Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Strategic Timing, Position-Taking, and Impeachment in the House of Representatives

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Strategic Timing, Position-Taking, and Impeachment in the House of Representatives

Article excerpt

We examine the timing of members' position-taking in the House of Representatives' decision to impeach President Clinton. Based on our understanding of the goals of members and leaders, we expect members whose constituencies, interest group influences, and partisanship are in alignment to make their positions known quickly, and those with conflicting or ambiguous signals to delay. We further expect members' electoral circumstances within their own party-the potential for a primary challenge-to condition the impact of interest-group connections on that timing. Our findings indicate that, while the influence of cross-pressures on timing was universal, Republicans who faced primaries in 1998 were more sensitive to the concerns of their political "base," and less susceptible to cross-pressures, than were those unopposed within their own party. We also show that, over and above the effects of ideology and partisanship, Republican members who delayed their announcements were more likely to split their votes between yeas and nays than those who took early positions.

More people watched the impeachment votes in the U.S. House on December 19th, 1998, than any other roll-calls in our history. From the beginning of the inquiry, partisanship had reigned; and passage on December 11th of four articles of impeachment in the Judiciary Committee, and their subsequent approval of two articles by the full House occurred on nearly unbroken party lines. Nevertheless, until the day of the votes, there was significant uncertainty about the outcome, and unprecedented public attention focused on undecided members' announcements of their positions.

Consistent with this uncertainty, organized interests engaged in high-profile efforts to sway legislators' votes in the two weeks prior to the floor vote. Some participants accused leaders, especially Republicans, of putting great pressure on members, threatening wavering representatives with primary challenges, reduced support from the party, and less influence in the House. In this highly partisan and politically-charged environment, the timing of members' announcements often was as problematic, if not more so, than the direction of their positions. We therefore ask: Why did some members announce positions earlier than others?

We begin with a brief overview of the events leading up to the House impeachment votes, and go on to theorize about how the confluence of organized pressure, party leadership, and electoral considerations shapes the timing of position-taking. We outline two general sets of expectations. First, we anticipate that members whose constituency, interest-group connections, and partisanship are in alignment will make their positions known quickly; those with conflicting or ambiguous pressures will delay. Second, we consider the centrality of members' electoral circumstances in their decisions on timing, hypothesizing that representatives will vary in their receptivity to interest-group influences as a function of those circumstances. Cross-pressures influenced the timing of position-taking; representatives, particularly Republicans, timed their announcements with an eye toward the potential for primary challenges in 2000. In addition, over and above the effects of ideology, Republican members who delayed their announcements were more likely to split their impeachment votes between yeas and nays than those who took early positions.

The battle over impeachment in the House offers a number of analytic opportunities difficult or impossible to obtain in other contexts. In particular, the compressed time-frame, the close attention paid to members' positions, the importance of House leaders' decisions on how to frame the question, the strong pressure from organized interests before and during the battle, the considerable potential for future electoral consequences, and the high and relatively constant salience of the issue across districts provide a "unique opportunity for measurement of theoretically relevant phenomena" (Krehbiel 1996: 253)-here, the timing of representatives' position-taking. …

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