Congressional action now seems to be mostly about building partisan floor majorities, with committees doing more grandstanding and less legislating. But there is still a lot of action in committees, especially in distributing goods to states and districts. Jonathan Lewallen finds that congressional committees are holding fewer legislative hearings over time, due to centralized lawmaking powers. But Leah Rosenstiel finds that committee members still change policy to benefit their states. They both say committees and constituencies still matter, even in our hyperpartisan age.
Guests: Jonathan Lewallen, University of Tampa; Leah Rosenstiel, Princeton University
Studies: “Committees and the Decline of Lawmaking in Congress“; “Congressional Bargaining and the Distribution of Grants.”
Matt Grossmann: Do congressional committees still make policy? This week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossman.
Partisanship seems to be everything in Congress these days with action all about obtaining a floor majority to pass bills. But committees are still making decisions. Sometimes, surprisingly, bi-partisan on issues like COVID relief, infrastructure, and science funding. Are committees still influential and are they just a form for distributed politics spreading money to states and districts? This week, I talk to Jonathan Lewallen of the University of Tampa about his new Michigan book Committees and the Decline of Lawmaking in Congress. He finds that congressional committees are holding fewer legislative hearings over time and exchanging oversight for policymaking. He attributes that to centralized lawmaking powers rather than simple partisanship but sees a few issue areas with retained committee influence. I also talk to Leah Rosenstiel at Princeton University about her new paper, Congressional Bargaining and the Distribution of Grants. She finds that senators being on a committee and sharing it are associated with benefits to their state in the form of changing formula grants.
Rather than create new policy from scratch, legislators find a winning coalition for an adjustment by combining states doing poorly under the status quo with similar characteristics. They both say committees and constituencies still matter, even in our hyper-partisan age. Lewallen says, Congress works through committees though they are doing less on law making.
Jonathan Lewallen: My book is about Congress and lawmaking in Congress from a committee perspective. So when journalists and political scientists often talk about the lawmaking process, we typically hear about roll call votes or which bills pass or don’t pass, or how many laws were enacted. We’ll see journalistic stories about an unproductive Congress or a do-nothing Congress. But by that point, by the point that legislators are actually voting on stuff and deciding whether or not to pass this bill, two important decisions have already been made. First is whether Congress, or any legislature, should do something about an issue. Whether this legislature should go ahead and make a policy. And if so, how are they going to make policy? Are they going to do it through legislation or oversight or some other kinds of non legislative activity? And so my book is really about tracing that lawmaking process in Congress back to these kinds of earlier decisions that are being made in the committee system.
And I have a few notable findings. So first, again, sort of big picture congressional lawmaking is that, with the exception of about a six year period from 2011 to 2016, the number of substantive, that is just non commemorative laws that were enacted, hasn’t really changed much since the 1980s. We haven’t really seen a significant decline in how many non commemorative laws congress is enacting since ’81. Most of the decline, when we just look at counts of how many laws are being acted, most of that decline is in commemorative laws. Renaming post offices, or declaring June to be national ice cream month, or whatever it is. And actually when former Speaker of the House, John Boehner, used to be asked about this, when journalists would ask them about why is Congress being so unproductive? He would say, well, look, it’s not that we’re unproductive.
It’s just, we are enacting fewer of these commemorative measures. And so that’s why your numbers are down. And he was mostly correct. The second big finding I would say is that when we look at the committee system, actually, that’s where we’re seeing a lot less time, a lot less effort, being spent on legislation today compared to the 1980s. So when committees do hold a hearing, that hearing is much less likely to be legislative. It’s more likely to just kind of focus on an issue generally, or understanding what the problem is out there in society, understanding what bureaucracy is doing about this issue.
