Chamber size and party ‘strength’

What do folks think the correct answer to this question is: How does the size of an assembly affect the strength of political parties?

By strength, I mean the relative freedom of the individual member to cultivate constituency ties and to dissent from party leadership on votes on legislation. I also mean, holding other factors constant.

Suppose a country’s assembly is significantly smaller than its expected size, per the cube-root law. If nothing else changes, how would raising the size be expected to affect the strength of parties?

Obviously, I am thinking about potentially expanding the US House, so a starting point of non-hierarchical parties, and only two of them (and presidentialism, etc.). But I am interested in the question more broadly, and whether features of US party and legislative politics, aside from the small House size, change the impact of increased size on party strength in a manner that might be different from how it would play out in other contexts.

I ask because I genuinely do not know. I could see it going either way. A larger house, for a given population, means each member represents fewer voters, obviously. This could make personal-vote and constituency-service strategies more viable, thereby in some sense making parties “weaker”. On the other hand, a larger assembly (here, independent of population) makes internal collective action more challenging. This could result in members delegating (or simply losing) more authority to internal party leadership, making parties “stronger.” Note that these possible directions of change are closely connected to the two factors that go into the cube root law itself–this is a logical model that is based on balancing (and minimizing overall) two types of “communication channels”: those between legislators and constituents, and those among legislators themselves.

It possible both directions of change can happen at the same time, implying parties get weaker in some ways and stronger in others. That is, more constituency-oriented behavior, but also more party leadership control over votes and especially over speaking time. I am not sure what that means for overall strength. Maybe that isn’t even the right way to frame the question; skepticism over my own question framing is why I use the inverted commas in the title of this post.

Finally, theoretically and all else equal, a larger assembly means more parties should be represented (per the Seat Product Model). I have my doubts that this would be realized in the US, however, given all the other barriers to third-party representation. Unless the House were truly huge, I do not expect much impact there as long as it is elected in single-seat districts, and with primaries (or with “top two”/”top four” rules). However, parties’ internal strength could be affected. But which way?

In Memory of Gerhard Loewenberg

The following is the text of a memorial lecture I gave for Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg on the occasion of his first yarzheit. I delivered it remotely on behalf of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor; I explain how it came about in the lecture itself. The following text includes some paragraphs that I had to skip in the live session (viewable on YouTube) due to time constraints.

________

Comparative Legislatures: Or What America and Israel can learn from Germany

The legislature is the single most important institution of a democratic political system. Yet legislatures are puzzling in terms of how they are able to function, and they tend to be disliked, even reviled, by democratic publics everywhere. Professor Gerhard Loewenberg dedicated his professional life to advancing the comparative analysis of legislatures, and in his last book, published in 2011 (other than his highly engaging memoir from 2012), he wrote about how puzzling the legislative institution is.

On the one hand, he wrote, a legislature consists of technically equal representatives. Each one, upon being seated after having won an election, has the same status as any other. Every one has just one vote on any matter that comes before the chamber for decision. A legislature is a collective body, comprised of equal individual legislators. Yet, as we know from some of the most important studies of social science, collective decision-making is difficult and prone to failure—unless some institution or leader within the legislature is endowed with authority to set the agenda, control members’ speaking time, and otherwise manage the proceedings. Of course, as soon as someone has been given power to do these tasks, by definition the legislators are no longer equal. Some of them have been awarded additional power over the others, some will not be able to speak as much as they wish, and various rules will limit the admissibility of amendments to bills that legislators may hope to advance. 

Moreover, given the complexity of decision making for a modern society, no one legislator can possibly be knowledgeable about all the issues that come before the body demanding a decision. So, legislative chambers establish committees and other means of having some legislators specialize in one set of policies while others specialize in different topics. Again, this changes them from formally equal to at least potentially having outsized influence over specific policies. For instance, members of the agriculture committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage than their colleagues over policy related to food supply and farm subsidies, while members of the health committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage over policies in that topic. And so on.

These organizational questions—agenda control and committee structure—are among the topics that have fascinated researchers in comparative legislative studies. They are also presumably the key to why voters tend to hold legislative institutions in such disdain. Crafting legislation is something of a dark art, out of the view of most voters. And when they tune in to C-Span or equivalent elsewhere, they may like what they seen even less than they’d imagined. They will often see a mostly empty chamber, or an endless series of procedural measures that make no sense to outsiders. It is all quite “mystifying” as Jerry said in his book, On Legislatures: The Puzzle of Representation

Yet without an elected legislature, you have no democracy. Actual democracies vary in whether they have two legislative chambers or one, whether they have an elected presidency or a ceremonial one (or none at all or even a monarch), and in whether courts can overturn legislation on various grounds. But no country would be called a democracy without having at least one chamber of a legislature elected by the citizens. The legislature is the one political institution that has the greatest claim on being able to represent a microcosm of citizen preferences and interests, and advancing majority rule, the central democratic principle. How much an actual legislature fulfills this central mission is quite variable, as I shall get into in more detail later. But no one can deny the absolute centrality of a legislature, and its representative function, to democracy. 

