Archive | Legislative Politics

Off to the Races: The Contest to Lead the Fed

fedconstructAfter Congress revamped the Federal Reserve Act in 1935, construction began on a new home for the Fed—liberating the Fed from sharing quarters with Treasury.  This 1937 photo of the Eccles Buiding under construction reminds us that the original 1914 Fed was not set in stone and that it continued to evolve over its history.  (Squint, and you’ll see the crane dropping the Fed’s glass ceiling into place.)

This summer’s contest over the future leadership of the Fed signals the continuing development of the Fed.  As defenders of Larry Summers and Janet Yellen wage public and private campaigns for their candidates, it’s worth stepping back to consider the broader import of this battle over the leadership of the Fed.

First, let’s be clear: previous presidents have deliberated over short lists of potential Fed chairs.  Reagan (ironically) felt that Paul Volcker the Democrat was too hawkish, so he needed to appoint the Republican Greenspan.  George W. Bush selected Ben Bernanke over two competitors who had stronger political ties to the president.  But the public contest between advocates of Summers and Yellen is unprecedented.  The Atlantic’s Matt O’Brien captures it best:Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 10.57.50 PMStill, we shouldn’t be surprised about the politicized selection of a new Fed chair.  Congress’s attention to the Fed tends to be counter-cyclical, rising and falling with the state of the economy.  When the Senate first confirmed Bernanke as chair in 2006—with inflation and unemployment hovering at four percent—the vote was unanimous and unrecorded.  Four years later, the Fed’s unconventional boldness in monetary policy and its forays into credit allocation generated a record level of Senate opposition to confirming Bernanke for a second term.  Today, with both inflation and employment below the Fed’s targets but with pressures mounting for the Fed to unwind its unconventional policies, it matters who gets the nod as chair. Given the centrality of the Fed to the state of the economy (and the fiscal headwinds caused by recurring Congressional stalemate), the Fed has never been more politically central (and thus less independent) than it is today. No wonder the Summers camp is trying to make his nomination a fait accompli; no surprise the Yellen camp has reacted by demonstrating that her macroeconomic chops and central bank experience are second to none.

Second, the division of opinion between Summers and Yellen appears to rest largely within the Democratic party.  Republicans are generally watching from the sidelines.  Interestingly, only six Republican senators remain from the Senate that in 1994 confirmed Yellen by a vote of 94-6 to a term on the Fed’s Board of Governors.  Five GOP, including Mitch McConnell and John McCain, voted to confirm—as did Richard Shelby, then still a Democrat.  The remaining Republican, Chuck Grassley, voted against confirming Yellen.

In many ways, the debate between Yellen and Summers captures an historic Democratic divide between its Wall Street and more liberal, Main Street wings.  Summers’ defenders emphasize his personal relationship with Obama (including tennis and golf) and his economic brilliance, but also his experience in the world of finance (implying an inner hawk).  The Yellen camp points to her distinguished career as a central banker and her leadership within the Fed.  Senate liberals also clearly prefer Yellen for her dovish macroeconomic stance in a period they believe still demands a dovish central bank.  (Breaking the Fed’s glass ceiling? Icing on the cake for Yellen’s boosters.)  The divide between the Wall Street and Main Street wings of the Democratic party is an old one for the party, recurring most recently in contests over Dodd-Frank and in reactions to Bernanke’s leadership of the Fed.  (Senators on the far left were clearly more suspicious than their Democratic colleagues of the Fed’s largesse in bailing out failing financial institutions at the height of the financial crisis.) It is tempting to portray the horse race as a contest of personalities (which, of course, it is), but the contest also taps an enduring Democratic divide unlikely to be patched over the course of a campaign to lead the Fed.

