From Rolls to Disappointments

Date01 March 2017
Published date01 March 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(1) 82 –97
© 2016 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912916674605
In recent years, legislative scholars interested in studying
majority party power in Congress have increasingly
shifted their attention from the floor to the pre-floor stage.
Specifically, they have spent less time looking for evi-
dence of “arm twisting”—wherein party leaders would
pressure members to vote against their true preferences
on the floor—and more time considering the partisan
benefits associated with agenda setting. With the advent
of Cox and McCubbins’ (2002, 2005) “cartel agenda
model” (CAM), the central focus has been to study the
degree to which majority party leaders can exercise nega-
tive agenda control, or prevent legislative outcomes from
occurring that would harm a majority of their co-parti-
sans. From an empirical perspective, scholars have sought
to determine how effective majority leaders have been in
their “gatekeeping” efforts by assessing how often the
majority has been “rolled” on some category of votes
(usually final-passage votes)—or, more plainly, how
often a majority of the majority has opposed legislation
that has gone on to pass.
Thanks to the growing popularity of the CAM, the
“roll” has become a widely used metric in scholars’
search for significant party influence. This has been true
not only in terms of work on the House of Representatives,1
the legislative setting in which the CAM was explicitly
designed, but also the Senate,2 U.S. state legislatures,3
and legislatures in other countries.4 And whereas the
attention devoted to negative agenda control and rolls has
generated a windfall in terms of our collective knowledge
of majority party power in a legislative setting, it has also
led to a somewhat narrow view of agenda power and
majority party effectiveness more generally.
In this paper, we focus on a different aspect of agenda
power, by examining whether majority party leaders
exercise positive agenda control, or produce legislative
outcomes that a majority of their co-partisans support. In
so doing, we move beyond rolls, the standard metric of
majority party failure, and look instead at “disappoint-
ments,” a different metric of majority party failure. A dis-
appointment occurs when a majority of the majority
supports legislation that subsequently goes down to
defeat. A disappointment is thus a failure of positive
674605PRQXXX10.1177/1065912916674605Political Research QuarterlyClarke et al.
1University of Virginia, Charlottesville, USA
2University of California, Merced, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jeffery A. Jenkins, Department of Politics, University of Virginia,
1540 Jefferson Park Avenue, P.O. Box 400787, Charlottesville,
VA 22904, USA.
From Rolls to Disappointments:
Examining the Other Source of
Majority Party Failure in Congress
Andrew J. Clarke1, Jeffery A. Jenkins1, and Nathan W. Monroe2
Much of the literature on partisan agenda setting in Congress focuses on the majority’s ability to exercise negative
agenda control. As a result, the empirical emphasis has been on “rolls,” or how often the majority of the majority party
opposes legislation that nonetheless passes. Although interesting, rolls are only one source of majority party failure.
The other source, largely unexplored in the literature, is when the majority of the majority party supports legislation
that is subsequently defeated. These cases represent “disappointments,” and are a means to determine how effective
the majority party is at exercising positive agenda control. Making some basic modifications to a standard spatial model
of agenda setting, we articulate why and where we might expect the majority party to fail to exercise positive agenda
control effectively. We then derive hypotheses regarding (1) which members should vote “no” on roll calls that result
in a disappointment and (2) why disappointments vary on a Congress-by-Congress basis across time, and test them
using a dataset of final-passage votes on House bills in the post-Reconstruction era.
majority party power, U.S. House, positive agenda control
Clarke et al. 83
agenda control, making it an analog to a roll, which is a
failure of negative agenda control.
Because disappointments are relatively unknown, we
focus first on introducing the concept, and do so by posi-
tioning disappointments within the broader class of
agenda-setting outcomes. Then, we develop a special case
of Krehbiel, Meirowitz, and Wiseman’s (2015; hereafter,
KMW) competitive theory of lawmaking as a means of
understanding the theoretical tenets of disappointments’
occurrence—that is, why and where might we expect the
majority party to fail to exercise positive agenda control
effectively and thus suffer disappointments. We then
derive two hypotheses regarding disappointments from
our theoretical extension of KMW’s work—which major-
ity party members should vote “no” on roll calls that result
in a disappointment, and why disappointments vary on a
Congress-by-Congress basis across time—and test them
using data on final-passage votes on House bills in the
post-Reconstruction era. Finally, we conclude with a sum-
mary of our argument and a discussion of future directions
for this line of research.