Given the importance of legislatures to democracy, then understanding these institutions is central to understanding how democracy works, and how representation and democratic policy-making can be improved. It was for the purpose of advancing such understanding that Jerry Loewenberg not only devoted his own career, but also established an entire sub-field and an important journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, in political science devoted to the study of legislatures around the world. 

**

In my remarks this evening, I want to use the cases mentioned in my title—the USA, Israel, and Germany—as examples of what we can learn when we compare legislatures in different countries to one another. Because it is Chanukah, which celebrates an earlier recovery of Jewish national and cultural autonomy in our ancient homeland, this season is an especially appropriate time to reflect on the institutions that maintain the Jewish people’s newly recovered sovereignty in recent times. Moreover, Chanukah is all about bringing light into the darkest of times, as well as a season when Messianic yearnings have long been heightened in our tradition. It may seem strange to say so, especially to my political-scientist friends tuning in, but I see the study of democratic institutions, and especially the promotion of reforms to improve their performance on behalf of a nation, in quasi-Messianic terms. That is, democracy as a set of institutions for governance may be flawed, because they are human-devised. It may even be “the worst of all forms of government, except for all the others” than have been tried from time to time, as Churchill famously remarked. A major theme of Jewish tradition is establishing the Kingdom of Heaven—or more specifically, of offering a challenge to governments that fail to serve the broad interests of the community, including its cultural minorities, over which they claim the right to rule. Until the Kingdom of Heaven is established some day—and whether or not it is anyway meaningful to you that it might be some day—improving democracy is an essential task for our time. Democracy in Israel and the United States has been enduring some dark times of late. It is my hope that comparative legislative studies can shed some light on how democracy works, and how it can be improved. A tikkun, a repair, is in order for democracy. How can learning about different democracies help us think about making government work better? This is my rather lofty ambition for today’s remarks.

**

I will focus mainly on the comparison of the US and Israel, as the two counties’ legislative structures are about as different as any two can be. I will then ask if there might be a middle ground between the extremes represented by the American and Israeli cases. And the answer may be surprising—it is the German case. Or perhaps not so surprising, given that we are here to reflect on the contributions of Gerhard Loewenberg, who emigrated from Germany with his family before the Nazi takeover, and who returned to do research on the Bundestag in the decade-and-a-half following the establishment of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany.

But before I go into the substantive topic, I want to say a little about myself and specifically how I came to be honored with the invitation to give this memorial address.

My own field is indeed comparative legislatures, although until completing a book that will be out in the spring of 2021, most of my research has not been on the internal organization of legislatures, but rather on two aspects of how legislatures are related to the wider political system: (1) the electoral system, defined as the set of rules determining how candidates become legislators; and (2) how legislatures relate to the executive, i.e., either a prime minister or an elected president (or sometimes, as in France and Poland or the pre-war Weimar Republic of Germany, both) and the cabinet. 

My forthcoming book, entitled Party Personnel, is about committees of legislatures—the German and Israeli cases (but not the US) are among the cases included; the book also analyzes the committee systems of Portugal, Japan, Britain, and New Zealand. I am the lead author, and my coauthors and I ask how the electoral system shapes the ways in which individual legislators are assigned to one committee or another. The process of assigning legislators to specific committees is, in all these cases, managed by political party organizations within the legislature.

For instance, political parties might assign their legislators according to expertise developed in their pre-legislative careers (their occupational background). Or the assignments might be made according to their ability to draw votes from a district the party needs to win (assuming the electoral system consists of large number of districts where specific local candidates run, which is not always the case, as we’ll see). These two possible motivations for parties are often in tension! Those legislators who are best at winning additional votes beyond what some “generic” party nominee might win in a local district contest may be only loosely correlated—if at all—with those who have the policy expertise from their prior occupation (lawyer, healthcare worker, teacher, farmer, etc.). And the electoral system is one of the key things shaping which criteria loom largest in a party’s decision about committee assignments. Or so we say in Party Personnel.

Only recently did I purchase a used copy of Dr. Loewenberg’s first book, Parliament in the German System, published in 1967. I was amazed when I began reading it to see how much it foreshadows the kind of questions that motivate my forthcoming book. For instance, in Table 20 of the book we find a summary of the percentage of legislators who come from various occupational backgrounds—lawyers, teachers, business owners, etc.–and it is comparative. It shows not only the figures for the German Bundestag that had been elected in 1957, but also comparable summaries for the UK, France, and Italy. It tracks, for the Bundestag and by political party, the percentage who serve on occupationally related committees (i.e., where their parties are taking advantage of members’ policy expertise) and their tendency to speak in the Bundestag on matters in their speciality vs. as generalists. All this sort of thing is in our Party Personnel book, for more recent German election years and various elections in seven other countries—but we have it a lot easier, thanks to rather bigger computer data processing power than existed over fifty years ago! It is really amazing to me how far ahead of his time Jerry was in thinking about these issues of how different legislatures and political parties make use of expertise in the legislative process. Moreover, the table is itself such a work of art; I just love these fold-out pages. I normally see them in atlases or books with panoramic photos, but the presentation of statistics in this manner is such a sight to behold!

