Legislatures: Individual Purpose and Institutional
Michael L. Mezey
For students of the United States Congress, the primary unit of analysis is the individual legislator and the things that he or she does. Typically, legislative behavior is explained in terms of the purposes of the legislator, and questions of structure and performance are approached from the perspective of members' goal- seeking behavior. Although individual behavior also is a concern of those who study legislatures other than the Congress, it is not as central to that body of research as it is to congressional research. Instead, comparative legislative studies usually begin with the legislature as the unit of analysis. Questions of institutional performance and the relationship between the legislature and other political institutions are at the heart of the inquiry, and structural and behavioral issues tend to be explained in institutional rather than individual terms.
Like trains proceeding on parallel tracks but in opposite directions, the Congress approach and the comparative approach visit most of the same topics, but in a different order and therefore from a different perspective. Because the volume of research on the Congress is so large relative to the comparative literature, it makes sense to order a review of legislative research in terms of the individual behavior approach that has characterized work on the Congress rather than the institutional approach that has characterized much of the comparative literature. The implications of this disjunction between congressional and comparative legislative research can be taken up at a later point.
The discussion of the legislative research literature will proceed, therefore, through the following five topics: 1) the behavior of legislators outside the institution; 2) their behavior inside the legislature; 3) the effect of legislative structure on behavior; 4) the performance of the legislature; and 5) the status of the institution in the larger political system. 1
At one time, most of the scholarly work on the Congress was done at a distance, relying for the most part on public records or journalistic accounts. During the 1950s, however, a new breed of political scientists, working more in the tradition of anthropology, went to Washington to observe the Congress, to interview its participants, and to begin the process of developing explanations for the behavior that they observed. Out of their work emerged a "textbook Congress" characterized by a strong committee system, powerful committee chairs, a rigid adherence to the seniority system and to other unwritten rules of the legislative game, and party leadership based for the most part on personality and persuasion rather than on sanctions and coercion. A similar research style was followed by those who studied European legislatures, although their conclusions were, of course, different from those of their American counterparts. 2
These studies of what went on inside the legislature accounted for most of the legislative research literature through the 1960s and continues to be an important interest of scholars working in this field. Beginning in the early 1970s, however, a new perspective emerged, among Congress scholars as well as some comparativists, that sought to explain behavior inside the legislature in terms of the relationship between legislators and their constituencies. This "outside" approach directed increased attention toward what legislators did when they were outside the legislature and away from the seat of government.
The connection between representatives and the represented always had interested normative political theorists (see Pitkin 1967) and a few more empirically inclined political scientists had sought to assess the