Party Loyalty and Committee Assignment in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Author:Jin, Xiaoli

House committee assignment has long been a widely-discussed topic in academic research due to its strategic legislative importance. A place where most bills are formulated, House committees cultivate members' legislative expertise on policy areas key to the interests of the country. One question often ignites debate among political scientists: By which criteria are committee assignments allocated?

By the theory of self-selection, the primary principle of allocation is to ratify member's preferences. Proponents of this theory argue that it benefits the party to accommodate member's requests. Members usually request committees that are directly related to their constituencies. Accordingly, if members can serve on committees they request, they will be able to secure more preferential treatments for their constituents. Hence their constituents will be more likely to reelect them, maximizing their party's advantage over other parties. Professor Irwin Gertzog of Allegheny College is one of the most prominent scholars who supports this theory of self-selection. In his article, The Routinization of Committee Assignment in the U.S. House of Representatives, he emphasizes the high proportion of members who got their first-choice assignments within a few terms arriving in Congress. He interprets this as evidence that the assignment process was largely nondiscretionary, leaving little room for partisan manipulation of assignment. (1) Keith Krehbiel, a Stanford University professor of political science, agrees. He argues that, when a member's individual preferences were controlled, party influence had little impact on committee assignments. (2)

On the other hand, proponents of the party-selection theory argue that party leaders pick their favorites when deciding committee assignments. In Parties and Leaders in the Post-Reform House, American journalist David Rohde observes a strong resurgence of party cohesion and partisanship in the House of the 1980s, arguing that party leaders have been exerting strong influence on committee assignments. (3) Congressional expert Barbara Sinclair also concludes that party loyalty had become a significant consideration in committee assignment decisions by the late 1980s and early 1990s. Party leaders would compute party-support scores for members based on their own selection of key votes. In addition, those who gave nominating speeches for exclusive committees often mentioned whether or not a member adhered to the party's causes. (4) As a consequence of party selection, John Manley, also a Stanford political science professor, notes that Democratic members of the prestigious Ways and Means Committee tend to support their party in voting more than the average House Democrats. (5)

Political scientist Kenneth Shepsle foreshadows the two points of view in his book, The Giant Jigsaw Puzzle: Democratic Committee Assignment in the Modern House. Although Shepsle wrote this book earlier than most other works cited above, he seemed to foresee the argument and found merits from both of the opposing sides. Shepsle describes the assignment process as an interest-advocacy-accommodation process. This process starts with members articulating and advocating for their own interests. Ultimately, such interests are accommodated in a highly institutionalized fashion, in which party considerations come into play. (6)

Indeed, the demand for good committee assignment always exceeds supply. Two political science professors, Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly, computed each House committee's request success rate from the 86th Congress to the 101st Congress. The result shows that Banking & Finance, Energy & Commerce, and Rules committees all have a success rate below 30 percent, and the success rate of other prestigious committees, such as Ways & Means and Budge are just slightly above 30 percent. (7) Therefore, even if Congresspeople are able to get on the committee that they want, certain prestigious committees are often too popular and hence remain out of reach. As a result, decisions have to be based on other criteria. This paper seeks to explore if Representatives' loyalty to their parties is one of these criteria.

Past Empirical Studies

Many scholars have conducted statistical assessments to test whether party loyalty impacts committee assignment. (8) In 1973, Rohde and Shepsle computed a "party support score" for each Democratic Congress member based on how closely he/she voted with the party on all roll call bills in the previous term. (9) They labeled members as either "Supporters," who voted more loyally to the party than the party average, or "Non-supporters," who voted less loyally than the average. Rohde and Shepsle found that in the aggregate, 58 percent of "Supporters" secured a requested committee assignment, compared to only 37 percent of the "Non-supporters." In another study, Stanford professor Gary Cox and Duke professor Matthew McCubbins performed a regression analyses to test the correlation between a House member's transfer committee success rate and this member's loyalty to the party. (10) They defined party loyalty as the percentage of times that a member voted with his/her party leader and party whip, in opposition to the party leader and whip of the opposing party, among all roll call bills in the previous Congress. (11) Their regression analyses showed that for Republicans, a decline in a loyalty from the 95th to 50th percentile would yield a decline of 6.2 percent in the likelihood of transferring. For Democrats, the figure is as high as 11.2 percent. While these two studies form a solid basis for studying the relationship between party loyalty and committee assignment, there are four problems in their methodologies that this paper notes and aims to improve upon.

First, as Congress has become increasingly (some would say shockingly) polarized, most members now vote with the party on almost all bills. Using all roll call bills to calculate members' loyalty scores--as Rohde and Shepsle did in their research--would most likely now result in huge clusters of similar scores, making it difficult to distinguish loyal members from disloyal ones.

Second, Rohde and Shepsle used a binary system to differentiate members' level of loyalty. Members were characterized as either "Supporters" or "Non-supporters." Yet among "Supporters" there were both highly loyal members and moderately loyal members. Similarly, the "Non-supporters" group contained both highly rebellious members and moderately independent members. A binary categorization could not tell whether the difference between "Supporters" and "Non-supporters" was mainly caused by highly loyal/disloyal members or moderately loyal/disloyal members.

In fact, there has been intensive debate about whether members with extreme or moderate political leanings are rewarded more in the assignment process. Political scientists Nicole Asmussen and Adam Ramey described in detail the opposing points of view in their 2018 paper on party loyalty: Some believe that extremists are more favored in committee selection because extreme legislators are particularly prone to ideological grandstanding. Hence, party leaders cannot take extremists' votes for granted and have to reward their extreme members who nevertheless toe the party line. On the other hand, many believe that party leaders have more incentives to reward party moderates, since moderates usually represents the swing votes that are crucial for highly-contested bills. (12) Inspired by this contention, this paper will distinguish between highly loyal/disloyal members and moderately loyal/disloyal members instead of simply lumping members into the "Supporter" or "Non-supporter" group.

Third, Cox and McCubbins defined success of assignment as the ability to transfer between committees. Rohde and Shepsle defined success as being able to secure a requested assignment. Both definitions measure success from an individualized viewpoint. Yet some members are inherently more conservative than others when it comes to which committees to request. These members will have a higher success rate since they rarely request committees that they know will not take them. Therefore, it is also important to define success by some less individualized and more universal metrics.

Lastly, both studies only analyzed if party loyalty affected committee assignment. Neither study explored whether members would become more loyal after obtaining desired committee assignments. This paper seeks to explore the reverse relationship as well.


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