**

Table 20 of Gerhard Loewenberg, Parliament in the German Political System (Cornell University Press, 1967)

When my coauthors and I were finishing up the draft of our book to submit to a publisher for review, we got the news of Jerry’s passing. Because it is a book on comparative legislatures, and because the path the book seeks to advance is grounded firmly in Jerry’s contributions to the field, my coauthors and I immediately made the decision to dedicate our book to his memory.

**

But that still does not explain why I am here, speaking at a memorial hosted by Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, when I myself am in California. For that, I have Rabbi Nadav Caine to thank. And, strangely enough, the pandemic, or more precisely how the pandemic has changed Jewish community. Rabbi Caine was our rabbi back in San Diego; we have known each other for about a dozen years. One Friday night a few months ago, my wife and I played the YouTube recording of the Beth Israel Shabbat evening service, to reconnect with Rabbi Caine and his family, leading the Shabbat service from their home. And at the section where the Rabbi reads the names of those being remembered, I heard… Gerhard Loewenberg. Could it be? It must be. And so I emailed Rabbi Caine after Shabbat. And he told me about Jerry’s daughter, Deborah, being part of the Ann Arbor community. And so, here we are together, thanks to Zoom!

***

I now want to turn to the substantive application of some of the lessons of comparative legislative studies—the case-study section, so to speak. I want to start by sketching some of the key differences between the US and Israeli cases. Then I will bring in the German case a little later. I will mention a few other countries along the way. Hey, it is all about comparative legislatures, after all, so we need to compare, and try to learn from, the experiences of different countries! 

As I said at the start, there are few pairs of long-term democracies that illustrate the extreme poles of legislative and broader institutional design than do the US and Israel.

First of all, the US is, of course, a presidential system, whereas Israel is parliamentary. As the work of comparative legislative scholarship has long recognized, this basic difference in how the executive functions creates fundamental differences in the role of the legislature. Put simply, the most important role of a legislature in a parliamentary system is to produce—and maintain in office or dismiss—the executive. By definition, the prime minister and executive cabinet in a parliamentary system must have the support of a majority of legislators—or at least not the active opposition of a majority. If the majority wants a different prime minister and cabinet, it can act to replace them, or in most cases, an early election can be called.

(The Israeli case has recently taken this to yet greater extreme, having had three elections between April 2019, and March, 2020. As we speak, it seems likely there will be an election in March, 2021, or perhaps June. The term of a Knesset is nominally four years, but it’s looking like four elections in a period of about two years! While this is obviously not an ideal situation, I hope to convince you that it is not so bad. Instead of imposing a government supported by less than a majority of the voters—as the 2016 US presidential election did—it requires the politicians to have the backing of representatives of a majority of the voters and, when political conditions prevent smooth governance, to go back to the public to renew or revise their consent to govern.)

In contrast to the parliamentary model used in Israel and most of Europe, in a presidential system, by definition the head of the government is elected separately. Legislators in presidential systems have no role in choosing the head of government, and also are unable to depose the head before the end of the constitutional term, absent a process that requires more than a simple majority (as the Trump impeachment process served to demonstrate). 

So this—the executive type—is the first major difference between the American and Israeli legislatures.

A second fundamental difference is that the US Congress is, of course, bicameral. House and Senate. Not only are there these two chambers, but they are equally powerful and elected in very different manners. Israel is unicameral. Because it is unicameral and parliamentary, the only national voting choice Israeli voters make is when they are called to the polls to elect a new Knesset.

The third fundamental difference is in how the legislatures are elected—the electoral system. Here I will take the US House and the Israeli Knesset as the first point of comparison, and then bring in the US Senate afterwards. The electoral systems for the House and the Knesset are diametrically opposed in their institutional design: In the US House, every member is elected as the sole representative of his or her district. There are thus as many districts as there are members—435. (Which, by the way, is awfully small to represent a country this large, but I’ll leave that aside.)

However, in Israel there are no districts. Or more accurately, there is one district. All 120 members are elected nationwide. Whereas a US House member is the candidate who wins the most votes in a local district, the Knesset is elected according to proportional representation. Israeli voters do not vote for candidates at all. They vote for a party list. Each list is composed of candidates nominated by the party, and given a priority ranking—what political scientists call a “closed list.” (Other types of list–“open” or “flexible” allow voters to favor one or more candidates within a party’s list.)

So given the closed lists used in Israeli elections, suppose a given list has earned 10% of the votes, Then it will win approximately 12 of the 120 seats, and the winners will be the first 12 candidates on its list. There is a threshold, currently 3.25% of the votes. A list that gets less than that will have no seats. But any list that clears 3.25% will be represented. This is a system designed so as to make room for a lot of parties, and lo and behold, it does! 

In fact, based on predictive models developed in one of my earlier books, we should expect Israel’s Knesset to have about 11 lists with representation, and the largest one to have about 30% of the seats, which would be 36 seats. Thirty six happens to be just one more than the number the two most popular lists tied for in April, 2019. But in elections since then, and in many over the last two decades, the leading list has had even fewer seats—sometimes not even 30 seats (which is 25%). That’s a pretty small leading party—not even half the total number of seats needed to comprise a governing majority!