And also committees are advancing relatively fewer of the bills that get introduced and referred to their jurisdiction. So the committee level is where we’re actually seeing this significant decline in legislative activity, at least within Congress. And the third big finding I would say is that the explanation for why committees are doing less legislative work has less to do with what we might call partisanship in a broad sense and more to do with specific changes to congressional rules and practices over the past 40 years that have given party leaders more authority to set the legislative agenda, decide what’s going to happen to these bills either when they introduced or when it gets voted on, and then those changes to the rules and practices have given committees fewer reasons to try to compete with each other and engage in legislative activity and claim that legislative authority for themselves and for the future.
Matt Grossmann: Rosenstiel finds committees are important for grant allocation, a big portion of the budget.
Leah Rosenstiel: In this paper, I really wanted to understand how Congress designs grant programs. And what I argue is that congressional rules and political considerations shape and, at times, distort the distribution of grants. And specifically, I find that while many federal programs may be intended to improve education or provide healthcare, members of Congress treat these programs as opportunities to procure more funding for their constituents. And due to their role in the policy making process members of key congressional committees are particularly effective at securing more funding for their states. However, Congress is governed by majority and super majority rules. And so this is going to constrain what types of proposals can pass. And it’s going to result in programs that benefit a majority or super majority of states. And it’s really important to note that grants are primarily allocated using formulas that are based on state characteristics.
So for example, a formula might specify that grants are allocated in proportion to population. So a state with 5% of the population would receive 5% of the program funding. And this means that members of Congress can’t just choose any distribution of funding that they want. They have to find a distribution that works based on these state characteristics. And that’s really good at constraining what Congress is able to do. And these findings have important implications for how effective federal programs are. And particularly when programs are going to distribute funding to the places and people that need it the most. So, one of the things that I argue is that the congressional committee system, coupled with legislators self-interest, can actually result in more effective programs.
The reason for this is that members of Congress actually have some control over what committees they serve on. So they get to select on to certain committees. And for example, a Senator from a state with a large farming industry might be more likely to select on to the Senate Agriculture Committee. And then that Senator is able to use their committee membership to bring more agriculture funding to their states and specifically to design programs that benefit places with large farming industries. And because funding is allocated via these formulas and a legislator can’t just say, “Give state X $5 million.” This means that these programs are going to allocate more funding to all places that have high need for agriculture funds, all places with large farming industries. And so that could actually mean that the committee system is allowing Congress to design programs that are more effective.
Matt Grossmann: Lewallen looks at change over time. Committees still hear from witnesses, but less so now.
Jonathan Lewallen: Typically there’s a topic that has come to the committee’s attention. And this could be the committee chair has an agenda, a set of issues, that they want to address. It could be that something comes up, there’s some new issue in the news, or there’s some event that happens and that Congress wants to pay attention to. And so they’ll schedule a hearing and they’ll call a certain number of witnesses. And most of those witnesses are either determined by the majority party or maybe jointly with the majority and the minority, the chair and the ranking member, depending on what their relations are like. Usually the minority party gets at least one witness of their own to call. The number or the exact number, the exact ratio of majority to minority witnesses might vary, again, depending on the size of the committee, depending on the scope of the hearing, depending on relations between the two party factions.
You can also have nonpartisan witnesses there as well, folks from Congress’s own think tanks, information bureaucracy. So the GAO, the CBO, the CRS that aren’t there at the hess of one party or the other, but they’re just there to provide information.
And so, you’ll have a certain number of witnesses on what’s called a panel. So just them up there and all sitting at that table together. And there might be several panels. The hearing might go across several days. The committee might string together three or four distinct hearing days, but it’s all towards a similar theme. So that’s just, in a broad sense, what hearings are and what they look like.
Some data that I have in the book, and some of these data are also from a project that I have with Brian Jones and Sean Theriault, looking at changes to hearings over time, that these hearings have a lot fewer witnesses.
They have about half as many witnesses today as they did in the 1970s. At any of these hearings, a lot fewer of these witness panels, a lot fewer of these individual sessions. And so they’re really getting condensed down. Those trends, I should say, are fairly widespread across committees and across issues. There are a few exceptions. So hearings on environmental policy, on science and technology, and international affairs. We haven’t really seen significant declines or significant changes over time. They’re calling about as many witnesses as they did in the seventies and eighties, but every other issue we’ve seen this trend where, again, they’re calling about half as many witnesses as they did 30, 40 years ago. At the committee level, there was sort of one interesting finding that isn’t really central to the book, but is interesting to think about in light of the broader findings, which is that the two government affairs committees are actually doing more legislation today. They have increased their legislative activity over time.