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The Nuclear Senate, Defused

TheGreatTriumvirateAll three senators of the Great Triumverate of Senate history at one point in their careers endorsed stronger limits on Senate debate. So I have no doubt that their ghosts had a great week: Eavesdropping on the senators in their chamber Monday night and reading all the good stuff that was written about how and why the Senate defused its nuclear bomb.  I think we can count this episode, as Greg Wawro and Eric Schickler suggested on the Monkey Cage, as a case in which the majority offered a credible threat to impose majority rule on executive branch nominations, and the minority folded.  Wawro and Schickler conclude a clear lesson from the week’s events: “A simple majority in the Senate has the power – and indeed has long had the power – to change how the institution operates.”  Similarly, Ezra Klein noted that “The majority took out a nuke, put it on the table, and made clear they can detonate it whenever they feel like.”

Before we seal the history books on this week’s events, I think there’s still some nuance about the nuclear option that’s worth considering.   No doubt, the reform-by-ruling strategy that Majority leader Harry Reid brushed off has (almost) always been technically feasible.  But I think we’ve learned a bit more this week about the conditions under which the nuclear option will be politically feasible.

Think first about the 2005 episode in which Majority leader Bill Frist threatened to go nuclear over Democrats’ filibusters of judicial nominations.  Most reporting afterwards noted that the minority came out ahead of the majority: Republicans secured confirmation of three contested nominees, Democrats killed seven others, and the nuclear option was taken off the table for the duration of the Congress.   Why the majority loss? (Or at best an even draw?)  Reporting suggested that Frist’s threat was never credible because a divided GOP majority undermined its leader: The seven GOP senators, including John McCain, who signed the Gang of 14 agreement, deprived Frist of the votes to go nuclear.  Absent a politically credible threat, the minority gave up relatively little in the Gang of 14 deal.

In contrast, Harry Reid this week had clearly locked up 51 (if not 53) votes.  Had Republicans not deemed Democrats’ determination to go forward credible, I doubt we would have seen the minority cave (securing only the arguably face-saving gesture of a new pair of labor-favored NLRB nominees for an old pair of labor-favored nominees). Why the different outcomes?  Reid’s strategy tells us a bit about the conditionality of the nuclear option:

First, the more narrowly targeted the nuclear gambit, the more credible it seems to be. Reid’s limited targeting of executive branch nominees made the reform by ruling strategy more palatable to Democrats.  Narrowly tailoring the reach of the proposal seems to have secured wavering Democrats’ votes.  Indeed, as best as I can tell, Reid secured the unified support of his caucus by explicitly excluding judicial nominations from the reach of his nuclear gambit.  (Excluding judges also no doubt helped Democrats politically to justify their own nuclear rush given their opposition to Republican efforts to go nuclear in 2005.)

Second, the political feasibility of the nuclear option seems conditioned on the behavior of the minority.  Strident overreaching by the Republicans—opposing nominees not on the basis of qualifications or policy views but as leverage to renegotiate (CFPB) or undermine (NLRB) an agency—helped Democrats to paint the GOP as going a step too far in a Senate parliamentary arms race.  (On GOP overreach, see Jon Bernstein’s piece here.) Exhibit A for GOP overreach starts and ends with Lindsey Graham’s “we were wrong” admission.   Such GOP behavior deflected accusations that Democrats were “power-hungry” aggressors in the nuclear fight.  The ability to shift blame to the GOP likely increased the political feasibility of Reid’s nuclear gambit.

Third, keep in mind that the CFPB, NLRB, EPA and Labor department are critical institutions for pursuing core Democratic policy interests—protecting the environment and the interests of workers and consumers. Of course, that’s precisely why Republicans targeted these nominees in the first place.  But I doubt Democrats would have gone to the mat to secure confirmation of a favored head of the IRS or USDA.  Democrats would have had a hard time mustering a politically credible threat on behalf of such nominees.

I think these dimensions of the Senate’s brush with going nuclear this past week are useful reminders of the conditionality of the majority’s nuclear weapon.  I’m not so sure that the nuke remains on the table to be detonated anytime the Democrats would like—except for similarly constrained targets.  In fact, I wonder if Reid’s narrow targeting of executive branch nominees might have made judicial filibusters even more likely and harder to rein in.  By drawing a clear line this past week between confirming “the president’s team” and confirming lifetime appointments to the courts, Democrats might have made it easier for Republicans to justify obstruction of appellate court nominees.  In other words, Reid’s robust success might prove to be a double-edged sword.

