Science
    University of Oklahoma

    The Impact of Women in Public OfficeSusan J. Carroll.  Indiana University Press, 2001. ISBN 0253214882, $24.95, cloth, 282 pages.

    Bringing together a distinguished group of scholars of women in politics, this volume edited by Susan J. Carroll seeks to answer the questions: What impact are women public officials having on public policy, and what conclusions can be drawn about the connection between increased descriptive representation and substantive representation of women? This book marshals a wide range of empirical evidence from various legislative settings ranging from the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, and local government councils and about women serving in a variety of public offices such as top foreign policy advisors in the U.S. State and Defense departments, mayors and judges. The collection also employs a wide variety of empirical methods ranging from historical biography to survey research to in-depth interviews. 

    While little of the data is new, the volume's thematic analysis strengthens the collection. The eleven chapters in the book are organized around three main topics: the impact of women in state and local offices, the importance of political context, and the effects of identify politics. The last of these sections incorporates useful insights about the interplay between racial identity and gender and between feminism and gender. 

    The studies in this volume do not provide a single simple answer but rather paint a nuanced picture that gender-related impact depends in large part on the institutional and political context, historical circumstances, the number of other women serving in public office and the extent to which they work together, and the self-identification of women office holders with feminist values. A particularly striking illumination of these themes comes from Janann Sherman's reexamination of Senator Margaret Chase Smith's ambiguous relationship as a pioneering woman public official with the women's movement. 

    One of the conclusions reached is that "certain political contexts are less women-friendly than others and that gender differences usually are less apparent in these more hostile environments" (xx). By offering examples of women serving in varied public roles and contexts - local, state, federal, legislative, administrative, and judicial - Carroll and her contributors provide a useful marker by which women's impact in the future will be measured and the degree of hostility or friendliness will be assessed.

    -- Cindy Simon Rosenthal
    Associate Professor of Political Science
    University of Oklahoma

    Political Parties and Policy Gridlock in American Government.  David R. Jones.  The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.  ISBN 0773474269, $79.95, cloth, 156 pages.

    In Political Parties and Policy Gridlock in American Government, David R. Jones offers an explanation for legislative stalemate, popularly referred to as gridlock, which is not effectively captured by the divided government hypothesis. Abandoning the divided government hypothesis, Jones offers a system-wide perspective that accounts for how the president, Congress, and political parties create conditions conducive to legislative change or for gridlock.

    Jones's study is particularly relevant for today's congressional scholars because his book addresses three popular issues that currently have captivated many within political science -- sources of gridlock, consequences of divided government, and the importance of political parties. Basically, Jones believes that the widely adhered divided government hypothesis is based upon three flawed assumptions: one, the majority rules assumption that passage requires support from simple majorities; second, the absolute veto assumption where Congress and the president must agree to break gridlock; third, the distinctive party assumption that holds the policy preferences of parties are clearly different. His model claims to avoid these fallacies by taking into account institutional structure (filibuster, veto override), partisan strength, and the variation in party polarization. 

    In effect, Jones offers his own theory, entitled party polarization theory, which hypothesizes that unified government is just as prone to gridlock as divided government when parties are highly polarized and neither party has a large majority. Or, that divided government is just as productive when party polarization is low or one party has a veto-proof, filibuster-proof majority. To test his theory, Jones analyzes the effect of parties on the volume of major law production and analyzes the effect of parties on the likelihood that specific proposal will become law. Using his own original data set from 1947 to 1998, Jones finds that higher polarization reduces major law production and major policy proposals when neither seat has a large advantage. Nonetheless, this negative effect is diminished when a party has enough votes to overcome filibusters or vetoes. Particularly intriguing, Jones then examines 50 specific cases in the policy areas of labor-management, civil rights, and campaign finance reform; 32 of these the divided government hypothesis fails to explain (e.g., major policies passing during divided government or failing during unified government). With only four exceptions, his party polarization model explains what divided government cannot.

    In conclusion, Jones's book is a search for an overarching theory that can more accurately account for policy gridlock. His model does not simply add to the divided government literature; rather, it overthrows this conventional wisdom in favor of a system-wide approach with institutional and partisan factors. These new findings carry very different implications. The implication of this research is that in order to correct for gridlock, one must address the origins of party polarization and the use of the filibuster. 

