Parties, Preferences, and Congressional Organization

AuthorNathaniel A. Birkhead,Jordan M. Ragusa
Date01 December 2015
Published date01 December 2015
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2015, Vol. 68(4) 745 –759
© 2015 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912915604052
When does Congress repeal legislation enacted by prior
generations? Although law creation has garnered signifi-
cant attention (e.g., Baumgartner and Jones 1993; Binder
2003; Cox and McCubbins 2007; Krehbiel 1992; Mayhew
1991), instances in which Congress attempts to reverse
legislation have received little consideration. Given that
one of the defining features of the 113th and 114th
Congresses (2013–2016) has been more than fifty votes
to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), we believe this
a neglected area in the American politics literature.
We fill this gap with an original data set of all major
repeals from 1877 to 2012. In particular, we catalog major
repeals following Mayhew (1991, 2005), Howell et al.
(2000), Clinton and Lapinski (2006), and others who
compile lists of landmark enactments. Like proposals to
repeal the ACA, the repeals we identify are some of the
most contentious and long-running efforts to shape
national policy. In total, we cataloged eighty-nine major
statutory repeals in the 135-year time span of our study
(an average of 1.3 major repeals per congressional ses-
sion). Examples include the repeal of multiple New Deal
statutes in the 1990s, dramatic fluctuations in monetary
policy in the 1890s, the repeal numerous tax statutes in
the 1920s, and the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts
in the 1940s.
As well as being substantively important yet under-
studied, we believe there are both analytical and theoreti-
cal reasons to study repeals. Analytically, repeals permit
a longitudinal study of Congress that is unique. Unlike
measures of policy enactment, which are static, repeals
allow us to compare lawmaking in two time periods and
isolate the effects of long-term changes in institutional
structures and coalitions. And theoretically, we argue that
the causes of repeal differ from those that explain policy
creation. For this reason, although we think shifts to the
left or right in Congress’s membership—known in the lit-
erature as shifting pivot points—are an important cause
of repeals, we focus on the ebb and flow of party strength
604052PRQXXX10.1177/1065912915604052Political Research QuarterlyRagusa and Birkhead
1College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, USA
2Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jordan M Ragusa, Department of Political Science, College of
Charleston, 114 Wentworth Street, Room 106, Charleston SC,
29401, USA.
Parties, Preferences, and Congressional
Organization: Explaining Repeals in
Congress from 1877 to 2012
Jordan M. Ragusa1 and Nathaniel A. Birkhead2
When does Congress repeal laws enacted by prior generations? Although the substantial body of work on policy
creation provides tentative explanations, we believe repeals represent an alternative way of examining the effects of
congressional organization on legislative behavior. In this paper, we develop hypotheses based on both the conditional
nature of party power and the location of pivot points, and test these hypotheses with a new data set of repeals from
1877 to 2012. We find that the largest effects on Congress’s capacity to repeal legislation are variation in the majority’s
positive agenda control and shifts in the gridlock interval. We also find that when the majority claims control of both
chambers after a long stretch in the minority, there is an increased likelihood of repeal beyond what is predicted by
conditional party government alone. Because the partisan factors in our model have the largest substantive effects, and
because repeals do not occur automatically in productive Congresses, we characterize repeals as long-term contests
between two great “teams” over the location of the status quo.
U.S. Congress, legislative studies, landmark legislation, policy repeal, political parties, conditional party government,
Affordable Care Act

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