Having said that, GOP arguments against Obama’s three recent nominees for the D.C. Court of Appeals have a ring of overreach in them:  It’s not the nominees they object to, but the size of the court on which they would serve.  We’ll see if such an argument is more successful when lodged against judicial nominees soon enough.

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The Senate that Senators Want

This is a guest post from political scientists Eric Schickler and Greg Wawro.  They are the authors of Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the U.S. Senate.


Events in the Senate over the past few weeks offer two clear lessons.  First, a simple majority in the Senate has the power – and indeed has long had the power – to change how the institution operates.  The strategy proposed by Harry Reid – which essentially duplicated the strategy proposed by Republican leader Bill Frist (R-TN) in 2005, which in turn echoed a strategy promoted by liberals in the 1950s-70s and by Republican leader Nelson Aldrich as far back as January 1891 – has been available to a determined Senate majority at least since the nineteenth century – as we discuss in our book on the filibuster.  The fact that the Republican minority relented in the nominations fight indicates that the threat of “reform by resolution” is real and that the Senate is not locked into its rules by virtue of its past institutional history.  Second, the filibuster persists because a majority of senators has consistently preferred a system in which the minority can block action to one in which a simple majority decides every issue.  Senators do not want their Chamber to become the House.

In this case, once Harry Reid showed that he had the votes and the determination to impose majority rule on executive branch appointments, Republicans surrendered on the core issue of approving Obama’s nominations.   We likened the filibuster to a war of attrition in our book; in such a contest, when the majority shows that it is committed to standing firm – even to the point of showing its willingness to carry out a rules change – the leverage shifts from the obstructive minority to the side with more votes.

At the same time, however, it is important to recognize exactly how difficult it is to persuade 51 senators that they should support going nuclear.  In this case, it took years of mounting frustration for Democrats, as their inability to confirm executive nominations undermined the routine functioning of government.  The necessary 51 votes only could be amassed following a series of compromise deals between Reid and McConnell, each of which promised to limit the scope of obstruction, but each of which failed.

The hesitance to go nuclear over executive nominations was rooted in senators’ shared understanding that once majority rule is imposed by force in one decision-making area, the impetus for a future majority to impose majority rule in other areas would be strong.  The pressure on a future GOP majority to go nuclear to assure the nomination of a conservative Supreme Court justice or to help pass legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act would likely prove irresistible.  While longtime advocates of filibuster reform hope for just that outcome – a march towards majority rule across the board – most senators evidently prefer to retain some power for the minority to obstruct.

The problem for those who hope to maintain the Senate’s existing rules and understandings without change is that in this era of intense partisan polarization and warfare, this year’s showdown between Reid and McConnell will be repeated endlessly.  Brinksmanship followed by furious efforts to secure last minute deals is how Congress has attempted to govern recently.  If such brinksmanship becomes a routine aspect of filibuster politics, eventually both sides will miscalculate and the nuclear option will be exercised, even though most senators prefer an equilibrium in which the minority can, at least under certain circumstances, obstruct.

A potential solution is for the Senate to take advantage of the deep uncertainty about who will be in control of the Senate and the White House in January 2017.  At any given moment, it is clear who will be the short-term beneficiaries of a specific reform – such as allowing only temporary obstruction of judicial nominations but providing an eventual majority vote.  But no one has any idea which party would benefit from such a reform in January 2017, creating the potential for a positive-sum solution with respect to the prevailing attitude among senators.  That is, rather than simply breathe a sigh of relief and go back to business as usual, senators should take the recent showdown as an indication that the dysfunction permeating the Senate requires a more permanent fix.  Unrestrained minority obstruction across all domains is not sustainable.  At the same time, simple majority rule is not something that most senators want.  An alternative would be to attempt to forge an agreement setting out different decision-making rules for different types of decisions (e.g. executive nominations, judicial appointments, ordinary legislation) and specifying that these rules would take effect in January 2017.