And these are committees that were originally created to provide some kind of overarching oversight function within the committee system. We need one committee that has broad jurisdiction that can conduct oversight over whatever issue it wants. That way oversight doesn’t get kind of siloed in all of these smaller committees and their jurisdictions. And we don’t have to worry about agency capture and the committee members just doing whatever the agencies want. That we do have these panels providing this broad oversight function, and that’s going to strengthen congressional oversight. And it turns out that over the last few decades, the purposes and the activity of those committees have actually shifted more towards a legislative orientation, even more so than a lot of the other committees that we think of as primarily legislation.
Matt Grossmann: Part of their increasing focus on oversight is due to the broadening scope of government.
Jonathan Lewallen: In the book, I have a chapter where I examine this relationship between the size and scope of government activity and how that has increased over the last several decades and this decline in committee legislative activity. And in particular, I find evidence for this relationship between increases in federal budget outlay. So, how much money is the government spending on different policies and programs, and these decreases in legislative hearings and bills that advance from committee to the floor? And I think it makes some sense that committees would shift their attention or shift their focus as government is doing more. That means there’s more stuff to keep track of and more need to bring the agencies in and say, “Okay, so we told you to spend this money. You’re spending this money. Is it working? Do you need more money? Do you need less money? Is there a different approach we can take if it’s not working?”
I do find in my book though, that the number of non legislative or oversight related hearings hasn’t actually increased, it’s stayed about the same as it has since the 1980s. But it’s just that relatively more of the committee activity has been non legislative when you consider the decline of legislative hearing. So I think that the increased government activity and the increased government spending at least establishes a baseline demand for oversight and for other kinds of non legislative policymaking at the committee level.
Matt Grossmann: But he finds rules changes made a difference in lessening the import of committee lawmaking.
Jonathan Lewallen: One of the rules changes from the mid 1990s that I talk about in the book, that I find evidence that there’s a relationship to this decline of legislative activity in the House, is related to what’s called a multiple referral process and specifically giving the Speaker of the House the ability to designate a committee of primary reform. So in the 1970s, the House and Congress, both chambers, voted to allow the parliamentarian in conjunction with the majority party leader, to refer a bill to multiple committees. So there might be an issue that is relevant for both the natural resources committee’s jurisdiction, and the agriculture committee’s jurisdiction. And so instead of having to choose one or the other, the bill would go to both. But those committees would then, and we have research from the seventies up through the nineties that shows that these committees would actually compete with one another and hold more legislative activity in order to be the committee that gets to be in charge of the conference committee or other kinds of negotiations on the floor.
And so that competition, holding more legislative hearing saying, “Look, we should be the ones in charge of this bill and we should be the ones in charge of this issue in the future,” was helping to drive a lot of this competition for legislative authority and increasing legislative activity across the board. In the mid 1990s, once Republicans gained a majority in the 1994 elections, the next Congress, they instituted a rule that says, “Okay, for any bill that’s referred to multiple committees, the Speaker, if they want, can designate this committee of primary referral.” And as I argue in the book, what that does is it tells the committees, look don’t even bother competing because no matter what you do, no matter how many hearings you hold, if a bill gets referred to committee A, B or C, it doesn’t matter how many hearings they hold, committee A is always going to be the one who ends up in charge of this bill.
And so none of the committees, A, B, or C, has any real reason then to try to compete and hold more legislative hearings or engage in more legislative activity. Because they all know committee A is going to be in charge anyway. And so, I read in the book that undoing that rule might lead to more of this competition, might lead to more of this legislative activity at the committee level. There might be some concern that, well, we’re going to get, again, this kind of decentralized messy piecemeal process, and that actually might not work the way that it should. But, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of that process, a lot of that kind of decentralized piecemeal approach to policymaking, was also happening during this period of one party rule. And so we just don’t know. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t, but I think it’s worth discussing that particular ruling and the effects it has on the incentives for members and committees to engage in legislative policy.
