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Cox and McCubbins: Legislative leviathan

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.

Cox and McCubbins. 1993. Legislative leviathan.

In Brief

Research question: How do we explain the organization of the institutions of the House of Representatives?

Argument: Parties, acting as types of legislative cartels, organize the House in order to solve their collective dilemmas, namely (1) passing party-defined collective policies and (2) minimizing member defection. The resolution of these dilemmas allows individual party members to sacrifice some individual benefits in order to obtain collective benefits.

Place in the Literature:

The arguments in this book were updated in Cox and McCubbins (2004).


  1. Representatives seek re-election.
  2. Re-election is a function of two types of reputations: individual and partisan.
  3. Legislative action (lawmaking) affects both types of reputations (Implicit)
  4. Lawmaking requires collective efforts.
  5. Collective action is problematic; there are inherent disincentives against individual cooperation.
  6. Delegation to a central authority is a solution to collective action problems.
  7. Party leadership is the central authority to which individual representatives delegate.
  8. Parties are analogous to market cartels.
    • Parties obtain their power through rulemaking.
    • The majority party uses this power to design the legislature's structure and processes.
    • The majority party organizes itself and structures the House to solve its collective dilemmas (ensure its dominance, pass party defined "collective" policy, and minimize member defection).


Majority party uses several structural and procedural rules to minimize agency losses, including:

  1. Discharge petitions (Ch. 10)
  2. Control of committee assignments (Ch. 7)
  3. Seniority violations (Ch. 2)


The majority party rules in the House: control of the agenda allows the majority party to favor its members by privileging bills sponsored by members of the majority, and by providing then greater veto-powers over legislation (relative to the minority party).

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Cox, Gary W. (author)McCubbins, Mathew D. (author)American PoliticsCongress (U.S.)CommitteesPartiesCollective ActionCartel TheoryParty Government

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