Some might argue that today’s Senate cannot bind a future Senate in this manner; if that is a concern, senators could sign a detailed pledge laying out exactly what the new rules will look like and promise to vote for those rules on the first day of the January 2017 session.  As long as more than two-thirds of the Senate agrees to such a commitment, these new rules could be adopted through the normal Senate rule-making process.  The fact that senators generally accept the Senate as a continuing body can be used to ensure that the rules change is honored.

We are not the first to propose this potential solution, though in the past advocates have seen it as a way to implement simple majority rule.  Instead, we emphasize the flexibility offered by this approach: it would allow today’s Senate to think seriously about what rights the minority should have in the future and what capacity the majority should have to make policy, separate from today’s immediate battles.

This most recent fight over the nuclear option ought to encourage senators to consider specific reforms to balance majority rule and minority rights.  Such a path would make it less likely that a future majority party will be sufficiently frustrated to go nuclear and, as a result, push the Senate further along the path towards pure and simple majority rule.

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The Majority Rules, and When It Doesn’t, It Rolls

We welcome this guest post from Andrew Guess, a Ph.D. student at Columbia.


Since January, talk of the “Hastert rule” has gradually spilled over from the esoteric confines of the wonkosphere into mainstream political commentary. Shorthand for the norm that only bills with support from a majority of the majority should reach the House floor for a vote, the “rule” has generated interest insofar as it has been violated – three times during the current Congress so far. That may make a trend, but how common are such violations over the longer term? Over the course of three graphs, I will show that majority rolls of this kind have been occurring regularly (if infrequently) throughout a variety of different political contexts, despite any distinctive features of the current dynamic in Congress. That said, there are hints that any future such occurrences this term (perhaps for a vote on immigration reform, has some have speculated) will be restricted to cases in which the outcome is acceptable to most of the majority party’s members.

The share of votes for passage violating the Hastert rule has increased in the 113th Congress (for now).

The following figure shows majority party rolls starting in the 102nd Congress as a fraction of the total number of bills passed by the House that session (data from


Hastert rule violations continue to be very rare in an absolute sense, accounting for less than 2% of all votes for passage in any Congress up to last year. But in the current Congress, now back in session, that percentage has more than doubled. This reflects the temporarily smaller denominator (85 votes for passage in the House so far, as opposed to 304 in the whole 112th) but also explains why these incidents seem more common this year: It’s only July.

Various explanations have been offered as to whether violating the Hastert rule is becoming a favored tactic of Speaker John Boehner, and why this might be the case. Sarah Binder has argued that even if a majority of the majority opposes any given measure, it could benefit as a whole from an occasional “loosening” of the rule and give Boehner some leeway for allowing Democrats to carry a bill. Jonathan Bernstein has also emphasized the significance of following the Senate’s lead as Boehner’s approach to accommodating the various factions of his membership. Assuming this is accurate, I would simply add that bending the Hastert rule is a potential way out of numerous political binds that speakers might find themselves in. Boehner may face a divided Congress and a staunch conservative bloc whose support he can’t count on for national party priorities, but his counterparts in the past have used the same tactic to pass cross-cutting measures like NAFTA and the Balanced Budget Amendment (the former in a time of unified government).

For a majority roll to result in passage, near-unanimous support is necessary from the minority party (especially recently).

The next graph plots two trend lines, with the majority party illustrated by the blue and red shadings at the bottom. There are 36 votes for passage shown. In the time period covered, the greatest number of Hastert rule violations occurred in the 106th and 110th Congresses:

hastert2The top line illustrates the fraction of the minority party that voted for a bill brought to the floor without majority party support. For example, the last three points on the right, indicating votes on Hurricane Sandy aid, the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, and “the acquisition and protection of nationally significant battlefields and associated sites of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812,” passed without majority Republican support but with the votes of 96, 99, and 91 percent of House Democrats, respectively. Those same votes received 21, 38, and 44 percent support from House Republicans. As the top line suggests, minority parties seem to have become more cohesive over time, with less variation in the proportion supporting a given roll call vote and a tendency toward uniform support overall. This is consistent with historic and increasing levels of polarization in the House as well as possible selection effects due to agenda control.

Violations historically lead to cutpoints at the House median, but less so more recently.