I also talk a little bit about term limits for committee leaders. This is particularly true today in the House and Senate for the Republican party, the Republican conference. But, the Democrats have talked about this as well in recent years, as a way to try to get younger members more involved and give them a bigger voice in the committee process. I don’t think term limits for committee of leaders are a great idea. If you’re just churning through new committee leaders every six years or so, four to six years for the Republican conference’s current rules, eventually you’re going to end up with members who haven’t been around that long and who don’t really know the policy that well, or who just aren’t very good at the job.
Matt Grossmann: Rosenstiel’s project came out of her prior work in Congress showing the importance of formula grants.
Leah Rosenstiel: This particular project is actually born out of work that I was doing before I went to graduate school. So I had previously worked at the Congressional Research Service. And this is a government agency that’s part of the Library of Congress that essentially acts as a think tank for members of Congress. And while working at the Congressional Research Service, I worked on these grant programs and I spent a lot of time understanding how different allocation formulas worked. And this project, and my research agenda more broadly, is motivated by the observation that a lot of federal programs do a poor job of distributing funding to the places that need it the most. So for example, there are a number of redistributive programs that don’t actually target poverty. And the reason for this is that many programs allocate funding based on old data or use some sort of factor that doesn’t measure need.
And to give you just one example, the federal government allocates over $12 billion each year for the education of children with disabilities. But when grants are allocated, each state first receives a grant amount equal to what it got in 1999. And then the remaining funding is allocated in proportion to current poverty and population levels. But what this formula means is that a lot of grant funding is actually just going out based on 20 year old population data, which doesn’t reflect the current needs of each state and states that have seen really large population growth. So states like Nevada are actually getting substantially less per child than other states.
Matt Grossmann: These funds are for big, important programs.
Leah Rosenstiel: In this project, I’m focusing on what are called grants in aid. And these are federal grants to state and local governments. And many of the programs that people are familiar with are actually grants in aid. So it’s going to include programs such as Medicaid, the section eight housing program, the community development block grant, the national school lunch program, temporary assistance for needy families, or TANIF, the title 1A education program, education for children with disabilities. There are hundreds of these grant programs and they make up a really substantial portion of the federal budget. So in 2019, grants in aid accounted for over $700 billion of federal spending, and that’s nearly a quarter of all federal domestic spending. And at the state level, these programs are also quite important. So grants in aid account for nearly a third of total state government budgets and over half of state spending for healthcare and public assistance.
Matt Grossmann: Senators try to gain winning coalitions, enabling some cooperation for change.
Leah Rosenstiel: In the paper, I develop a theory. And the underlying assumption of the theory is that legislators want to bring more funding back to their constituents. And so all of their actions are going to be motivated by trying to maximize the grant amount that their state is getting. And when forming coalitions, whoever is making the proposal is going to want to select the, quote unquote, cheapest coalition. So in other words, they want to find coalition members that are going to allow them to maximize their grant amounts. And so I have two findings related to who’s going to be in this coalition. So first, the theory shows that states with similar characteristics are going to be cheaper to include in the winning coalition. And the reason for this is that funding is allocated based on a formula using state characteristics such as population or poverty. So states with similar characteristics are going to receive similar grant amounts.
If you have a formula based on population, states with similar population levels are going to receive similar levels of funding. And so if I represent a smaller state such as Vermont, then the formula that really benefits my constituents is also going to benefit similar states, such as Rhode Island or New Hampshire, but not places like California or Texas. And so when I’m building a coalition to enact this formula that benefits smaller states, those are the places I want to include in my coalition because we’re all going to benefit from the same formula.
