Analyzing the Evidence Exercises

As this chapter’s Analyzing the Evidence segment describes, the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives is extremely effective in setting the agenda. Its “roll rate” (the rate at which a majority of its members finds itself on the losing side of a vote that nonetheless passes) is consistently low, while that of the minority party is considerably higher.
1. What accounts for the difference in roll rates for the majority and minority parties?
The roll rate on final passage votes is considered to be an indicator of the majority party’s negative agenda control — its ability to block proposals that a large number of its members oppose. The table below demonstrates that this type of agenda power is quite consistent over time.i

House Rolls on Final-Passage Votes, 99th-111th Congresses

The next figure shows party unity scores in the House and Senate from 1955 to 2010. A party unity score is the percentage of “party votes” in a specific Congress, or the percentage of the time that a majority of one party voted against a majority of the other. High levels of party unity are an indication of cohesive parties operating in a polarized context.

Party Unity Scores By Chamber

2. Compare party unity votes to majority party roll rates. Which varies more?
3a. During which decade was party unity lowest in the House?
3b. During which decade was party unity highest in the House?
The table below shows another aspect of agenda control: majority and minority party roll rates on special rules votes, which govern what bills will be brought to the House floor and how they will be considered. Voting on special rules is different from voting on final passage since being rolled on a special rule means that the majority party effectively lost its ability to control the agenda. For this reason, votes on special rules also involve positive agenda control — the ability of the majority party not simply to block proposals it opposes but to put forward those it favors. The table also shows the rate of “majority defeats” on special rules — reflecting those votes on which a majority of the majority party favored a special rule that was nonetheless defeated.ii

Period (Years) Special rules votes Majority party rolls Minority party rolls Majority defeats
“Textbook” Congress(1953-1968) 90 6% 39% 11%
Reform Era(1969-1974) 61 7% 15% 12%
Caucus Rule(1975-1986) 283 1% 59% 4%
Centralized Democratic(1987-1994) 293 <1% 80% 4%
Centralized Republican(1995-2006) 439 0% 90% 1%
Resurgent Democratic(2007-2010) 279 0% 99% 0%
4. Based on the preceding table, would you say that the majority party’s agenda control over special rules is relatively constant or does it vary? If so, how?
5. Compare the majority’s ability to control the agenda via special rules to the party unity rates shown in the figure above. What is the relationship between the two?
6. What hypothesis might explain this pattern in the data?

i Cox, Gary W., and Mathew D. McCubbins. 2005. Setting the Agenda: Reponsible Party Government in the U.S. House of Representatives. New York: Cambridge University Press. 

ii Finocchiaro, Charles J., and David W. Rohde. 2008. “War for the Floor: Partisan Theory and Agenda Control in the U.S. House of Representatives.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 33: 35-61; calculated by author. 

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