Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Majority Size and Legislative Productivity

I’m a big fan of Ezra Klein’s writings -- and as the folks over at the Monkey Cage have noted, he has been a big booster of political science research. But today he made a few points that invite scrutiny.

Ezra is responding to Ari Berman’s (admittedly provocative) New York Times op-ed from this past weekend, in which Berman argues that Democrats would do well to lose the Blue Dogs in the elections next week and keep a smaller majority, because a smaller majority would likely be more cohesive and productive. The full op-ed is worth reading, if only because Ari showcases some findings from his engaging and extremely well-researched new book Herding Donkeys.

Some of Ari’s op-ed points are surely subject to dispute, but I’m not sure Ezra has hit on them; in fact, he makes some dubious claims of his own. He writes:

“Fewer votes means getting less done. And the proof is in the 111th Congress: Say what you will about the ugly deals and the missed opportunities, but no recent group of congressional Democrats has even come close to their productivity, and that's solely a function of no recent group of congressional Democrats being nearly as large as this one was.”

But is the productivity of the current Democratic majority “solely a function” of its size? Is legislative productivity related to majority size at all? This is an empirical question, and a quick-and-dirty look at the evidence suggests that the answer is no.

Consider the two most recent Democratic presidencies. When Jimmy Carter took office, Democrats numbered 61 in the Senate and 292 in the House; when Bill Clinton took office, they numbered 57 in the Senate, 258 in the House; when Obama came in, they numbered 58 in the Senate, 257 in the House. Klein implies that the current group of congressional Democrats has been more productive than those of the 95th and 103rd –- I don't know if that's actually true (sure seems like it) but if it is, obviously it can't be “solely a function” of this group's numerical size. Something else must explain it.

Of course, many factors could explain it. For starters, Carter and Clinton’s majorities were more heterogeneous and internally divided than Obama’s, containing, for example, many more conservative Southern Democrats. What else? Neither Carter nor Clinton was a particularly adept legislative leader early in his presidency. And the list goes on. If Obama’s 111th Congress has been more productive than the 95th and 103rd, presumably it has something to do with the composition of the party coalition, the president’s leadership, and a whole host of other factors (economic crisis? previous administration in disrepute?). The numerical size of the Democratic majority, however, doesn't seem to be a leading candidate.

But consider further the concept of “legislative productivity.” As David Mayhew has shown in his classic Divided We Govern, even ostensibly crucial systemic factors like divided versus unified government don’t matter all that much when it comes to passing significant legislation. Big-ticket, important laws get enacted at roughly the same clip, irrespective of whether the branches are split between the parties, whether congressional majorities are big or small, whether there’s a Democrat or Republican in the White House, whether the president is popular or not, and so on.

A few numbers from Divided We Govern: Richard Nixon was incredibly productive despite facing divided government -- he signed 22 important laws in the 1969-70 period. That's exactly the same number (22) that LBJ got in the famously productive “Great Society” 89th Congress. Gerald Ford signed 14 important bills into law in 1975-1976, which is more than Carter (12) or Truman (10) and only one shy of JFK (15) during the first two years of each of their administrations. Eisenhower, Reagan, and Bush each got 9 during their first two years, which isn't significantly fewer than any of the above.

As Mayhew suggests here, over the course of American history, something like national “moods” seem to have produced periodic waves of legislative productivity that have tended to last longer than a single presidency. Our government, in other words, has somehow managed to get big stuff done when it needed to, and the numerical size of majorities in Congress have had little to do with it. Legislative productivity appears to be a function of “the times” more than “the numbers.”

If I’m reading Ari Berman correctly, his main point is simply that slightly smaller Democratic majorities stand a better chance of being more ideologically unified. Greater ideological cohesion might yield a variety of different benefits for the party in the long run, including not only “cleaner” legislation, but concomitantly, a reenergized activist base. In the context of this year’s much-discussed “enthusiasm gap,” it’s hard to argue that such an outcome might not be the worst thing for the Democrats, especially as they start to turn their attention toward 2012.

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