And then the second prediction that comes out of the model is that states that are doing poorly under the status quo policy are going to also be cheaper to include in the winning coalition. And this is because allocation formulas for grants generally remain in effect until they’re amended or repealed. And so as a result, the status quo policy is going to really impact what formula gets enacted because legislators are always going to compare proposals to the status quo policy and the legislators that are doing poorly under the status quo are therefore going to be the ones that want to change it.
Thus, it doesn’t take very much to get someone who’s doing poorly under the status quo to vote for your proposal. So they’re also going to be cheaper to include in that winning coalition. Empirically, I do actually find evidence for both of these claims. So looking at amendments that are offered by senators on the Senate floor to grant formulas, I find that states that are doing worse under the status quo and states that have similar population levels to the proposer state are more likely to be included in the winning coalition.
Matt Grossmann: We hear more about earmarks, but these matter more, and are just as political.
Leah Rosenstiel: There’s been a lot of research on how the federal government distributes funding and particularly the role of congressional committees. And so there is a lot of research that shows that committee members are able to procure more funding for their states, but most of this research focuses on earmarks or pork barrel spending. So even though grants in aid make up a substantial portion of the budget, there’s been relatively little scholarship on how Congress designs these programs. And instead, we often think of them as being fair or apolitical or, because they have a formula, they’re somehow just technocratic. And so I’m joining a very small literature that’s arguing that no, allocation formulas really are political and a lot of the same politics that we see in other types of federal spending apply to these.
Matt Grossmann: Looking at education funding, she finds large effects of committees.
Leah Rosenstiel: I find evidence that committees play a really important role in the design of grant programs. And this isn’t really surprising given that bills generally have to pass through congressional committees before they can be considered on the House and Senate floors. So looking at grant programs from the department of education since 1980, I find that states represented by the Senate committee with jurisdiction over education received substantially more grant funding. So specifically, in the first year after a program is reauthorized, committee members’ states receive about 24% more federal education funding. And then there’s an additional benefit of being the committee chair. So on top of the benefit of being on the committee, committee chairs’ states receive an additional five and a half percents. These are fairly sizable effects. So, many of these grant programs receive billions of dollars annually. So a five and a half percent increase in your grant amount could easily be millions of additional dollars for your state every year.
Matt Grossmann: Even in big recent COVID bills, these formulas mattered.
Leah Rosenstiel: There are a number of grants in aid included in the COVID relief bills in addition to the stimulus checks, which I think have gotten probably the most press. A lot of this debate did appear to be along partisan lines. At the same time, I do think there were a number of lower profile provisions that didn’t see this type of partisan debate and actually looked pretty distributive and more in line with the story I’m telling. And, although a lot of these really fields didn’t have a traditional path to passage and didn’t see the traditional committee markup and conference and all of that, grant programs actually do look pretty similar to other grant programs. So in a lot of cases, they are just using formulas that were already in law or taking parts of those formulas. So the results of these COVID relief bills is that committee members’ states are actually still going to see benefits because they’re using the formulas that were already written by committee members.
So in a lot of ways, the distribution of funding here is actually going to look pretty similar to the distribution of funding that you get from this particularistic politics within committees.
Matt Grossmann: Politics still looks distributive. It’s just decisions are made less commonly.
Leah Rosenstiel: I think the politics surrounding the distribution of federal grants has not actually changed very much. So the debates over these formulas look pretty similar today to how they did 50 years ago. But one thing that has changed is that programs get reauthorized much less often than they used to. So committees are doing less than they used to, but when they do actually reauthorize these bills, the politics looks similar. But Congress is still designing and altering grant programs and committees are still playing a really important role in this process. It’s just happening less often than it used to.
Matt Grossmann: Lewallen agrees that committee still help with distributive politics.
Jonathan Lewallen: So I do find that, even though with the exception of the government affairs committee, most committees have decreased their legislative activity. Relative to each other, I find that committees like natural resources, the other committees that we think of as largely distributive, still are holding more legislative hearings than some of the other hearings that we think of as involved in more regulatory policy or redistributive policy. And so, I think the committee positions are definitely a way for members to insert those provisions or direct those grants to their states, again, at those kind of pre enactment stages. So while the policy is being formulated in committee, I think, having those committee seats definitely is valuable. And I think that also ties in to the chapter I have on the stratified Congress.