Note that I have been using “list” and “party” more or less interchangeably. Nonetheless, when talking about Israeli elections and Knesset politics, these terms are distinct. Often there are lists that are presented by alliances of two or more parties. For instance, the Joint List consists of four distinct parties representing Arab citizens of Israel, the Yamina is a list of various ultra-nationalist and Religious Zionist parties, and Blue and White contested the last several elections as an alliance of three distinct centrist parties.

The key is that the electoral system works by allocating seats proportionally to lists, and is designed so as to allow many such lists to win. The most recent election, for example, resulted in just 8 lists getting seats, somewhat lower than the typical 10-12. However, the number of parties is greater, and sometimes partners in elections break up and operate separately in the Knesset. In fact, this is what happened when Benny Gantz signed his coalition deal with Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz’s list from the election, Blue and White, split, and his election partner, Yair Lapid, became the leader of an opposition party while Gantz became part of the government. 

**

One of the most important things to understand of all this is that, (1) under the Israeli electoral system, a vote cast anywhere in the country has the same weight as a vote cast anywhere else, and (2), whatever percentage of votes a list gets, that is its (approximate) percentage of seats in the next Knesset. 

In the US, by stark contrast, most districts are “safe” for one party or the other. Thus only those voters who happen to live in districts that are closely contested really participate in determining whether control of the House will shift from one party to the other. In the US Senate, of course, there is even more variation across the country in the de-facto value of a vote. California gets the same number of Senators as Wyoming, despite about a 70:1 difference in the states’ populations. And only a few states might determine whether control of this chamber of the national legislature might shift in an election—such as the flips of the seats in Arizona and Colorado this past November, and we’ll all be watching what voters in Georgia do in early January. 

So let’s pull it all together. In the US, voters elect a president and two chambers of congress separately. It is thus often the case that one of these three is held by a different party than at least one of the others, as has been the case since the 2018 election and was also the case for all but the first two years of Obama’s presidency. In the US, votes are aggregated only in local House districts or for the Senate in states of greatly varying population, rather than nationally. There are only two parties of any consequence, so one will have a majority in one or both chambers, and one will have the presidency, but again, no necessary partisan alignment across these institutions. And elections occur at fixed intervals, so if they can’t work together, we get gridlock instead of the Israeli recourse to an early election.

In Israel, there is only one national elected institution—the legislature. There are many parties, and the contest for votes and seats is fully nationwide. The prime minister and cabinet are products of bargaining among parties after an election to determine who can form a coalition capable of holding majority support in the Knesset. The cabinet might fall early, before the next scheduled election, if one or more parties decide not to continue working with their partners. And there can be an early election.

In the Israeli system, there is no local representation, except that a party might choose to place a former mayor or someone else with a local connection somewhere on their list (something they do rather rarely). Unlike in the US, Members of the Knesset have no local base in the sense of a place where voters have chosen them as an individual representative. 

***

For all the reasons just sketched, these two systems are as extreme as they can be in terms of what legislators represent and how they relate to the executive. The question thus might arise of whether it is possible to split the difference between these extremes. I will focus on just one dimension here—how the legislators are elected.

As I pointed out earlier, in the US, every legislator is elected in a unique district. That means, his or her election depends only on voters in one geographic subset of the country—435 different ones in the case of the House. (And each state in the case of the Senate.) By contrast, in Israel, they are elected in one national district, and on closed party or alliance lists.

Each of these has some basic advantages and some disadvantages. On the one hand, the US system makes life difficult for minor parties. Now, here I need to take a little excursus and interject something that even many of my political science colleagues get wrong! We have something called “Duverger’s law”, although calling it a “law” is a sure way to trigger me!!! 

I will try to spare you my long screed against it, but here is the short version. The famous French sociologist, Maurice Duverger, pointed out in the early 1950s that it is hard for parties other than two major ones to win seats when each member is elected by plurality (winner take all) in single-seat districts. This he called the “mechanical effect” because it concerns how the electoral system works to assign seats. And if it is hard for them to win seats, they don’t get many votes—voters don’t want to “waste” their votes on parties that can’t win. This is the so called psychological effect, also known as strategic voting or “lesser of two evils” voting.

The logic is sensible, but it is overstated. It certainly is not a law in the scientific sense (Duverger himself never claimed it was—he just said it was close to being a “true sociological law”). And it certainly is not a law in the sense of a binding constraint on voters or political elites. Nor should we expect it to be. In work that I have done with Rein Taagepera, we show that when there are a lot of districts—even ones electing just a single member, as in the US—there is a theoretical reason to expect parties beyond the top two to win some of those seats and to get significant vote percentages, even to the point of receiving votes in districts where they finish in a distant third place and thus are unable to win locally. And, empirically, this is true in other countries using the single-seat winner-take-all rules—Canada is multiparty, for instance. In the last Canadian election, the Liberal Party won only 33% of the votes and it was overrepresented, due to the non-proportional electoral system. But because it has 46% of the seats, short of a majority, it must take account of the views of other parties in order to govern.