    -- Josh Stockley
    Ph.D. student of Political Science
    University of Oklahoma

    Racialized Coverage of Congress: The News in Black and White.  Jeremy Zilber and David Niven.  Praeger Press, 2000.  ISBN 0275968413, $62.95, cloth, 160 pages.

    Jeremy Zilber and David Niven have produced an outstanding scholarly work in Racialized Coverage of Congress. This book is an ambitious look at the race question as it relates to important institutions in the United States. Not being content with merely reporting that inequalities exist, Zilber and Niven go to the very heart of the inequalities and attempt to find the root of the problem. This book is also ambitious in that the authors are not afraid to make normative statements about the status quo of race in America. Indeed the authors note that "the underlying premise of this book is that the existence of dramatic racial disparities -- in terms of both holding opinions and holding public office--is anything but a natural state of affairs" (2).

    Zilber and Niven identify the perception of the minorities by the majority as one important factor in creating institutional inequalities. As perception is part of the root of the problem, the authors show the influence of the media in creating biased racial public opinion. Certainly the media does not overtly set out to create bias. However, in an environment of ratings-driven news, the selection of news stories and the content of those stories may intrinsically create bias. 

    In an attempt to illustrate how this bias is actually present, the authors look at the portrayal of minority representatives in Congress. Their contention is that news-stories about minority representatives are fundamentally different than news-stories about white representatives. The research asks three questions. "To what extent is racialized media coverage the norm for sitting members of Congress? To the extent that we do find racialized media coverage of Congress, what is its cause? What are the real-world political effects of racialized reporting?" (13). 

    Zilber and Niven employ various methods to carry out their research. Content analysis of newspaper articles is used to establish the difference in reporting between minority and white members of Congress. Interviews with congressional press secretaries and congressional reporters are used to illustrate the perceptions of the important actors in the media process.

    Finally, the authors intrepidly offer suggestions by which the media coverage of Congress might be improved to ameliorate racial bias. This research is an important step in the study of racial politics and the media. It is methodologically rich and the authors ask the important questions that make political science relevant.

    -- Craig Stapley
    Ph.D. student of Political Science
    University of Oklahoma

    Reforming Parliamentary Committees.  Reuven Hazan.  Ohio State University Press, 2001. ISBN 0814208789, $50.00, cloth, 183 pages.

    The committee system of a parliament determines how well that parliament is able to perform its duties of legislation and government oversight. In this work, Reuven Hazan presents an important and insightful look at five committee structures, with a particular focus on the Israeli Knesset. By utilizing similar systems, Hazan is able to draw inferences across the systems and make suggestions for reform. The isolation of key components within the framework of Hazan's template aids in the comparative study of legislative committees and provides concrete examples for reform recommendations.

    The first half of the book is dedicated to a comparative overview of the Isreali Knesset and its committee system in view of more studied Western Parliaments. He utilizes a research design which examines components of the committee structures of the Knesset, the British House of Commons, the German Bundestag, the Italian Camera dei Deputati, and the Dutch Tweede Kamer. This conceptual apparatus encompasses seven critical components which determine how well a legislative committee system will perform its two most critical functions: legislation and oversight. This method is useful for both distinguishing between the procedural, political, and legalistic aspects of a legislature, and in demonstrating how the combination of these different procedural, political, and legalistic aspects affect how well a legislature fulfills its legislative and oversight functions. 

    The second half of the book is dedicated to an intense look at what reforms are necessary to make the Knesset more capable of fulfilling its governing functions. In the first chapter of this section, all five systems are analyzed and Hazan points out the need for reforms in each of the five systems. The following chapters focus solely on the Knesset. Hazan draws from the template he creates and his considerable knowledge of the Israeli government and political structure to make an assessment of the required changes and the political feasibility of such changes in the Knesset's committee system. 

    This book is an important addition to the literature on legislative systems. The template Hazan presents for dissecting legislatures is a useful tool for comparative legislative scholars, and the information he presents is a quick reference for scholars on the functions of the legislatures. Finally, the inferences he draws regarding what reforms would work in different legislative structures are useful reference points for reformers interested in strengthening their nation's legislature.

    -- Melody Huckaby
    Carl Albert Fellow
    University of Oklahoma

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