Whereas, if you’re not on that committee that is distributing those grants and you also don’t really have an opportunity to amend that bill on the floor, because the others have found that Congress has increasingly, or at least in a House, they’re increasingly relying on restrictive rules, closed rules, not allowing any member of the House to just offer an amendment to a bill on the floor. And so if you’re not on that committee that’s distributing those grants, you also don’t really have other opportunities to direct that money towards your state. And so, yeah, I think that would increase the value of those committee seats for you and for your districts and for your states.
Matt Grossmann: And Rosenstiel agrees that lots of what Congress does now is just adjustment.
Leah Rosenstiel: A lot of these grant programs, although not all, were created in the sixties and seventies. And typically these programs come up for reauthorization every few years. So in a bill Congress will often say, “I’m authorizing appropriations for this program for three years or five years.” And then every three or five years, Congress needs to go in and reauthorize the program again and provide another authorization for appropriations. And that’s not how it works for all programs, but that’s how it works for most programs. Pretty often the formulas, when programs come up for reauthorization, Congress does talk about changing formulas. It doesn’t always do it. So oftentimes there’ll be a lot of amendments proposed to a given formula. And then none of them will pass because Congress just can’t come to agreement on what the formula should be. But it’s quite common for these formulas to either get tweaked or have Congress at least try to tweak them.
Matt Grossmann: Distributive politics matters on top of parties because parties contain very different states.
Leah Rosenstiel: There’s also a lot of literature on the role that parties play in the policy-making process. And, I don’t want to argue that parties don’t matter for grant programs. I think parties affect everything that is going on in Congress. But I think when it comes to grants and the allocation of funds in particular, in these formulas of how much each state is going to get, it really is a much more distributive game. And I think one of the reasons for that is because you’re allocating funding based on these state characteristics. It’s very difficult to design a formula that only benefits Democratic states or only benefits Republican states. California and Texas actually a very similar characteristics and tend to benefit from the same types of programs. And so it’s just becomes quite challenging to have a partisan formula, which is, I think, why I’m finding these really strong distributive effects here. And these effects do hold even when you account for co partisanship or something like that.
In my mind, these distributed effects aren’t somehow picking up partisan shift. They are, in fact, truly legislators trying to maximize funding for their states. I do think parties matter a lot in other aspects of the grant programs. So there’s a lot of debate over how prescriptive Congress should be when allocating funding. How much should the use of funds be restricted? What are the requirements for getting funding? What types of programs do we want? Do we want redistributive programs? Do you want more education programs? Do you want fewer education programs? And so all of those debates look much more partisan. But when it comes to these allocation formulas, it really is a distributive story.
Matt Grossmann: Lewallen says scholars used to see parties solving the problems of committees, but they created new ones.
Jonathan Lewallen: The prevailing view in political science, at least among folks who study Congress, is that a decentralized committee system slows the process down. It makes lawmaking too piecemeal. There’s no one group that has an overarching perspective that can put everything together and address these big complex problems. And that parties and party leaders are really the folks who can provide that and help Congress respond more quickly and more appropriately to events and to these large complex issues. And so, as you say, there was this trade-off where parties and party government was seen as a solution to the problem of committee governance or the several problems that come with committee government. And Barbara Sinclaire’s work, and others, on what she calls unorthodox lawmaking, where the party leaders, again, have these different paths to get around committee gate keeping and bring those to the floor on her own, or just avoid committees altogether was seen as a way to make it easier to pass a bill.
And then if the majority party in particular has an easier time passing its legislation, then that filters out to the public. The public has an easier time distinguishing between who the two parties are and what they want, what their agendas are. And that will make it easier and better for us as citizens to know who to vote for. That there’s this increased collective responsibility and responsiveness. And it’s good for a small D democracy. What I find in the book is that’s not necessarily wrong, but that there is this sort of irony that the increase in unorthodox lawmaking, or at least giving party leaders more authority, it was meant to make it easier to pass an individual bill, whatever individual bill the party might want to pass. But overall, it’s actually decreasing Congress’s legislative activity, and sort of depressing that legislative function that mostly takes place in committees.
