In a legislature where it takes a majority vote to make things happen, the legislators in the middle should be empowered. After all, those legislators are often going to be pivotal when votes are close, and so they should be able to exert a sort of “policy gravity” and pull policies toward their preferred positions. But in the contemporary House of Representatives, they do not. Rather, the middle of the majority party — not the middle of the chamber as a whole — seems to be the center of policy gravity. Why is this?
Per the thinking of Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins in their books Legislative Leviathan (1993) and Setting the Agenda (2005), the majority party in the House functions as a “legislative cartel”— that is, as a partisan team that takes control of the chamber and governs strictly for the benefit of team members via its control of key power nodes such as the speakership, committee chairmanships, and the Rules committee. The majority party can therefore determine the content and composition of the legislative agenda, creating a policy bias away from the center toward the middle of the party.
However, since centrist support is necessary for the functioning of the legislative cartel, as the House is a majority-rule institution, the key question then becomes: why do centrists support an arrangement that is a net policy loser for them? Stated differently, why does the legislative cartel survive?
We provide an answer in this paper. We argue that for the legislative cartel to maintain itself, centrist members must be compensated in some manner – enough so that they are willing to allow the majority to set the legislative agenda. We focus on a discretionary benefit that members value and can use for their individual reelection efforts: campaign contributions from majority-party leaders. Because majority-party leaders benefit from their institutional positions, they have an incentive to insure the continued health of the cartel. As a result, they should be responsive to the demands of those majority-party members who are most burdened by the cartel arrangement – and, thus, most susceptible to defection – and shift benefits to them disproportionately. Campaign contributions are one visible and quantifiable means of assessing such a side-payments story.
We examine contributions from majority-party leaders’ political action committees and personal campaign committees to their party members for the 107th (2001-02), 108th (2003-04), 109th (2005-06), and 110th (2007-09) Congresses. We find that majority-party centrists – those who are net policy losers under the cartel – receive significantly more campaign contributions from majority-party leaders than do other majority-party members, notably those who benefit policy-wise from the cartel. Moreover, side payments are tied explicitly to policy losses. That is, policy centrists who suffer more under the cartel receive more in terms of campaign contributions from majority-party leaders.
Thus, the legislative cartel persists because majority-party leaders “buy” the support of majority-party centrists via side-payments. As a result, the middle of the majority party is likely to remain the center of policy gravity in the House for the foreseeable future. For as long as majority-party leaders continue to be armed with ample resources to dole out to centrists, biased policy is almost surely here to stay.