From Rolls to Disappointments
As suggested, legislative scholars have focused consider-
able attention on rolls when analyzing roll-call voting
outcomes to search for majority party effects. This is
understandable, given the influence that Cox and
McCubbins’ procedural cartel theory has had in the
agenda-setting literature. But the emphasis on negative
agenda control (which underlies procedural cartel the-
ory), and the failure of the majority to exercise it, signifi-
cantly limits our understanding of agenda power and the
full range of (potential) outcomes that result at the roll-
call stage.
Jenkins and Monroe (2016) seek to address this limita-
tion by developing a typology of agenda-setting outcomes,
which is derivative of two pieces of information: (1)
whether a relevant actor/group supports or opposes a
given proposal and (2) whether the proposal passes or
fails. This yields four distinct agenda-setting outcomes—
“success,” “disappointment,” “roll,” and “block”—which
are illustrated in Table 1. Outcomes associated with posi-
tive agenda control (successes and disappointments) are in
the top row, whereas outcomes associated with negative
agenda control (rolls and blocks) are in the bottom row.
The theoretical circumstance and usefulness of rolls—
where an agenda setter opposes a proposal that nonethe-
less passes—are well known. A roll indicates a failure to
effectively exercise negative agenda control. The other
three agenda-setting outcomes, by comparison, are much
less understood. For example, other than the analysis
found in Jenkins and Monroe (2016), successes have
received little attention (see only Jenkins and Nokken
2008a), whereas blocks have been ignored entirely.
Disappointments have been referenced—mostly in pass-
ing to note that they constitute a different type of “loss”
than rolls (Carson, Monroe, and Robinson 2011; Cox
2006; Cox and McCubbins 2011)—but have not been
examined in any kind of systematic way. Stated simply,
the literature’s over-focus on rolls has largely crowded
out the study of the other three agenda-setting outcomes
and associated measures. This leaves an especially large
gap with respect to positive agenda control outcomes.
If a proposal supported by the agenda setter gets to the
floor and passes—resulting in a success—this indicates the
effective exercise of positive agenda control. But, to get a
complete picture of positive agenda power, one must also
look at disappointments, those cases in which an agenda
setter supports a proposal that subsequently goes down to
defeat. Disappointments—which are in fact nearly as com-
mon as rolls in the modern era—often arise on major
issues. A scan of the online appendix, which lists all
majority party disappointments in the House on chamber-
originating (H.R.) bills from the 45th through the 113th
Congresses, reveals numerous controversial and important
policy areas: appropriations, debt limit increases, foreign
aid, budget reform, farm aid, and energy policy.5
Our focus in the remainder of this paper is to analyze
disappointments systematically, which will reveal more
about the “other” source of majority party failure in
Congress and thereby shed light on the majority’s ability
to exercise positive agenda control. Although disappoint-
ments may not occur often in the modern U.S. House,
where party leaders rarely move forward on a proposal
unless they know in advance that they have the votes, the
House majority may have had a different tolerance for
being disappointed in previous eras, something that can
only be assessed by an across-time analysis. Moreover,
the incidence of disappointments may vary based on fac-
tors such as ambition or perceived opportunity for suc-
cess on the part of the majority party.
To conduct our analysis of disappointments, we will fol-
low Cox and McCubbins (and others) and examine final-
passage votes in the U.S. House in the post-Reconstruction
era. Before turning to the data, however, we first provide
some theoretical foundations for disappointments—specifi-
cally, articulating why and where disappointments should
Table 1. Typology of Agenda-Setting Outcomes.
Proposal outcome
Pass Fail
Agenda setter
Support Success Disappointment
Oppose Roll Block
Source. Jenkins and Monroe (2016).

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