Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Self-Selection Reconsidered: House Committee Assignment Requests and Constituency Characteristics

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Self-Selection Reconsidered: House Committee Assignment Requests and Constituency Characteristics

Article excerpt

Distributive theory is perhaps the dominant paradigm for understanding committee organization and behavior in Congress. Central to distributive theory is the assertion that members will self-select to committees based on constituency related concerns; however, few studies have tested this assumption and those that have focus primarily on the behavior of House Democrats. We use committee request data from both Democratic and Republican members, combined with district-level census data, to determine whether committee requests are empirically related to district-level characteristics. Our findings suggest mixed support for the self-selection hypothesis. While there is some support for the self-selection hypothesis, members' requests for committee assignments often are not related to district-level characteristics. In addition, we examine the degree to which the party committees-on-committees accommodate requests, finding that the degree of accommodation has been overestimated by previous studies.

The distributive model of congressional committees is based on a set of four assertions: (1) members of Congress seek membership on committees that will best serve their constituency and reelection oriented goals; (2) congressional parties seek to accommodate member requests above all else; (3) committees, in turn, are composed of members with extreme preferences on policy issues under the committees jurisdiction; and (4) public policy is skewed in favor of the extreme positions of committee members, often resulting in an oversupply of benefits (spending) for the districts of committee members caused by institutionalized logrolling across committees.1 The empirical literature on Congress has primarily concentrated on evaluating the latter two assertions; there are many published works exploring the preference outlier and benefits hypotheses.2 However, only a handful of scholars have empirically examined the first two assertions, which comprise the self-selection element of the theory and serve as the theoretical foundation of distributive theory. These studies have been limited to Democrats and, in the best case, examined behavior over eleven Congresses.3 In this study we use new data composed of committee preferences from more than 2,100 Democratic and Republican members of Congress to evaluate the self-selection assumptions of distributive theory.

Our results indicate less support for the self-selection hypothesis among members of either party than previous studies. Furthermore, we identify differences in behavior between members of the two parties. We then consider our findings in the context of previous studies of the self-selection hypothesis and the literature on the composition of House Committees, that is, the preference outlier puzzle. We suggest that distributive theory provides some insight into the behavior of members and congressional organization. The empirical evidence, both in past studies and this research, offers less support for the self-selection hypothesis than the subsequent theoretical development of distributive theory has assumed. However, as the primary theoretical alternative to distributive theory, informational theory-which is quiet on the issue of request behavior-must more fully address the self-selecting behavior that is evident in our analysis. We contend that House members' request behavior needs to be reconsidered from the point of view of both individual members' multiple goals and the many opportunities that House Committees provide members for pursuing those goals.


Theoretical Foundations

Distributive theories spring from the assumption that the proximate goal of members of Congress is to be reelected. They rely on David Mayhew's theoretical construct of the member of Congress as a "single-minded seeker of reelection" (Mayhew 1974). Mayhew argues that, among other things, this reelection goal will lead members to create legislative institutions that will allow them to claim credit for delivering particularized benefits to their districts: "The organization of Congress meets remarkably well the electoral needs of its members. …

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