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Cox and McCubbins: Toward a theory of legislative rules changes

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. 1997. Toward a theory of legislative rules changes: Assessing Schickler and Rich's evidence. AJPS.

The Debate

A response to Schickler and Rich (two different articles by them, actually: 1997a and 1997b).

Main Points

C&M make two major arguments. First, S&R have twisted their argument. Second, S&R's empirical evidence is misinterpreted and actually supports the C&M thesis.

Interpretation of the Argument:

C&M claim that S&R have misinterpreted the argument of Legislative Leviathan. The party cartel model also allows for a weaker degree of partisan control in the case of a severely divided majority. The question is whether party government has been replaced by something else (committee government or floor government) or whether it is still essentially party government, just of a weaker variety. [Comment: If this is true, then how is the cartel model distinct from "conditional party government" (see Rohde)?]

C&M argue that rules changes are an endogenous process, and there must be a process accounting for those changes. During the 1937-1974 period, a divided Democratic Party may have been prevented by internal stalemate from asserting control over committees.

For C&M the key question is whether majority party membership is relevant in describing the workings of the House.


S&R examine the changes in the rules. C&M would prefer to focus on the base rather than the margins. C&M point out that there is no reason to believe that rules should change in any direction absent a change in the majority party's homogeneity or goals. Since S&R do not examine these variables, their argument cannot refute C&M. In fact, absent any major changes in the majority party the base should change very little and marginal changes should probably not show any consistent pattern. This is exactly what S&R find.

C&M explain changes in the rules over discharge petitions as follows. New majority parties and old minority parties have an interest in changing the status quo. Therefore, they will favor easing restrictions on discharges. This explains why the Democrats eased the rule in 1931 and then tightened it again in 1935.

S&R point out that in 4 of the 6 times when partisan control of the House changed, there were no rules changes. C&M reply that the rules do not always advantage certain policies. If they do not affect the outcomes in policy-specific ways, there is no need to change the rules unless the incoming party is different in terms of size or homogeneity.

On committee jurisdictional changes, C&M argue that the majority and minority interests are not always at odds.

On punishment, C&M argue (through algebra) that "the heavier one believes the prospective punishment is, the lower the punishment rate conditional on defection should be" (1384). In other words, when parties have a big hammer available, even if they decide not to use it sometimes, it will still be feared. C&M argue that the paucity of defections is proof of party discipline, even if punishment is rare.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Cox, Gary W. (author)McCubbins, Mathew D. (author)American PoliticsCongress (U.S.)Cartel TheoryCommitteesPartiesParty Government

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