Finally, to get a sense of the political consequences of temporarily suspending the Hastert Rule, I used Poole, Rosenthal et al.’s Optimal Classification (OC) algorithm to plot the “cutting points” of the same 36 votes in ideological space.  Here is how to think about OC scores and cutting points.

Suppose we have a group of legislators and a corresponding set of roll-call votes. The algorithm essentially orders the legislators (from “liberal” to “conservative”) such that we can predict who votes for any single bill by marking a cutting point. With perfect data, everyone to one side of the cutting point votes “yea,” and everyone to the other sides votes “nay.” Real life is more complicated, so the algorithm optimizes the ranking and cutpoints to maximize the percentage of individual voting decisions correctly predicted. It also computes OC “scores” for each legislator in ideological space. Usually this is all done in two dimensions to improve accuracy, but for simplicity I only graph first-dimension components below.


The red and blue lines show the mean first-dimension (left-right) OC scores in each Congress, with the Republican mean (the red line) on the conservative side and the Democratic mean (blue line) on the liberal side. The dotted line follows the chamber median, which jumps from one side of the midpoint to the other as party control shifts. And the dashes indicate estimated cutpoints for each of the votes for passage violating the Hastert rule since 1991 – that is, the thresholds separating those who voted “yea” and “nay.”

On average within a term, cutpoints tend to fall around the chamber median. This is not surprising: In allowing such votes to reach the floor, speakers temporarily transform Congress into the kind of institution explained by our classical models of legislative behavior.

But something different could arguably be going on in the past few Congresses. With one or two exceptions (the outlier near 0 in the 112th Congress is the fiscal cliff deal), cutpoints seem to be edging closer to the party means. This would seem to confirm the dominant narratives about Boehner’s strategic bind, that in order to pass even high-profile legislation favored by his own conference, he (paradoxically) needs to rely on at least a handful of Democratic votes.

What about immigration? As a quick exercise, I constructed a fictional roll-call vote for an immigration bill supported by all 201 Democrats and 19 Republicans whose seats are either contested for re-election or whose districts’ populations are at least 30% Hispanic – a minimal scenario for passage of comprehensive legislation. The result is that the hypothetical cutpoint (0.1) is significantly to the left of even the chamber median, illustrating that any major bill that could pass the House in this way would have to be a bitter pill to swallow for the great majority of Republicans. Since they are the ones empowering Boehner, a special set of circumstances would have to be in play for the historical pattern to change.

As the figures indicate, such an outcome isn’t unprecedented. It remains to be seen whether the trends from the past year continue, or if the Hastert rule is about to be shelved until another distinctive political situation demands it.

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Speak softly … and carry a nuclear stick

62599_1The Teddy Roosevelt-Harry Reid analogy ain’t great, I know.  But the Senate majority leader sure does speak softly, and he’s armed (we think) with a pretty potent stick as the parties go to battle in the Senate over GOP filibusters of President Obama’s executive branch nominees.

There’s been ample excellent commentary and reporting on the coming week’s potential nuclear battle in the Senate.  I thought I’d add a few considerations to the mix.

First, I think it’s important to keep in mind that this week’s drama could take a while to play out.  If the parties do not resolve their differences while secluded in the Old Senate Chamber (where Rep. Prescott Brooks caned Sen. Charles Sumner in 1856), the Senate on Tuesday could begin a series of seven votes to invoke cloture on pending nominees, starting with the three nominees most at risk of falling short of the requisite sixty votes to break a GOP filibuster. One report suggests that Republicans may be trying to make a deal over the NLRB nominees, but without an agreement to confirm Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Democrats seem unlikely to fold.  Majority Leader Reid also seems unlikely to launch his version of the nuclear option before securing confirmation of the other pending nominees (in particular, those for Labor and EPA).  Moreover, if Reid’s procedural route includes a resolution to change Senate rules to reduce the cloture threshold to a majority vote for executive branch nominees, such motions are required to lay over on the calendar for a day.  That suggests any parliamentary fireworks might be delayed until later in the week.

