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The Logic of Congressional Action

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Congress regularly enacts laws that benefit particular groups or localities while imposing costs on everyone else. Sometimes, however, Congress breaks free of such parochial concerns and enacts bills that serve the general public, not just special interest groups. In this important and original book, R. Douglas Arnold offers a theory that explains not only why special inte Congress regularly enacts laws that benefit particular groups or localities while imposing costs on everyone else. Sometimes, however, Congress breaks free of such parochial concerns and enacts bills that serve the general public, not just special interest groups. In this important and original book, R. Douglas Arnold offers a theory that explains not only why special interests frequently triumph but also why the general public sometimes wins. By showing how legislative leaders build coalitions for both types of programs, he illuminates recent legislative decisions in such areas as economic, tax, and energy policy. Arnold's theory of policy making rests on a reinterpretation of the relationship between legislators' actions and their constituents' policy preferences. Most scholars explore the impact that citizens' existing policy preferences have on legislators' decisions. They ignore citizens who have no opinions because they assume that uninformed citizens cannot possibly affect legislators' choices. Arnold examines the influence of citizens' potential preferences, however, and argues that legislators also respond to these preferences in order to avoid future electoral problems. He shows how legislators estimate the political consequences of their voting decisions, taking into account both the existing preferences of attentive citizens and the potential preferences of inattentive citizens. He then analyzes how coalition leaders manipulate the legislative situation in order to make it attractive for legislators to support a general interest bill.


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Congress regularly enacts laws that benefit particular groups or localities while imposing costs on everyone else. Sometimes, however, Congress breaks free of such parochial concerns and enacts bills that serve the general public, not just special interest groups. In this important and original book, R. Douglas Arnold offers a theory that explains not only why special inte Congress regularly enacts laws that benefit particular groups or localities while imposing costs on everyone else. Sometimes, however, Congress breaks free of such parochial concerns and enacts bills that serve the general public, not just special interest groups. In this important and original book, R. Douglas Arnold offers a theory that explains not only why special interests frequently triumph but also why the general public sometimes wins. By showing how legislative leaders build coalitions for both types of programs, he illuminates recent legislative decisions in such areas as economic, tax, and energy policy. Arnold's theory of policy making rests on a reinterpretation of the relationship between legislators' actions and their constituents' policy preferences. Most scholars explore the impact that citizens' existing policy preferences have on legislators' decisions. They ignore citizens who have no opinions because they assume that uninformed citizens cannot possibly affect legislators' choices. Arnold examines the influence of citizens' potential preferences, however, and argues that legislators also respond to these preferences in order to avoid future electoral problems. He shows how legislators estimate the political consequences of their voting decisions, taking into account both the existing preferences of attentive citizens and the potential preferences of inattentive citizens. He then analyzes how coalition leaders manipulate the legislative situation in order to make it attractive for legislators to support a general interest bill.

30 review for The Logic of Congressional Action

  1. 5 out of 5

    Leandro Guimarães

    An interesting take in the motivations and mechanisms of legislative work, scientifically dismantling a few myths about how constituencies, either general or particularist, influence legislators’ actions.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Alex Nelson

    Mahew's Congress: The Electoral Connection pitched the novel idea "Legislators are interested solely in reelection". This begs the question: how does anything get done in Congress if everyone's solely self-interested in their own re-election? (Arguably, the past 6 years have shown us Congress does not work.) Arnold attempts to provide a solution to this puzzle. (Mahew's puzzle, not the 112-114th congresses inability to function.) It's actually quite an elegant framework, that's slightly too elabor Mahew's Congress: The Electoral Connection pitched the novel idea "Legislators are interested solely in reelection". This begs the question: how does anything get done in Congress if everyone's solely self-interested in their own re-election? (Arguably, the past 6 years have shown us Congress does not work.) Arnold attempts to provide a solution to this puzzle. (Mahew's puzzle, not the 112-114th congresses inability to function.) It's actually quite an elegant framework, that's slightly too elaborate to succinctly summarize. In a nutshell: Arnold investigates various simple models of voter behaviour, and legislators acting based on these heuristics. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this, to me anyways, is describing the behaviour of "coalition leaders" who happen to be legislators...since this really gets to the meat of "No really, how do members of congress actually get stuff done? Or even start the attempt?"

  3. 5 out of 5

    Brett

    A good book, but one that doesn't offer enough caveats to its assertions about what drives congressional behavior. No sentient observer would suggest that re-election isn't a primary consideration in any vote taken by someone in Congress, but to suggest that in all situations it is the overriding factor is a stretch. In addition, the political landscape has shifted since the publication of this book, including radically different media and fundraising environments. Lastly, Arnold's theory is diff A good book, but one that doesn't offer enough caveats to its assertions about what drives congressional behavior. No sentient observer would suggest that re-election isn't a primary consideration in any vote taken by someone in Congress, but to suggest that in all situations it is the overriding factor is a stretch. In addition, the political landscape has shifted since the publication of this book, including radically different media and fundraising environments. Lastly, Arnold's theory is difficult to verify in any objective way. For that reason, the more I thought about the book, the less impressed I was. It is easy to invent a justification for any vote because of electoral considerations if one is willing to indulge the imagination. Yet what method is there for verifying that this is actually the case? Aside from an insanely thorough series of case studies, it is difficult to quantify this variable. Arnold is important, but not the last word.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Meggan

    Arnold uses outdated rational choice "logic" to defend a theory largely (and admittedly) devoid of reality. Given that the book was written before the internet, blogs, and Fox News, I can't really see much use for this book in understanding contemporary Congressional action.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Charles

    It's a little outdated but the theory is pretty solid.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    Although Arnold is probably right about the motivations of our congressional representatives (i.e. the sole motivation is re-election), seeing it in print is profoundly depressing.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kristofer Petersen-Overton

    An important book, albeit extremely repetitive and unnecessarily long for the simple argument it puts forward.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Bill Farley

  9. 4 out of 5

    Walter

  10. 5 out of 5

    Theo

  11. 4 out of 5

    Abby

  12. 4 out of 5

    Abby Jean

  13. 5 out of 5

    Bryn

  14. 4 out of 5

    Collan

  15. 5 out of 5

    Adam

  16. 5 out of 5

    Samuel Zimmer

  17. 4 out of 5

    Camy

  18. 5 out of 5

    Miranda

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kristopher Eclarino

  20. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Rossi

  21. 4 out of 5

    Bill

  22. 5 out of 5

    Mara Mellstrom

  23. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  24. 4 out of 5

    Megan Girvin

  25. 5 out of 5

    Russell

  26. 4 out of 5

    Justin

  27. 4 out of 5

    Quinn

  28. 5 out of 5

    Terry

  29. 4 out of 5

    Paul

  30. 4 out of 5

    Alexandre C Porto

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