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Position Taking on the President’s Agenda

Abstract

Several political scientists argue that electorally vulnerable legislators should be more likely to cast, rather than skip, legislative roll call votes. However, most empirical studies find limited evidence to support this claim. In this article, we argue that electorally vulnerable members serving in the House of Representatives are more likely to engage in position taking, via casting a roll call vote rather than abstaining, on a certain subset of legislative votes. We suggest that roll call votes that the president has publicly addressed should be especially ripe for legislators to engage in position taking because of the executive branch’s unique influence on electoral politics for legislators. When examining all roll call votes in the 84th through the 112th Congress in the House of Representatives, we find that members who barely won their last election are associated with a higher attendance record on roll calls that the president has revealed his preferences on. We also find that electorally vulnerable members are less likely to abstain on roll call votes that pass or fail by a narrow margin. These findings shed light on legislative-executive relations.

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Notes

  1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. We would like to thank Jaylene L. Carlile, Jamie L. Carson, Michael S. Lynch, Jason A. MacDonald, Anthony J. Madonna, Jennifer L. Selin, Ryan D. Williamson, the anonymous reviewers, and the Editors of Political Behavior for their helpful suggestions and comments.

  2. https://www.congress.gov/bill/106th-congress/house-concurrent-resolution/187.

  3. We have attempted to address this issue by creating a roll call vote classification scheme which categorizes votes based on member’s distance from the cutpoint (see Online Appendix).

  4. It should be noted that we do not have a precise expectation on the relationship that a close vote and presidential vote should influence abstention behavior. For example, we have no prior expectation whether a close and non-presidential vote should result in a significant coefficient for the previous vote share variable.

  5. CQ’s presidential support scores begin in 1953. We exclude the first 2 years because of a lack of data for multiple explanatory variables.

  6. Replication data for this article are available on Laine Shay’s website: https://sites.google.com/site/lainepshay/home/research.

  7. Like Snyder and Groseclose (2000), for Congresses where one party controls more than 62% of the seats, we use 70% as the threshold. However, the results are robust when using the 65% threshold.

  8. Of the lopsided presidential roll call votes, there are 2187 votes in our dataset. For the close presidential roll call votes, there are 2416 votes in our dataset. We have 11,788 lopsided nonpresidential roll call votes in our dataset. Finally, we identify 10,561 close nonpresidential roll call votes in our dataset.

  9. We removed a few members of the House of Representatives who died or left office early within a Congress. This is consistent with Jones (2003).

  10. The data and results for this robustness test are available upon request from the authors.

  11. We thank Jamie L. Carson for generously his data on incumbent-level characteristics from Carson et al. (2010). Additionally, we thank Keith T. Poole for sharing the roll call data. We also identified abstentions via the Library of Congress and GovTrack.

  12. We identify the following as Southern States: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

  13. We have logged the seniority variable to account for any nonlinear effects.

  14. Members serving as House Speaker, Majority Leader, Minority Leader, Committee Chair and minority ranking members are coded as being in party leadership.

  15. Specifically, we take the president’s raw averaged approval in that congress and subtract it from 50%. Next, we multiply member’s in the out-party by “− 1.”

  16. We have also estimated coefficients using alternative estimators, and the results are similar to those presented here (see Online Appendix).

  17. To be clear, we take no position on whether congressional abstentions has any direct electoral impact on the members.

  18. We have conducted some preliminary analysis to address this issue. With a new dataset that uses a member’s voting decision on each individual roll call vote as the unit of analysis, we find little evidence that the effect from the president offering a position on a roll call vote is much different than non-presidential roll call votes if there is much uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the vote. However, we strongly encourage future scholars to give this important issue additional analysis and scrutiny. The results for the analysis with the new dataset are available upon request from the authors.

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Byers, J.S., Shay, L.P. Position Taking on the President’s Agenda. Polit Behav 43, 495–516 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09558-5

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Keywords

  • Abstention
  • Position-taking
  • Congress
  • Electoral behavior
  • Voting