So, I don’t think that committee governments or this decentralized process is necessarily better than party government, but I also think that we’ve never really experienced a time when we had competitive elections between the parties like we do now and a more committee driven process. When a lot of the political scientists who were expressing dissatisfaction with committee government were writing, it was that period where the Democrats were just going to be in the majority for the foreseeable future. They were in the majority in both the House and Senate for decades and decades. And this is speculation on my part, but I do wonder to what extent that dissatisfaction was more with the one party rule combined with committee government moreso than just committee government itself.
Matt Grossmann: Rosenstiel argues that committees can still help create effective programs, but they are up against Senate structure.
Leah Rosenstiel: These programs, which are shaped by distributive politics are major programs that aren’t just funding one-off bridges, they’re funding the maintenance of highways, providing healthcare, hiring teachers. And Congress does actually sometimes create effective programs. And I think one of the reasons for this is the committee system. So, I show that members of congressional committees are able to procure more funding for their states. But because funding is allocated using a formula, states with similar characteristics are going to fare similarly. And so this means that if you’re a state with high need for funding, then, to bring the most funding to your state, you have to write a formula that targets need and benefits other places that have high need. And there is some reason to think that committees, and particularly committee chairs, actually have high need. And this is because legislators can select onto committees. And there has been some research arguing that, in fact, you do see so-called high demanders or preference outliers selecting onto congressional committees where their constituents have really high demand for that type of funding.
And so if that is going on, then you’re going to end up with committees that are in a place in the policy making process to actually enact programs that target need. Of course, committees’ abilities to do this are going to be somewhat hampered by majority and super majority rules. So if you have need that’s concentrated in just a handful of states, then the majority of states are going to want, and the majority of senators will want a formula that doesn’t target need. And this is a really important point to think about with regards to the Senate because population and poverty and a number of measures of need are actually concentrated in a handful of states.
So California, Texas, New York all have really high populations. But the majority of states have low populations. And so the majority of states and the majority of senators want programs that benefit smaller states and don’t target population or any measure of need that’s correlated with population. And in practice, we do actually see a lot of programs that have very generous, what are called, minimum grant provisions that essentially provide a lot more per capita funding to smaller states. And so, the committee system may be somewhat well set up to create effective programs. There are a lot of other congressional rules that will make those efforts more challenging.
Matt Grossmann: Lewallen says even if only a few bills will pass, it still matters whether Congress works toward legislating and that involves committees that work.
Jonathan Lewallen: There is value in legislative activity even if it doesn’t lead to a law being enacted. Going through the process of holding these hearings on these bills, A, helps members understand what’s in them and helps members understand the connection between outputs and outcomes, perhaps, in policy, either the members themselves or their staff. And, at the same time, there’s this softening up process that takes time. You can’t necessarily just write a huge comprehensive bill and expect it to pass immediately.
Sometimes it takes a couple of years to develop these policy ideas and feel out and say, okay, well, what did these groups support? What did those groups support? Is there a compromise we can work out here? What do we need to do to put in this bill in order to make it at least somewhat effective and something that can pass? That takes time. And so if Congress and the committees aren’t working on those bills that aren’t necessarily going to pass immediately, but might pass in 3, 4, 5, 6 years, and actually do something about the problem, then that, I think, carries longer-term consequences for Congress’s collective policymaking capacity.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and part of the Democracy Group Network. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. If you liked this discussion, you should check out the Democracy Matters podcast from James Madison and our own prior episode on how bureaucrats make good policy. For now, thanks to Jonathan Lewallen and Leah Rosenstiel for joining me. Please check out Committees and the Decline of Lawmaking in Congress and Congressional Bargaining and the Distribution of Grants. And then listen in next time.