Party Effects in State Legislative Committees

AuthorRobert J. McGrath,Josh M. Ryan
Published date01 November 2019
Date01 November 2019
DOI: 10.1111/lsq.12235
George Mason University
Utah State University
Party Effects in State Legislative
Legislative scholars have theorized about the role of committees and
whether they are, or are not, tools of the majority party. We look to the states to
gain more empirical leverage on this question, using a regression discontinuity
approach and novel data from all state committees between 1996 and 2014. We
estimate that majority-party status produces an 8.5 percentage point bonus in
committee seats and a substantial ideological shift in the direction of the major-
ity party. Additionally, we leverage a surprisingly frequent, but as if random oc-
currence in state legislatures—tied chambers—to identify majority-party effects,
finding similar support for partisan committees. We also examine whether the ex-
tent of committee partisanship is conditional on party polarization or legislative
professionalism, but we find that it is not. Our results demonstrate that parties
create nonrepresentative committees across legislatures to pursue their outlying
policy preferences.
In both Congress and t he American state legisl atures, much
of the work of the body is completed within standing com mit-
tees. Thi s fact has been recognize d since the earl iest congres-
sional research by McCona chie (1898) and Wilson, who famously
observed that “Congress in session is Cong ress on public ex-
hibition, whilst Congress in its comm ittee rooms is Congre ss
at work” (1885, 79). State legislatures u se committ ees in sim i-
lar ways to Congress, yet their st ructure and op eration remain
subject to debate. Are leg islative committe es primarily organi-
zational tools to achieve ef ficiency of leg islative outcomes, or
are they designed to bias those outcomes in t he majority party’s
favor? In particular, how ideologically repre sentative of their
parent chambers are legislative standing com mittees? W hether
© 2019 Washington University in St. L ouis
554 Robert J. McGrath and Josh M. Ryan
partisan bia s exists in com mittees had b een a staple of legisla-
tive research for decad es (Adler and Lapinski 1997; Aldrich
and Battista 2002; Cox and McCubbins 1993; Groseclose 1994;
Krehbiel 1991; Richma n 2008), but we reinvestigate the topic in
the context of Americ an states in order to learn more about the
causal effects of party inf luence.
Previous resea rch has generally failed to find ev idence of
partisan st acking on committee s. Yet, we argue that the literatu re
has not been well-su ited to discer ning local tr eatment effects of
majority-party statu s on committe e composition. Thus, we test
the extent to which com mittees represent their parent cha mbers
using a regression discontinuity design and leveraging a natu ral
experiment th at occurs in some st ates: tied chambers with no
majority party. We argue that both empir ical approaches allow
for direct compari sons between par ties having majority st atus to
those that, as if random ly, fall just short of command ing a cham-
ber majority.
These two empir ical approaches demonst rate that state leg-
islative majority partie s receive membersh ip “bonuses” on com-
mittees that t ranslate into signific ant ideological shifts away from
chamber medians. Our interpret ation thus conf licts with much
existing rese arch that fails to find that committ ees are statisti-
cal “outliers” and conf irms a key predi ction of how party power
might matter in leg islative organization.
This rese arch contributes to a long-stand ing debate in the
literature and doe s so in a substantively inform ative way. We
also examine the extent to which compositional bi as has down-
stream effect s on legislative agendas and pol icies (Anzia and
Jackman 2012; Cox and McCubbins 1994; Jackman 2013; Kiewiet
& McCubbins 1991; Maltzman 1998) by analyzing coa lition sizes
(a proxy measure of policy extremit y) in tied, majority-less cham-
bers and chamber s with bare-majority-par ty control. In tied
chambers, coal ition sizes are sig nificantly larger, implying that
party effects are consequentia l for policy outcomes. Our f indings
are especially importa nt as state legislature s increasingly take
responsibilit y for legislating on such salient topics as religious
freedom, gun c ontrol, health policy, and voting rights and bal lot
access (Moncr ief and Squire 2013).
An additional advantage of exa mining com mittees at the
state level is the variation i n institutional and political contexts
across states. The recent rise i n the strength and influenc e of
party leaders in Congress (Curr y 2015; Koger and Lebo 2017; Lee
555Party Effects in State Legislative Committees
2009) might imply that leaders a re increasingly able to stack com-
mittees w ith ideologically extreme (partisa n) members. We thus
investigate whether more polari zed legislatu res allow the leader-
ship greater autonomy in creating ideologically extre me, nonrep-
resentative comm ittees (Aldrich and Rohde 1997; Rohde 1991).
Similarly, we examine whether the committ ee-stack ing effects
we find across st ates differ bas ed on levels of legislative profes-
sionalism. Interestingly, we find no evidence t hat either of these
two features change the relationship between majority st atus and
party effects in state comm ittees.
Previous attempts to as sess comm ittee repres entativeness
in the states have proven diff icult bec ause data lim itations have
driven most resea rch to focus on select set s of committee s in a
few states and/or for a limited s et of years. We introduce a new
data set that measu res membership i n all standing c ommittee s in
all state chambe rs from 1996 to 2014, resulting in far more obser-
vations than is typic al in congres sional studies or previous st ate
research. The d ata provide sufficient variation across d ifferent
contexts to explore how committe e composition changes as a re -
sult of partisan a nd institutional factors, and it w ill be usef ul to
other researcher s interested in questions of committ ee composi-
tion and state legislative be havior and outcomes.1
Theories of Committee Compo sition and Legislative Outcomes
In majoritarian legislatures, the median must be includ ed in
any winni ng coalition (Black 1948), and competition betwe en two
coalitions should lead to outc omes situated at exactly the medi-
an’s ideal point (Downs 1957).2 Thus, stand ing committees would
seem to have to serve the ne eds of the median or pivotal member,
perhaps acting as a n efficie nt information gathering me chanism
(Krehbiel 1991).3 Median-oriented theories of legislative organi-
zation suggest that whi le committe es are not representat ive of
their parent chambers in terms of p olicy-level expertis e, in most
cases thei r collective ideologic al preferences or dem and for dis-
tributional goods should not diverge much from the me dian’s
(Gilligan and Krehbiel 1990; Krehbiel 1990).4
America n legislatures have long been viewed as havi ng weak
parties compa red to their counter parts in parliamentary systems
(Carey 2007; Cox 2000), but recent trends, including a reduc tion
in committ ee autonomy and the rise of polar ization, have led to
a reexamin ation of the extent to which comm ittees ser ve partisan

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT