50% plus one

by Henry on November 15, 2004

Mark Schmitt comments on how the Republicans in Congress have increasingly opted for getting the bare minimum vote necessary to pass legislation – 50% plus one. He notes that he’s “sure there is a whole body of political science literature on this question, and the rational choice model that dominates the field would probably predict exactly this behavior.” He’s right – the body of work in question is called minimum winning coalition theory. What’s interesting is that this theory is based on the hypothesis that politicians are only interested in divvying up the spoils of office – i.e. that they have no substantive interest in policy. Rational choice social scientists predict that actors may form wider coalitions than the minimum winning ones to pass legislation when they are genuinely interested in policy outcomes. Cue Sam Rosenfeld:

There’s a mentality in the Republican leadership that if a significant number of Democrats support a bill somehow it’s tainted. …“Part of it goes back to the K Street thing, where they want to be able to say to their funders that the only people who can deliver anything for you are Republicans.” If House Republicans can make their Democratic counterparts irrelevant to the process of passing the nation’s laws, they can make them irrelevant to big political contributors.

Looks to me as though this particular hypothesis is getting some strong empirical support.

{ 11 comments }

1

Brett Bellmore 11.15.04 at 8:44 pm

“Rational choice social scientists predict that actors may form wider coalitions than the minimum winning ones to pass legislation when they are genuinely interested in policy outcomes.”

That’s an interesting assertion, however, it’s not exactly intuitively obvious. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there are a wide range of situations where it’s obviously not true.

In any case where a 50% + 1 coallition does not exist to vote for what you genuinely think is the best policy outcome, be it a tax rate, level of regulation, what have you, to achive that 50% + 1, you must buy the additional votes by agreeing to a less optimal policy. Why then, would you buy more votes than you really need?

Extracting “rent” from the government for your supporters is merely a special case of this general principle.

2

david 11.15.04 at 8:54 pm

I don’t know much about Social Choice theory, but wouldn’t the same outcome be predicted if all of the representatives tend to rank policy along the same one dimensional spectrum? It seems to me that 50%+1 voting is a consequence of a situation where there are no mutually beneficial trade offs available — and it should better whether the benefit is selfish division of resources or gettings one’s preferred policy.

3

Tobias 11.15.04 at 8:58 pm

I always thought that 50%+1 is not usually a minimum winning coalition, and that they are usually extremely different, if not impossible, to determine because of the number of issue dimensions (policy interest or not) and temporal dimensions that influence any “rational” legislator.

4

Erik 11.15.04 at 9:14 pm

I should add that there is also an extensive rational choice literature that seeks to explain why minimum winning coalitions are so rare in Congress. One argument is that vote-buying is competitive (and somewhat uncertain), hence you may want to “overdo” coalition building in order to protect yourself from plausible defections. Of course, if the party-line is strictly enforced, this incentive disappears.

5

Henry 11.15.04 at 9:20 pm

The snark of my original post aside, I strongly suspect that Erik’s causal explanation is probably doing a lot more of the work here than the spoils-of-office incentive.

6

luci phyrr 11.15.04 at 9:32 pm

I see the point that getting more than the necessary majority could be “overbidding” (from Schmitt’s post) if the competition is with the opposition party; you pay in the form of compromised legislation. Logrolling could lead to either larger or smaller winning margins, though.

But I’d be interested to see if, in these 50%+1 contests, there were large numbers of legislators not voting…in which case you could argue that the competition isn’t for the bill’s vote, but instead with the electorate: if the Repubs have a narrower constituency (speaking only of their economic policies) than they’d wish to pass the legislation with the minimum amount of electoral exposure. So the safer precincts would vote, and the riskier would abstain.

7

Jackmormon 11.15.04 at 10:03 pm

I wonder whether it’s right to ascribe the tendency to the desires of the parties themselves.

I can think of two outside forces that might tend towards the 50+1: the media, which likes horseraces, and the voters, who often deliberately vote for gridlock.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding the theory, but I wouldn’t reduce the agency only to the parties…

8

Dan Simon 11.15.04 at 10:55 pm

For what it’s worth, I seem to recall several of Bill Clinton’s early economic initiatives passing this way, back when he had (bare) Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Perhaps this sort of thing would be more common in the US if it were more often the case that the presidency and both houses of Congress were (fairly narrowly) under the control of the same party.

9

Brett Bellmore 11.15.04 at 10:58 pm

“if the Repubs have a narrower constituency (speaking only of their economic policies) than they’d wish to pass the legislation with the minimum amount of electoral exposure. So the safer precincts would vote, and the riskier would abstain.”

A pretty good description of how the Democratic party used to operate, back when they were the majority. Take the ’94 “assault weapon” ban, for instance; They passed it narrowly, let as many rural members as possible vote their constitutents’ way, and when they lost control of Congress, we found that many of the Democrats who’d voted against the law flatly refused to help repeal it. So it was pretty obvious that their original votes against it hadn’t been votes of conscience, just protective coloration.

I don’t see the Republicans doing that much; The parties have largely sorted themselves out by now, to the point where you can go with a party line vote and probably not outrage your constituents.

10

Jim Miller 11.17.04 at 4:07 pm

Credit where due: William H. Riker, the long time chairman of the Univeristy of Rochester political science departmwent wrote about minimal winning coalitions in his book, “The Theory of Political Coalitions”, first published in 1962.

11

Harald Korneliussen 11.18.04 at 9:37 am

I wonder whether it’s right to ascribe the tendency to the desires of the parties themselves.

Jackmormon wrote
“I can think of two outside forces that might tend towards the 50+1: the media, which likes horseraces, and the voters, who often deliberately vote for gridlock. “
I can think of a third: campaign financers/special interest groups. The narrower the margins, the more dependent both parties get on your support. If the margin is wide, the parties can afford to slight the interest groups they don’t really want to support. I’ve never been much into sociology, but now I see why it’s interesting!

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