Second, some close observers of the Senate argue that Democrats are making an unprecedented claim that only a simple majority is required to end debate and change Senate rules.  But versions of the claim have previously been made: Both Democratic (Hubert Humphrey) and Republican (Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller) vice presidents offered roughly similar rulings in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, albeit applying the argument to the start of a new Congress.  Moreover, a Senate majority in 1975 endorsed the view that a simple majority was sufficient to bring the Senate to a vote on a change in its rules at the start of a new Congress.  (That view stems from the rule making power granted to the House and Senate in Article 1, Section 5, of the Constitution, which is why some call the tactic the Constitutional option.)  True, the Senate later reversed itself as part of the deal that lowered the cloture threshold in 1975 for legislative measures to sixty senators, thereby reaffirming that the Senate’s formal rules should be applied in future efforts to change Senate rules (and that rule today requires a two-thirds vote to cut off debate on a rule change).  But depending on how Reid were to structure a nuclear motion, his parliamentary gambit could force the Senate to revisit its 1975 decision that endorsed the right of a Senate majority to bring the Senate to a vote on a rule change.  Some will likely argue that Reid is stretching the Constitutional option by applying it midstream, rather than at the outset of a new Congress.  I’ve never been convinced that the Constitutional option is limited to the opening of a new Congress.  The Constitution empowers the House and Senate to write their own rules; it does not limit that power to the opening of a Congresss.

Third, Reid’s claim last week that the Senate appears to have changed its procedures by majority vote 18 times since 1977 deserves a bit more scrutiny.  It is true that the Senate has moved by majority vote to change its procedures numerous times over the past several decades (and much earlier in its history as well).  Wawro and Schickler term these episodes reform-by-ruling—instances in which the Senate (either through a ruling from the chair or from a Senate vote to appeal a ruling) sets a new precedent that interprets existing Senate rules in a new way.  Most recently in 2011, Senate Democrats overturned a ruling of the chair, thereby establishing a new precedent that motions to suspend the rules to consider non-germane amendments post-cloture were dilatory and not allowed post-cloture.   In some ways, one set of motions that Reid might use in a nuclear gambit would be just another instance in which a Senate majority created a new precedent that applies existing rules in a new way.  In this case, a majority would vote to establish the precedent that a simple majority can cut off debate on a resolution to change the rules.  But in other ways, Reid’s threatened nuclear option is cut from a different cloth: None of the other successful examples of reform by ruling targeted the number of senators required to invoke cloture under the Senate’s cloture rule.  So, yes, the underlying principle in past episodes and in this week’s potential fracas is essentially the same. But if successful, Reid’s plan would secure a change in the required number of votes for cloture—something the Senate does not appear to have accomplished through precedent setting in the past.  (That said, as Steve Smith and I argued some time ago, the 1975 precedent set by the Senate to allow majority cloture was instrumental in getting the parties to the table to negotiate changes to the Senate’s Rule 22—even if that initial precedent was later reversed.)

Fourth, I think it’s important that Reid appears to be narrowly tailoring a rule change to apply only to executive branch nominees (and perhaps only after a nomination has been pending on the executive calendar for a set length of time).   When asked by CQ’s intrepid Senate reporter, Niels Lesniewski, about what Reid would do when contested judicial nominations came to the floor in a couple of weeks, Reid refused to expand the scope of conflict to judges: “This is focused very concisely…This is not about judges…This is about presidential executive nominees.” Why was Reid so adamant about limiting the reach of a rule change to executive branch nominees?  A narrowly tailored change might make his nuclear gambit look more like previous episodes of reform by ruling.  It might also make it easier to secure the support of 51 Democrats.

Finally, keep in mind that there’s an awful lot of uncertainty about what might (or might not) happen.  We don’t know precisely how Reid might decide to structure his parliamentary gambit.  (If you look up “Nuclear Option” in the Senate rulebook, you won’t find it!)  And, as Richard Beth importantly spells out in this essential CRS report, “It is not clear that any such form of proceeding can be proposed that would not require violations of existing rules in the process of changing them.”  That sentence always gives me pause.  And as Greg Koger points out, “punitive filibustering” by the minority in response to a majority going nuclear could be costly to the minority as well as the majority.  The Gang of 14 agreement in 2005 that defused the GOP’s nuclear threat, Koger reminds us, “spared both parties from trying to follow through on threats that would have been very costly to redeem and embarrassing to recant.”  As much as the “nuclear option” is bandied about in the press in recent years, the path to majority cloture for reforming Senate rules remains rocky.  But a determined and extremely frustrated majority might just do it.

