Congressional Processes and Public Approval of New Laws

Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(4) 878 –893
© 2018 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918819860
Voters generally care about ends, not means; they judge
government by results and are generally ignorant of or
indifferent about the methods by which the results are
—Samuel Popkin (1994, 99).
I don’t think procedural stuff really resonates with most
Americans. It may add generally to their cynicism, but it is
accomplishment—or lack of it—that matters much more.
—Tom Daschle, former Senate majority leader.1
Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as
we know how they are made.
—John Godfrey Saxe.2
Does how Congress makes a law influence approval of
that law? Since the 1970s, Congress has increasingly
employed unorthodox legislative processes to pass leg-
islation. Once characterized as a decentralized and
norm-driven institution that typically adhered to “reg-
ular order” legislative procedures, the contemporary
Congress frequently bypasses traditional processes
when considering legislation, and today’s congressio-
nal leaders are willing to use all procedural tools at
their disposal to achieve legislative goals (Hanson
2014; Sinclair 2016; Smith 2014).
The public expresses a general preference for civil and
bipartisan policy making, and there is ample empirical
evidence that legislative and public politicking can dam-
age approval of and faith in Congress as an institution
(Harbridge and Malhotra 2011; Jones 2013; Mutz 2015;
Ramirez 2009). But does procedural wrangling influence
public approval of the laws being wrangled, too? This
question has been little studied3 but may have important
implications, as citizen skepticism of government pro-
cesses can reduce public compliance with the law (Marien
and Hooghe 2011; Tyler 2006), participation in political
processes (Cox 2003; Grönlund and Setälä 2007; cf.
Hetherington 1999), and faith in political leaders
(Hetherington 1998).
Information about the use of unorthodox tactics may
reduce approval for new laws in large part because most
citizens have “process preferences” that engender skepti-
cism of legislative politicking (Hibbing and Theiss-
Morse 2002), and a sense of “procedural justice” which
leads them to view some governmental processes as
inherently more, or less, fair (Tyler 1994, 2006).
Moreover, information about the use of unorthodox pro-
cesses may exacerbate partisan motivated reasoning
(Druckman, Peterson, and Slothuus 2013) among citi-
zens deciding whether to approve or disapprove of a
policy. Reading that Congress bypassed traditional steps
of the legislative process is likely to further reduce
approval for the policy enacted among those already
819860PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918819860Political Research QuarterlyCurry
1The University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA
Corresponding Author:
James M. Curry, Department of Political Science, The University of
Utah, Carolyn and Kem Gardner Commons, Suite 3345, 260 South
Central Campus Dr., Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA.
Congressional Processes and
Public Approval of New Laws
James M. Curry1
Does how Congress makes a law affect public approval of that law? This question has been little studied, but the rising
use of unorthodox processes in Congress raises concerns about the perceived legitimacy of congressional action
among the public. Utilizing two unique survey experiments, I present evidence that when people are aware of the
use of unorthodox legislative processes they express lower levels of approval for new laws. This effect is especially
pronounced among partisans already inclined to be in opposition to the law, further solidifying their opposition.
These findings have important implications for a Congress that in recent years has increasingly turned to unorthodox
legislative processes to pass legislation.
Congress, unorthodox lawmaking, public approval
Curry 879
inclined to be opposed based on policy preferences or
This article assesses the impact of public awareness of
the use of certain unorthodox processes on approval of
new laws. Specifically, it analyzes how procedural hard-
ball tactics—tactics with which congressional leaders
strain the rules and bypass traditional legislative pro-
cesses to win legislative battles—affect levels of public
support for the policies enacted. To do this, I draw on two
survey experiments, the first embedded in a module of
the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study
(CCES), and the second fielded using Amazon’s
Mechanical Turk (MTurk) in 2016. Both experiments
asked respondents to read descriptions of hypothetical
new policies passed by Congress, modeled on the lan-
guage used in newspaper accounts of congressional
action. Respondents in control groups just read about the
law, while those in the experimental groups also read
about processes used to enact the law. The results show
that reading about the use of hardball processes reduces
approval for the laws, with the sharpest effects among
partisans who might already disapprove. In the conclu-
sions, I discuss the implications of these findings for a
contemporary era in which Congress is frequently relying
on unorthodox tactics to make laws.
