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Bawn: Congressional party leadership

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Bawn. 1998. Congressional party leadership: Utilitarian versus majoritarian incentives. LSQ.

In Brief

In this article Bawn provides a theory of how the majority party leadership will make decisions about procedures. She begins from two assumptions:

  1. Party leaders have important powers: they make decisions about bill referral, scheduling, debate agendas, and conference membership and proceedings.
  2. The majority party leaders care about three things: party maintenance (keeping the party in power), reselection (being reselected for leadership posts), and reelection.

The party leader makes procedural decisions in order to achieve these goals. The effects of the reelection goal are idiosyncratic, so we leave it aside and focus on party maintenance and reselection, which have systematic effects.

Leadership Goals

Party Maintenance

A party-oriented leader is one who maximizes the party's expected number of seats after the next election. The party-oriented leader's procedural decisions will be based on the intensity of impact on members' reelection chances, not simply the number of members helped or hurt. So a leader might make a procedural decision that allows a farm subsidy bill to pass even if there is only a minority in the party that will benefit from it (the impact will be intensely beneficial for the party minority and mildly detrimental for the party majority). The leader does not just count up how many party members are for or against a bill and then side with the majority. Thus, the party leader is utilitarian (seeking the greatest benefit for the greatest number), not majoritarian.


Intuitively we would expect that the reselection goal would induce leaders to always make procedural decisions that are supported by the majority of his/her party. Failing to do so might expose the party leader to challenges by rivals.

However, the reselection imperative does not lead to majority decisions on all procedural questions, for several reasons:

  1. Most party members should support leaders whose procedural decisions promote party maintenance, even if some of those decisions are to the detriment of some members' reelection chances.
  2. It is costly to challenge the party leader, so he/she has some discretion to impose decisions without being punished.
  3. Leaders do more than just make procedural decisions. They are reselected based on their performance in a number of areas. A leader who is good at non-procedural tasks will be able to deviate from the party majority's preferences on procedural matters.
  4. Outcomes are uncertain, giving the party leader some discretionary power.

Balancing Maintenance and Reselection

When the party maintenance and reselection goals conflict, the party leader will weigh the two. The leader's decision will maximize party maintenance as long as:

  1. The impact of procedural decisions on party maintenance is sufficiently large relative to the impact on reselection, and
  2. The incremental value of additional party seats is sufficiently large relative to the incremental value of being leader.

Another way to think about this is that when the majority party is divided (a minority of members support the bill and a majority do not), the party leadership will side with the minority if the bill's impact will have concentrated benefits for the party minority and minor, diffuse costs for the majority members. Doing so will help get the minority members reelected without seriously damaging the majority's reelection chances. That will keep the majority party in power; the members will be happy; and they will reselect the party leaders

Research on similar subjects


Bawn, Kathleen (author)American PoliticsPartiesCartel TheoryConditional Party GovernmentParty Government

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