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The War on Social Science and its Consequences

Unlike other agencies in the federal government with a research charge, the NSF has no laboratories, and it does not carry out its own research. Instead, its mandate is to identify and fund the very best basic science. Indeed, the NSF is regarded as the gold standard for funding basic research. It is envied and emulated across the world. Three features are responsible for this reputation: a culture of scientific independence, an extraordinary system of peer review, and the long tradition of political independence.

…. This mandate notwithstanding, Congress has often attacked individual projects at the NSF. The “Golden Fleece” awards handed out by the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) poked fun at grants that seemed silly on their face. But he selected these individual grants for shock appeal, and neither he nor his budget-minded successors ever went after an entire discipline. These days, however, Congress is wielding a far bigger anti-science axe. Lawmakers are now going after entire programs at the NSF, with political science on the chopping block.

This from Rice University political scientist Rick Wilson writing in the new online Symposium Magazine. He goes on to warn:

Some scientists may view these attacks as minor matters. After all, the focus has been with a small program at NSF, and many in the natural sciences may believe that the study of politics cannot be scientific. But the larger scientific community should not ignore the shackling of one program at the NSF. If politics dictates what is worth studying, all disciplines are at risk. If politicians decide that they can judge the merit of cutting-edge research, then the peer review system is at risk. Why stop at political science, when the entire NSF Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences could be eliminated? Why stop there if biology continues to insist on using evolutionary models? The challenge to science is clear. If politics inserts itself into science, we must ask ourselves whether any of our fields survive — and who will be the next target.

The full article is worth a read and is available here.

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Why Electing Minorities Matters

This is a guest post by David Broockman, a PhD student in political science at Berkeley.


Many have already commented on the significant implications last week’s Supreme Court decision will have for racial minorities’ equal access to the ballot box, consequences that began to materialize within hours of the Court’s decision.

Less attention has been paid to another of the VRA’s missions the Court also undermined last week. By fostering the creation of majority-minority districts, the VRA has for decades helped minorities overcome opposition to their candidates of choice and elect representatives of their race. In wake of the Shelby County decision, the Justice Department will have much greater difficulty encouraging the election of minorities to office.
Does it matter whether racial minorities can elect members of their group to Congress, state legislatures, and school boards? In two articles forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science, I present results from field experiments illustrating the unique role officeholders who are members of racial minority groups play in advancing minorities’ political interests.

Minority Elected Officials Work Harder To Advance Minorities’ Interests When Their Constituents Aren’t Watching

Elected officials often make important decisions when partially or even fully hidden from voters’ watchful eyes, such as in legislative bargaining behind closed doors, during oversight hearings, or on the many votes that escape public attention. In such settings, legislators’ own personal priorities and desires—their intrinsic motivations—may influence their choices a great deal more than their desire to win their constituents’ favor.

In late 2010, I conducted a field experiment to test whether black politicians are significantly more intrinsically motivated to advance blacks’ interests—that is, whether they are more likely than their non-black colleagues to advance blacks’ interests in settings where voters (and researchers) cannot usually watch them closely. The simple intuition behind the experiment came from a black state legislator I interviewed while conducting fieldwork in 2010. When I asked the legislator to substantiate his insistence that he worked harder to advance blacks’ interests than his non-black colleagues, he responded: “Every time I get a letter from a black person outside my district, I respond.”

The experiment systematically tested whether black legislators act like this legislator suggested, expending more time and effort than their colleagues to advance blacks’ interests even when it is unlikely to help them win re-election. Specifically, in the experiment, I randomly assigned American state legislators to receive an email from an ostensibly black individual asking for help signing up for unemployment benefits. Crucially, I randomly assigned whether the writer claimed to be from a city in each legislator’s own district or from a city far across the state, thus manipulating the degree of political incentive the legislators had to respond.

