Strategic Coalitions and Agenda-Setting in Fragmented Congresses: How the PRI Sets the Legislative Agenda in Mexico *

By Knight, Robert D. | Brazilian Political Science Review, May 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Strategic Coalitions and Agenda-Setting in Fragmented Congresses: How the PRI Sets the Legislative Agenda in Mexico *


Knight, Robert D., Brazilian Political Science Review


(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Agenda-setting in legislative assemblies is important for two reasons. First, the legislative process tends toward gridlock without institutions to limit and sequence the agenda (COX, 2006). Second, how the agenda is managed and by whom shapes legislative outcomes. A concern with gridlock is evident in the literature on Latin American legislatures. Juan Linz (1990) argued that multiparty presidential democracies are prone to failure because they lack incentives to form coalitions. Coalition formation and agenda-setting are related processes. Successful coalitions are supported by managing the legislative agenda to foster plenary success.

This investigation contributes to the literature on agenda-setting in fragmented (no majority party) legislative assemblies in presidential regimes. The Mexican Chamber of Deputies offers a case study in which one party has dominated agenda-setting, forming winning majority coalitions. Consequently, that party has the greatest influence over the content of legislation. Interestingly, this agenda setter is the same party that ruled Mexico from 1929 to 1997, when it lost its majority in the Chamber; namely, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). This is the case despite the absence of favorable assembly rules, with or without a co-partisan executive, and whether its legislative faction held even a plurality of the seats. Furthermore, the party's control of the agenda has been exercised irrespective of its programmatic location relative to other parties in the assembly.

To understand how the PRI has set the agenda starting with the Fox 'sexenio' (six-year presidential term) in 2000, we will proceed as follows. First, we will review the literature on agenda-setting in multiparty presidential regimes. The review will show that existing theories do not explain the Mexican case. Second, a theory of strategic agenda-setting will be suggested based on intra-party programmatic constraints and strategic flexibility. Third, legislative institutions in Mexico are reviewed. Fourth, the methods used to analyze agenda-setting and coalition formation will be discussed. Fifth, the empirical results will be presented, showing how the PRI has consistently set the agenda. Sixth, these findings will be discussed considering the theory of strategic agenda setting. It will be argued that strategic positioning by the PRI along with programmatic constraints among its most significant rivals has allowed the PRI to set the agenda despite institutional and other contextual factors that do not advantage the party. Finally, the implications for theories of legislative agenda-setting will be considered.

Theories of agenda-setting in fragmented congresses

Existing theories of agenda control in fragmented legislatures cannot explain the Mexican case. They point to restrictive chamber rules favoring the plurality party, legislative coalitions, the role of the executive, and median parties to explain agenda setting. While the Mexican Chamber is not an 'open-sky' legislature, assembly rules do not favor the plurality party, and enduring majority coalitions have not been the norm. The majority controls the agenda, but no party has constituted a majority since 1997. Furthermore, Mexican presidents have little agenda setting powers, and make little use of their ability to assign portfolios to opposition parties. Finally, the median party has not consistently set the agenda. Nevertheless, the PRI has been the agenda setter since the seating of the LVIII Congress in the fall of 2000.

Common to the theories referenced above is the importance of legislative delegation and party unity. Central to Cox and McCubbins' (1993, 2005) seminal studies of agenda setting in the U.S. Congress are legislators' collective dilemmas and the resulting delegation of agenda powers to party leadership. Legislators delegate power to their party leadership to achieve legislative success. …

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