Beyond the Roll-Call Arena: The Determinants of Position Taking in Congress

By Highton, Benjamin; Rocca, Michael S. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Roll-Call Arena: The Determinants of Position Taking in Congress


Highton, Benjamin, Rocca, Michael S., Political Research Quarterly


Most analyses of position taking in Congress focus on roll-call voting, where members of Congress (MCs) regularly cast votes, thereby regularly taking positions. Left largely unstudied has been position taking beyond the domain of rollcall voting. However, analyzing non-roll-call position taking raises interesting theoretical questions. Whereas most members cannot avoid taking positions (casting votes) on roll calls, outside the roll-call arena MCs have more discretion; they must decide whether or not to take a position at all. And, while roll-call voting is directly tied to policy consequences, the connection is weaker in non-roll-call position taking. These two distinguishing features of non-roll-call position taking motivate a variety of hypotheses about who takes positions and what positions they take. Our results reveal strong constituency links to both phenomena. The results also imply that party influence is greater on roll-call position taking. We interpret these findings in the context of leading theories of congressional behavior.

In his seminal work on legislative behavior in the U.S. Congress Mayhew (1974: 49) defined position taking as "the public enunciation of a judgmental statement on anything likely to be of interest to political actors." The significance of position taking derives in large part from the observation that "politicians often get rewarded for taking positions rather than achieving effects" (Mayhew 2001: 51). Of course the primary rewards most politicians seek are election and reelection. Therefore, attention is naturally drawn to the relationship between the positions members of Congress take and the preferences of their constituents. Understanding the nature of this dyadic relationship is also important because it bears directly on questions of representation, which are of longstanding concern to democratic theorists.

To date, most empirical analyses of position taking in Congress focus on roll-call voting, where members of Congress (MCs) regularly cast votes, thereby regularly taking positions. Beginning with Miller and Stokes (1963), a large literature has developed to understand the nature of the connection between legislators' roll-call votes and the opinions and preferences of their constituencies.1 Left largely unstudied has been position taking outside the domain of roll-call voting. And, to the extent that this has been studied, the emphasis has generally been on non-electoral factors. In this article, we suggest that although non-roll-call position taking is difficult to analyze systematically, shifting from an exclusive roll-call focus is important because a large amount ol MC position taking does not occur through roll-call votes.

The purpose of this study is twofold. First, we analyze the conditions under which members take non-roll-call positions. The motivation for this analysis is the observation that some members of Congress take positions on particular issues while others do not. We argue and provide evidence that whether a legislator takes a position depends in important ways on the nature of constituency opinion, specifically its heterogeneity, extremity, and alignment with a members own preferences.

Second, we examine the positions that MCs take and suggest that because non-roll-call position taking is not directly linked to policy effects, parties are less interested in exerting influence over it. This comparatively weaker party link represents another important difference between roll-call and non-roll-call position taking behavior. Our results support this notion, indicating that party differences are less pronounced and smaller in comparison to constituency influences outside the roll-call arena.

In the following sections, we formulate and test a series of hypotheses derived from theory and previous research. We focus on position taking regarding abortion policy in the 101st Congress. This decision was guided by theoretical and empirical considerations, which we explain below. …

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