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Historically Low Productivity by the United States Congress: Snapshot of a Reinforcement-Contingency System in Transition


The number of new laws produced by the United States Congress has declined in recent years, with the 2013 Congress yielding the fewest new laws ever. A formerly reliable pattern, in which law production was concentrated near the end of an annual session, appears to be vanishing. Drawing upon archival data sources and political commentary, we examine some possible shifts in reinforcement contingencies that may contribute to these changes. Our analysis suggests that the two types of changes in law production began at different points in time and may have different origins. We conclude with comments on the value of conducting empirically informed behavioral analyses of complex, everyday phenomena for which no experiments are possible.

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  1. We are aware of skepticism about Brady's fixed-interval analogy(e.g., Malott and Trojan Suarez 2004; Michael 1991; Poppen 1982), that addresses two points of contention. First, some observers have  questioned the likelihood that the idiosyncratic contingency arrangements that define laboratory fixed-interval schedules ever exist in natural environments. Where appropriate throughout the article, we will simply describe potentially relevant features of Congressional contingencies and leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Second, some observers have doubtedwhether scalloping is really the expected outcome even if Congressional contingencies are indeed fixed-interval–like because, under at least some laboratory circumstances, human fixed interval performance has differed from that of other animals, possibly as a result of interference from verbal behavior (e.g., see Catania and Shimoff 1998; Perone et al. 1988). In our view, too few experiments exist to draw any firm conclusions about human fixed-interval performance, particularly as influenced by secondary factors such as time-correlated stimuli (e.g., Galizio and Baron 1976) and competing contingencies (Barnes and Keenan 1993), both of which appear to operate in a Congressional environment and both of which are known to accentuate scalloping (e.g., Critchfield et al. 2003). New experiments in this area are long overdue. In the meantime, we sought in the present article (and in Critchfield et al. 2003) not to validate Brady’s reinforcement-schedules analogy but rather to explore the extent to which a coherent analysis of Congressional productivity might be guided by the following assumptions: (1) Under some conditions behavior, including human behavior, may scallop; (2) the Congressional work environment shares some features with those conditions; (3) using scalloping as a frame of reference, testable predictions can be generated about the temporal distribution of Congressional productivity and about the changes in temporal distribution that should result from certain kinds of situational influences.

  2. This is not to say that “nonpartisan” primaries must always yield moderate candidates. Lazarus (2005) has argued that election divisiveness increases with the number of candidates in a primary election, in part because large numbers of candidate may split the vote and allow an individual with relatively little electoral support to proceed to the general election. Consequently, candidates holding extreme views may prosper. This is relevant to the present discussion because “top two” primaries pool candidates from all parties. When they result in an especially crowded ballot, Lazarus predicts success by candidates representing a strongly committed but ideologically extreme minority, just as in many traditional primaries.


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Correspondence to Thomas S. Critchfield.

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Critchfield, T.S., Reed, D.D. & Jarmolowicz, D.P. Historically Low Productivity by the United States Congress: Snapshot of a Reinforcement-Contingency System in Transition. Psychol Rec 65, 161–176 (2015).

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  • United States Congress
  • Bill passing
  • Concurrent schedules
  • Fixed interval schedule
  • Scallop
  • Response effort