Congressional Unorthodoxy
Once characterized as a legislature governed by institu-
tional norms and an adherence to traditional, regular
order legislative processes, the contemporary Congress
frequently bypasses traditional processes, and its mem-
bers are more willing to employ all of the procedural
tools at their disposal to achieve legislative goals. Barbara
Sinclair (2016, 5) termed this new approach unorthodox
lawmaking, as “the legislative process on major legisla-
tion is now regularly characterized by a variety of what
were once unorthodox practices and procedures.”
What does unorthodox lawmaking look like? It includes
bypassing the traditional committee stages of the legisla-
tive process ahead of floor consideration (Bendix 2016a),
with fewer bills subject to committee hearings and testi-
mony (Lewallen, Theriault, and Jones 2016). It also
includes closed-down consideration of legislation on the
House and Senate floors, with strict limits on debate and
amendment (Bach and Smith 1988; Finocchiaro and Rohde
2008; Wallner 2013). Likewise, it includes secretive and
behind-the-scenes decision making (Curry 2015), with
party leaders assuming more responsibility for cutting
deals and constructing legislative proposals (Aldrich and
Rohde 2000; Hanson 2014; Rohde 1991; Sinclair 2016).
Most major lawmaking efforts of the last several years
have relied on unorthodox processes. Most major legisla-
tive drives of the 115th Congress (2017–2018) relied on
unorthodox tactics. Both the Republicans’ Affordable
Care Act (ACA) repeal and tax reform efforts used spe-
cial “budget reconciliation” rules that allow Congress to
sidestep filibusters and limit debate (Reynolds 2017).
The ACA repeal also featured highly secretive processes
in which rank-and-file legislators were kept in the dark
about deals made behind the scenes.4 Several omnibus
spending packages reflected negotiations conducted at
the leadership table, with committee processes bypassed
almost entirely.5 These highly unorthodox legislative pro-
cesses have received considerable attention in the media
and among political observers.6
Although this approach helps Congress pass legisla-
tion (Curry 2015; Sinclair 2016), many scholars and
observers view unorthodox lawmaking processes as anti-
deliberative, resulting in dysfunction (Lewallen,
Theriault, and Jones 2016; Mann and Ornstein 2006,
2012), the development of poor-quality laws (Bendix
2016b; Drutman 2016; Lewallen 2016), and an erosion of
Congress’s public esteem (Ramirez 2009). Do such atti-
tudes affect how the broader public responds to congres-
sional action?
Why Process Might Affect Approval
of New Policies
Most scholarship finds people approve or disapprove of a
new policy based on its congruence with their policy
preferences (Burden 1997; Coughlin 1992; Downs 1957;
Enelow and Hinich 1984; Page and Shapiro 2010;
Wlezien 1995), its relationship to their partisan attach-
ments (Bartels 2002; Henderson and Hillygus 2011;
Layman and Carsey 2002; Miller and Shanks 1996;
Shanks and Miller 1991), and their perceptions of the
policy’s effects or consequences (Fiorina 1981; Gomez
and Wilson 2001; Healy and Malhotra 2013; Kinder and
Kiewiet 1979; Nadeau and Lewis-Beck 2001; Tufte
1975). However, there are reasons to suspect processes
may influence approval of new policies, as well.
Specifically, because citizens: (1) have “process prefer-
ences,” (2) have a sense of procedural justice, and (3)
often evaluate political events on the basis of partisan
motivated reasoning.
First, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (2001, 2002) find
that people’s attitudes about their government and its
actions reflect more than policy preferences, but process
preferences as well. These preferences capture citizen’s
attitudes about how they believe government should and
should not work. The individuals in Hibbing and Theiss-
Morse’s focus groups saw political conflict as driven by
the influence of special interests, evidence of a discon-
nect between lawmakers and ordinary Americans, and a
consequence of corruption in Washington. In their view,
abstruse legislative processes should be unnecessary and

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