The UK also has multiparty politics, albeit a lesser degree than in Canada. In 2010, a two-party coalition government formed, and after 2017, Theresa May’s government was in a minority in the House of Commons, because of the success of some smaller parties in winning seats.

So the US is a real outlier in having a rigid two-party system even given its electoral system, and even given Duverger’s so-called law. We should have more space in our congressional elections for Greens and Libertarians, and others, even without changing how members are elected. Nonetheless, it is true that it is much harder to get multiparty politics and minority representation using our electoral system than it would be if we used proportional representation.

Additionally, local representation really matters in US elections. It probably matters less than it used to, because voters are much more likely to vote straight party tickets nowadays than they were back in the 1970s and 1980s. (In those days, many districts had Democratic House members but the voters therein had favored Nixon or Reagan for president). Even with stronger party-line voting, we still see House members advertising what they have done on behalf of local communities and Senators emphasizing issues of concern to their states. They are local representatives even as they are also partisan actors. And this is a good thing! Local concerns that cross ideological and party lines need attention from policymakers as much as national policy challenges do.

So the US system makes it hard for minor parties to prosper, which is in many respects disadvantageous, particularly as the parties have become more distinct ideologically (“polarization”) in recent decades. But the US system offers local representation, which is in many respects advantageous.

In the Israeli case, there is certainly no problem with small parties getting seats! In fact, almost anyone—even a strong advocate for proportional representation and coalition governance like myself—would say in Israel the fragmentation of the choices into many small parties goes too far. It makes the formation of governments with a clear agenda for national policy challenges exceedingly difficult, and recently has resulted in three elections within eleven months because of the difficult interparty bargaining.

Yet a very big advantage of the Israeli system is that votes cast anywhere in the country contribute to the seat totals for their preferred parties (as long as they get at least 3.25% of the overall vote). So voters are equal, and the weight of my vote does not depend on the preferences of people who happen to live near me, as is the case in so much of the US where we might live in a safe state or district for one party and thus be essentially ignored at election time (even in presidential elections, given the electoral college). 

And a very big disadvantage of the Israeli system is the absence of local representation. Now, of course, Israel is a much smaller country than the US. But there are still are significant differences across the territory in terms of local infrastructural or other needs, and these do not get represented well in the legislative process for a very basic reason: no legislator in Israel is in any way accountable to local voters. The closed-list system means that they win solely based on their rank on the list, and how well their party performs in the nationwide vote.

So, I asked earlier whether it might be possible to combine the advantages of these two systems without taking in the disadvantages. Yes! Enter the German system.

In Germany, the members of the Bundestag are elected in what electoral-system terminology refers to as “two tiers”. There is one tier that consists of single-seat districts, thus resembling the American system (or those of Canada and Britain) in which a legislator is elected upon winning a plurality of votes in a geographically defined district. This election method comprises about half the seats in the Bundestag. 

The rest are elected in another tier from party lists, thus resembling the Israeli system. Each voters has two votes—one for a local representative (winner take all in their district) and one for a party list. The party list vote is more important for the overall composition of the legislature, but the separate district vote ensures candidates pay attention to a local area, have an incentive to become visible to voters and—crucially–that even a party that loses the local contest will tend to nurture support at the district level.

The way the two tiers are inter-related in the electoral law ensures that the overall balance of parties in the Bundestag is almost perfectly proportional to their nationwide vote shares—just as in Israel. There is a 5% threshold (thus somewhat higher than Israel’s). Under this arrangement, a party’s total number of seats is a mix of however many seats it won in the district tier, plus a number from its list needed to reach its proportional share of the total. Small parties often have only list seats, as they may not have any local wins. (I am glossing over some details here, but this is the general picture.)

The German system, often called mixed-member proportional (MMP), thus ensures that a vote cast anywhere in the territory is just as valuable as one cast anywhere else, in terms of contributing to the overall balance of partisan forces in the national legislature. In this sense, it is like Israel’s system and very unlike the US system. 

At the same time, it also ensures local representation, like the US system but very unlike Israel’s. 

(As an aside, I want to add that about 25 years ago New Zealand changed from single-seat plurality elections to MMP, modeled on Germany’s system. It has been a smashing success for their democracy. So electoral system reform is both possible, and beneficial. An example we could follow.)

Taking the two features together, Germany has coalition governments (as does New Zealand now), but not involving as many small and otherwise incompatible parties as we see in Israel’s coalitions. Germany also has local accountability that really matters. My own research and that of others confirms that members spend time in their districts, and often come from local roots including prior electoral offices or other ties to their communities. And, as we show in the Party Personnel book, committee assignments in the Bundestag are allocated according to a logic by which parties take advantage of expertise (occupational background), but crucially also to take advantage of local variations in party support and policy demands. (We also see this balance of representation criteria having emerged in NZ since they changed to a German-inspired MMP system.)