The results show that this legislator was right. As shown in the figure below, all legislators were somewhat less likely to respond to the letter when ostensibly from an individual living outside their district. However, although non-black Democrats were far less responsive to the out of district letter, 39 percentage points, black Democrats were far less sensitive to this lessening of their incentives. Once the incentive to respond dramatically diminished black legislators typically responded nonetheless, although their colleagues typically did not.


Politicians often make decisions that their constituents cannot observe about what to advocate or how hard to work on their behalf. The experiment suggests that black legislators expend much greater time and effort than their non-black colleagues to advance blacks’ interests even when their constituents are unlikely to reward their efforts. Those interested in details can read more here.
Minority Elected Officials Hear More Often From Minority Constituents, Even In The Same Districts

Legislators of course do not only rely on their own opinions when deciding how to vote and what issues to focus on; they also rely extensively on communications from constituents (see evidence here). A second experiment I conducted shows how biases in the communication legislators receive from constituents can lead even well-intentioned legislators to exhibit racial favoritism because they are more likely to hear from constituents of their race.

The experiment was inspired by extensive research in social psychology which shows that people are typically more willing to communicate to other individuals of their race in day-to-day life. The experiment examined whether people act much the same way when deciding whether to communicate to their legislators, being more willing to communicate to legislators of their race.

To test this hypothesis, the experiment exploited the fact that many multi-member state legislative districts in Maryland are served by both black and white state legislators. In the experiment, I contacted thousands of residents of these districts and asked them whether they would contact their legislator about a political issue. Crucially, I randomly assigned individuals to be asked whether they would like to communicate to their black or their white legislator. The individuals did not know they were being studied and were initially led to believe the call were a routine effort to connect constituents and their legislators.

Were people equally likely to contact legislators of their race? The results are shown in the figure below. Constituents in these districts were markedly more likely to agree to contact legislators of their race—black constituents were about 50% more likely to agree to contact their black legislators, while white constituents were about 25% more likely to contact their white legislator.


Such differences in who legislators hear from are likely to have important consequences: two legislators serving the very same district may nevertheless have very different visions of their constituents’ priorities if they hear much less from people not of their race. Such distorted communication may lead non-minorities who represent minorities to unwittingly underrepresent their views, even they make every effort to be even-handed. Those interested in the details can read the article here.

These results suggest that measures like “minority influence” districting that do not ensure the election of minorities to office may not be enough to ensure minorities’ equal political voice. First, minorities in government appear significantly more likely to work to advance minorities’ interests in the many settings where political decision-making is not on prominent public display. Moreover, even if legislators did make every effort to represent their constituents even-handedly, the distorted communication they receive from their constituents may still lead them to provide unequal representation to those not of their race.

These findings are only two of many works relevant to the important debate over majority-minority districting and minorities’ political interests. However, as the nation considers how to protect political equality in light of the Shelby decision, the findings underscore that ensuring minorities continue to be able to elect candidates of their choice is of utmost importance. As John Adams wrote when helping design our nation’s Congress, “equal interests among the people should have equal interests in it.”

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What if Congress had reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for just 5 years?

Did the fact that a law was on a 25-year reauthorization schedule just become a reason for invalidating it? Would the Court have had less reason to invalidate the VRA if it were authorized for just 10 years? 5 years? We doubt that the length of the authorization would have made much difference in this case with this Court, but it is interesting to speculate on whether Shelby County v. Holder will be cited by future courts to justify using a law’s period of authorization as one criterion in evaluating whether it has a rational basis.

More from Scott Adler and John Wilkerson on the Shelby decision.  See also this earlier post.

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What SCOTUS Does Not Understand about Lawmaking

The Court may be correct in its implicit judgment that Congress chose the path of least resistance in reauthorizing section 4(b) without making substantial revisions. But that is how electorally accountable institutions operate. To suggest that Congress should have done more is naive at best, and the Court fails to offer a remedy that reflects the realities of lawmaking.

That is Scott Adler and John Wilkerson on the Shelby County decision.  More here.


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