Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Impact of the Australian Ballot on Member Behavior in the U.S. House of Representatives

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Impact of the Australian Ballot on Member Behavior in the U.S. House of Representatives

Article excerpt

Katz and Sala linked the development of committee property rights in the late-nineteenth-century U.S. House of Representatives to the introduction of the Australian ballot. If, as they posited, members sought personal reputations to carry them to reelection in the new electoral environment, the current article argues that behaviors with more immediate political payoffs also should have changed in ways their theory would predict. The article examines whether committee assignments, floor voting behavior, and the distribution of pork barrel projects changed in predicted ways and finds supportive outcomes, but usually only when the office bloc ballot, and not the party bloc ballot, was in use.

Keywords: U.S. House of Representatives; Australian ballot; committee assignments; party voting; pork barrel projects

One of the more inventive theories about Congress's institutional evolution is Katz and Sala's (1996) linkage of the development of committee property rights in the late-nineteenth-century U.S. House of Representatives to the introduction of the Australian ballot. Katz and SaIa argued that the Australian ballot-a government-printed ballot cast in secret that replaced a party-produced ballot cast in public-greatly increased the incentive for members of the House to pursue personal constituency votes. This, in turn, led to the rise of committee property rights as members sought to keep their committee assignments from term to term because of the potential electoral benefits they derived from them.

While Katz and Sala's (1996) theory is believable, it seems reasonable to expect that an assertion of committee property rights was not apt to be among House members' first responses to the new electoral process. After all, committee property rights generally pay off only over the long run, particularly when associated with some variant of a seniority system (and, of course, an intention to serve over a long period of time). If, as Katz and SaIa suggest, members of Congress were motivated to seek personal electoral benefits to carry them to reelection in the new Australian ballot electoral environment, then behaviors with more immediate political payoffs also should have changed in ways their theory would predict.

In this article, we examine whether three different sorts of everyday member behavior changed in hypothesized ways in the wake of the adoption of the Australian ballot. Specifically, we test whether the reform influenced committee assignments, floor voting behavior, and the distribution of pork barrel projects. We conjecture that House members in states with the Australian ballot pursued more prestigious committee assignments, felt less compelled to vote with their party, and chased pork barrel projects more successfully than their colleagues from states without the reform.

We also take an additional step beyond that taken by Katz and SaIa (1996) by examining the behavioral impact of the Australian ballot's two different forms, an important distinction they did not explore. Simply stated, states adopting the Australian ballot had to either choose a party column ballot design or an office bloc ballot design. Arguably, the office bloc design was more likely than the party column design to change the electoral incentive structure in the manner that Katz and SaIa ascribed to the Australian ballot reform generally (Squire et al. 2005).

The Katz and Sala Theory

Katz and Sala (1996, 23) presented their theory succinctly.

This is our argument in a nutshell: The ballot changes raised the interest of members of Congress in institutional arrangements that would help them build personal reputations. Stable committee assignments give members the leeway and confidence they need to become policy experts within their committee jurisdictions. Policy experts are better equipped to claim credit and are more noteworthy position takers on policies within their committee's jurisdiction than are randomly selected members of Congress. …

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