It has obviously worked quite well, in that Germany in the postwar period developed one of the most robust democracies and probably the strongest legislature in Europe. In fact, the development of that legislature was one of the recurring themes in Jerry’s career, from his very first book (in 1967, as I mentioned earlier) right up to his last publication, which was a remarkable essay published in a German journal (but in English) in 2018, reflecting on the choices made by both the Allied powers and the new German political class that laid the groundwork for the Bundestag’s development.

(Before I close out the section on Germany, I want to note that Germany is a federation of states, like the US, and it has a bicameral parliament. The other chamber, the Bundesrat, is a great model that Americans could learn from! Its members are chosen by state governments, and it has a veto on on legislation that directly affects the states, instead of on all national policy like the US Senate. It therefore deftly balances the state-interest and national-interest tensions inherent in federalism.)

****

Legislatures, as Gerhard Loewenberg showed us, are puzzling institutions. In democracies, they consist of formally equal individual representatives who somehow must organize themselves to make collective decisions on behalf of the citizens they represent. They are essential to democratic governance, yet the very procedures that they devise in order to function make them mysterious to the average voter, who is quite likely to associate the body with the worst features of politics.

We can learn a lot from comparing legislatures in different countries, as Gerhard Loewenberg’s long and distinguished career taught us. Both the US and Israel, as well as other countries, can learn from the German experience of how to balance seemingly contradictory goals of legislative and electoral institutional design. While there will never be a perfectly functioning democratic legislature for the simple reason that societies and the people who comprise them are complex, a process of scholarly and public enquiry into how different systems work can bring us towards a better understanding of how to make democracy work better, both in our own country and elsewhere.

Chag sameach; Chodesh tov. Happy Hanukkah, and a good new month. And may Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg’s memory be a blessing and an inspiration. 

Why so much “high policy” in the LDP?

I am close(-ish) to finishing up a book on Party Personnel, coauthored with Matthew Bergman, Cory Struthers, Ellis Krauss, and Robert Pekkanen. The short version of what the book is about: How does the electoral system (and electoral reform) shape how parties deploy their “personnel” (i.e. elected legislators) to legislative committees to allow them to engage in activities that support the party organizational goal of seat-maximization?

(Quick note: While the book is coauthored, I should make clear that this post is just my musing about a puzzle, and not a piece of the book. Nor do my coauthors bear any responsibility for what I am writing here, or conclusions I attempt to draw.)

The outcome variable of interest in the Party Personnel project is the “type” of committee assignment a legislator receives–high policy, public goods, or distributive. This typology first appeared in Pekkanen, Nyblade, and Krauss (2006). In most of the countries covered in the book, a party typically has 50%-60% of its legislators sitting on high policy in any given term of parliament (not necessarily all at once, as members may be rotated). But, in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party often has 75% or more on high policy, and in some years over 90%!

What explains the unusually high rate of high policy committee assignments in the LDP? I do not think we currently have a good explanation. We have floated some in internal discussions (mostly internal to my own brain), but as I will show in this post, they are not adequate. Before we get into trying to answer the question posed in bold at the start of this paragraph, let’s establish which committees are classified as high policy. These are committees charged with involvement in policies that are about the management of the economy and other matters of state–this is the sense in which they are “high”. Examples are finance, economy, budget, justice, defense, and foreign affairs.

Japan underwent a major electoral reform prior to the 1996 election. The old system was single non-transferable vote (SNTV). The post-reform system is mixed-member majoritarian (MMM). If we look only at averages by electoral-system era, it looks like a case of electoral reform resulting in a large increase in the percentage of LDP members of the House of Representatives obtaining high policy (HP) committee assignments:

SNTV era: 73% of legislators on HP.

MMM era: 86% of legislators on HP.

The difference in means when comparing eras is statistically significant. So, it is the electoral reform, right? (Never mind that even 73% pre-reform would be high, compared to other cases.) Is there a reason why MMM would lead a party to want to emphasize the experience of its caucus in HP more than would be the case under SNTV? Amy Catalinac‘s book, Electoral Reform and National Security in Japan (2016), suggests a reason why the answer might be yes. She analyzes individual candidates’ campaign manifestoes and finds that they are more likely to mention defense under MMM than they were under SNTV. The reason she gives is that members’ having a reputation for high policy areas like defense and foreign affairs was not useful under SNTV, when they were overwhelmingly concerned with “pork” for which they could get individual credit. By contrast, under MMM, each member is the sole standard-bearer in a single-seat district (and is often also running on a closed party list), and thus the pork incentive is greatly diminished. As national security is a key component of high policy, a similar effect might also account for the higher rate of HP committee assignments after electoral reform. That is, HP committees are assigned to LDP legislators at a greater rate under MMM because the party as a whole has a stronger interest in appearing credible on high-policy issues, including national security. This is one plausible explanation of the changes in era averages. For reasons I will turn to later, I am not satisfied with this attempt to explain the patterns in committee assignment.

An initial idea I had was that perhaps the high rate of HP, post-reform, is a legacy of a high rate under SNTV, and will be seen to have declined under MMM. In other words, this is a totally competing explanation to the one that could be derived from a logic similar to that of Catalinac. I would expect more delegation to the cabinet under MMM, in the sense of its being more Westminster-like than under SNTV. (This is a point that Catalinac explicitly argues, in justifying her disagreement with some Japan specialists who, upon the electoral reform, thought pork would remain just as important, only district-focused rather than more narrowly focused as under SNTV.) The problem with expecting a shift towards more HP committee membership under a supposedly more Westminster-like system, or just generally a more policy-centric system, is that it does not comport well with our comparative evidence.

We know that in two Westminster systems covered in the book, Britain and pre-reform New Zealand, the rate of HP committee membership is not especially high (30% in UK Conservatives, 33.5% in Labour; NZ National 54%, Labour 68%). All of these percentages are lower–most are much lower–than the MMM-era mean for the LDP. Nor is it high in Germany (near 60% in both major parties) or post-reform NZ (46% National, 57% Labour), our two MMP cases. These are all systems in which we expect party policy reputation to matter more than individual reputation. So, if Japan moves from SNTV, with its strong focus on the individual, to MMM, with greater focus on the party as a “team” seeking to take on (or hold on to) governing, why would HP be high under MMM?

With this as a puzzle, it seemed likely it might have been just a legacy of pre-reform SNTV. Perhaps, under SNTV, there actually is a logic to getting nearly everyone on HP because your electoral system makes everyone need to have a unique personal reputation. While this does, as noted, run up against the problem that the HP percentage is higher post-reform, it is worth entertaining why its being high under SNTV might not itself be inconsistent with the incentives of the system.

Why might HP for almost everyone be a strategy compliant with SNTV? Maybe the former SNTV system led the party to want most of its members to gain experience in high-policy areas because each member needs to be “his own party”. (Under SNTV, especially, LDP legislators have been overwhelmingly male.) This possible explanation seems at first to be in tension with common expectations that members under SNTV have to differentiate themselves, such as by credit-claiming for pork. Because votes are not pooled (or transferred) among co-partisans, the party needs a way to divide the vote efficiently in order to maximize seats. The literature on vote-division emphasizes how members need to be distinct from one another, so why have almost everyone on high policy?

Actually, this piece of the larger puzzle turns out not to be such a puzzle at all, even though it initially struck me as odd. Even if all legislators (2 or 3) from a given district are on HP, they can still differentiate by being on different HP committees (one on budget, one on defense, for example). Thus having many members on HP and having them develop their own personal reputations are not in any way contradictory. However, differentiating on sub-categories within HP may still not be as beneficial to claiming credit for things uniquely attributable to a specific politician as are pork-related benefits. A common expectation in the vote-division literature (including a key point of Catalinac’s thesis) is that pork is more useful for vote-division than high policy.

Even if we accept that HP is likely suboptimal for vote-division purposes, having everyone on HP does not preclude legislators also being on more specifically district-focused committees in the areas of public goods (e.g., health or education) or distributive (e.g., construction, agriculture, or transport). In fact, the LDP also has an unusually high rate (relative to other parties among the book’s cases) of category overlap. The average member is on about 1.6 of our three categories, unlike in most other countries where the figure is in the range of 1.2 to 1.4. In other words, by our categories, it is members in other countries that are the specialized ones. In the LDP, they are not; they are actually closer to being generalists, at least in this sense.

Having assignments in multiple categories allows each legislator to build a personal portfolio, almost like a micro-party, in which they are involved in some HP task and also frequently a task in either public goods or distributive during the same term. This kind of portfolio could be very useful for building the personal electoral coalition each individual needs to ensure election under an electoral system that pits members of the same party against each other in multi-seat districts, with no party-level vote-pooling. In other words, SNTV.

If the building of a personal portfolio, including but not limited to HP, due to SNTV incentives were the explanation, we should see a decline after the change to MMM. In the graph below, we will see that we do! So that is good. However, we still face the problem that it should not be higher on average during the era of MMM (so far) than it was during the era of SNTV. Yet that is precisely what we saw in the era averages shown above. Now, let’s disaggregate this thing called an electoral-system era. The graph shows the percentage on HP in each election from 1980 through 2009. The vertical line demarcates the eras, marking the first election under MMM.

The decline under MMM is certainly consistent with the notion that HP is less important to the individual legislator over time, given an electoral system that has eliminated intraparty competition in multi-seat districts. Additionally, the 1990 and 1993 elections show exceptionally high levels of personal portfolios including HP at the end of the SNTV era. Yet look how low the rate is before 1990. Thus, while we might be able to say that adaptation to MMM is leading to an expected decline in HP service after 1996 (albeit perhaps too slowly by 2009), we obviously should not conclude that it started so high because of SNTV! It was low under SNTV… until it was high. It then peaked in the first MMM election, before beginning a decline.

So what changed to lead the LDP suddenly to want nearly everyone to have high policy in their portfolio in 1990 and 1993? This–finally–is the question I am crowd-sourcing. The context of the 1990 election is one in which the LDP had just lost its majority in the second chamber (the House of Councillors). There was also a divisive debate at the time on enacting a national consumption tax, around the same time that real estate and stock market valuations were unsustainably high (leading to a subsequent period of economic stagnation). Also in 1993, due to splits over various issues including electoral reform, the LDP actually failed to win a parliamentary majority and found itself temporarily in opposition. How these would explain a surge in HP is not clear to me. So I am not proposing an explanation, but that is the context and perhaps points towards an explanation.

The pattern is similar if we look at category overlap. Again, this simply measures how many categories–out of high policy, public goods, and distributive–a member sits on. So, ignoring anyone who is on no committees in these categories (and I am ignoring such rare birds here), it can range from 1 to 3. The next graph shows this averaged across LDP legislators by election year. Again, the vertical line marks 1996, the first election under MMM. As we see, it is only 1990, 1993, and 1996 when the average number of committee categories per legislator approaches or exceeds 2.0. While lower in the other seven election, it is still above 1.5 in all elections except the three earliest SNTV elections in the sample (1980 through 1986) and then again in 2003 and 2009 of the MMM era. In the five just mentioned, it is between 1.3 and 1.4.

The pattern is again consistent with the LDP deciding for some reason before the 1990 committee allocations that it needed each member to have both high policy and at least one committee assignment from another category. After 1996, this category overlap becomes markedly less common (but still is higher than in most other parties we cover in the book).

A final graph breaks the HP category down and shows three of the main committees within it.

It is clear that the pattern of surging HP membership in 1990 is largely about the budget committee. More than half the party’s legislators sat on this committee in the legislatures elected in 1990, 1993, and 1996. The other two included here (economy and defense) show smaller bumps as well, just not rising as high. This again would be potentially consistent with my proposed explanation that “everyone needs a diverse portfolio under SNTV”, provided we can add a condition as to why this need is only actually realized at the end of the SNTV period and not the entire era. So, the electoral system explanation needs to be augmented by some political factor, like fracturing of the party and greater pressure from the opposition.

It is further worth noting that of all “high policy” committees, it is budget and economy that would have the greatest “pork” potential. While I would not want to reclassify committees dealing with such clearly aggregate national matters to the distributive category–they are clearly “high” topics–they do allow for opportunities to claim credit. Did the LDP simply need this even more in the 1990s than in the 1980s? The patterns certainly suggest they need it less under MMM, at least after the first MMM election of 1996. The patterns also show that defense committee assignments very quickly went back down in the 2000s after their peak with the first MMM election. So, while they may continue to talk about national security in the individual campaign manifestoes (per Catalinac), few LDP members by 2009 are sitting on committees where they can actually be involved in such policy discussions.

This has been a long post. Thank you to anyone who made it this far! I hope someone has some suggestions for why these patterns are seen in the data. The book does not look at time factors in committee assignments, except for pre-reform and post-reform eras where there has been a change of electoral system (Japan and New Zealand, among our cases). However, any attempt to explain the anomalously high averages in high policy assignment and committee-category overlap in Japan has to grapple with the fact that there is a within-era variance in the LDP that is quite stark. It is not just a story about two different electoral systems, nor is it something immutable about the LDP.

House of Commons question

As some readers will be aware, I am working on a large project called Party Personnel Strategies. The nutshell version is we are seeking to determine the characteristics of legislators (career background, marginality of electoral situation, rural/urban district, etc.) that are associated with assignment to legislative committees and other offices. The “personnel” analogy refers to the notion that party leadership would seek to match the characteristics of members with the policy-making (or supervising) roles of committees.

I have a question for those who are familiar with the workings of the UK House of Commons. The intention is to focus on “permanent” or “standing” committees, as distinct from “ad hoc” committees. Continue reading

El Salvador–unusual legislative organization

On 14 May, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador passed the required measure to organize the governance of the chamber for the coming term, following the elections this past March. It is a rather unusual arrangement: The second and third largest parties will each hold the assembly presidency for half of the three-year term.

Lorena Peña of the FMLN will be assembly president for 18 months, and then on 8 November 2016, Guillermo Gallegos of GANA will assume the assembly presidency for the remainder of the term.

The opposition ARENA won 32 seats (39% of 84), against 31 (37.8%) for the FMLN and 11 (13.4%) for the GANA. The latter party has its origins in a split in the right-wing ARENA that occurred following the election of the first president from the left-wing FMLN in 2009. It has been an ally of the FMLN ever since. ARENA partner PCN won 4 seats on its own in the election, and another three seats were won by ARENA-PCN alliances in various constituencies. Therefore, the actual balance of the assembly is 42 FMLN+GANA (51.2%) to 39 ARENA+PCN (47.6%); one seat was won by the Christian Democrats (PDC).

The directing board (junta directiva) will have 4 members each from ARENA and the FMLN and 3 each from GANA and the PCN. This body, then, will have equality between the two blocs, thereby slightly over-representing the right-wing bloc. I do not know the actual powers of the presidency vs. the directing board.

I certainly do not claim exhaustive knowledge of how power is divvied up in legislative organization around the world, but the alternation of the presidency for equal time periods between two parties that are quite unequal in strength (and second and third in seat totals) must be a rare occurrence.