Turning the Legislative Thumbscrew: Minority Rights and Procedural Change in Legislative Politics.
Sarah A. Binder, George Washington University and The Brookings Institution
Scholars across the discipline of political science are grappling with where institutions come from, and Turning the Legislative Thumbscrew is a masterful contribution to the emerging debate. Dion asks a simple question: "When does the majority seek to limit minority rights to obstruct legislation?" He answers by blending formal analysis with historical and comparative evidence, a theoretical and empirical effort that produces a formidable contribution to the emerging literature on political institutions and how they change.
The strategic interaction of majorities and minorities, Dion argues, is central to explaining the suppression of minority rights. Building a formal model of procedural change, Dion begins his deductive reasoning by arguing that when majorities are small, they are more cohesive. Facing a small, cohesive majority, the minority will turn to obstruction to block the majority party from securing policy change. The result is procedural change, because majorities will clamp down on minority obstruction by changing the rules to limit the right to obstruct. The formal theory thus yields a simple and testable hypothesis about the conditions under which minority rights will be suppressed: when the majority party is small.
After presenting the formal theory in remarkably accessible terms, Dion embarks on the main task of testing the underlying assumptions and central prediction of his model. What makes the work so striking is the effort to test the theory in a number of historical and comparative settings. He moves seamlessly from archival research on the nineteenth-century U.S. House of Representatives, to the U.S. Senate, the British House of Commons, U.S. state legislatures, and an 1897 procedural crisis in the Austrian Parliament, relying on an eye-witness account from none other than Mark Twain. (Dion never disappoints the historical buff: Twain and pivotal House Speaker Thomas Reed were sailing partners, we learn.) Dion not only attempts to test his theory across these different settings but also pits his partisan theory against two plausible alternatives: Minority rights are suppressed when workload increases ("efficiency" argument) or when there is little fear that today's majority will be tomorrow's minority ("reciprocity" claim).
By and large, Dion makes a convincing case for the plausibility of his small majority thesis and the deficiencies of the alternative "efficiency" and "reciprocity" accounts. In the case of the U.S. House, for example, Dion shows that the major institutional reforms of the nineteenth century (and some minor ones as well) involved efforts to limit rights to obstruct and occurred under small majorities, as his formal model predicts. He explores the possibility of selection bias in having chosen cases in which major reforms took place, and he makes an honest effort to account for the cases he missed with his selection method. In testing a partisan model on the "partisan era" of the U.S. House, one might ask about the generalizability of the partisan theory across other periods of congressional history. Suppression of rights to obstruct adopted by large majorities in the 1970s, for example, suggests there may be limits to the small majority thesis.
Still, Dion's effort to test his theory across a number of legislative contexts helps to abate criticism about its sea-legs. Indeed, Turning the Legislative Thumbscrew is a remarkable piece of scholarship precisely because of the author's talent in aggressively testing his model in a number of different institutional settings. Dion finds a statistically significant relationship, for example, between small majorities and efforts to limit debate in the nineteenth-century U.S. Senate, the number of cloture votes taken in the twentieth-century U.S. Senate, and the number of closure motions, urgency motions, and member suspensions in the nineteenth-century House of Commons. These results, along with Dion's qualitative accounts of the underlying procedural battles, lend strong support to the centrality of partisan conflict - rather than efficiency or reciprocity - at the heart of efforts to limit minority rights.
Any weaknesses in Dion's analysis can be attributed to the inevitable costs of doing historical and comparative research. The central problem is the difficulty of finding comparable dependent variables across institutional settings. Dion's theory, after all, concerns procedural change: the conditions under which legislative players will enact rules changes to limit minority rights. Yet, most of Dion's dependent variables outside the case of the U.S. House tap efforts to limit minority rights (rather than actual changes in the rules) or efforts to limit minority rights on a bill-by-bill basis. This distinction is important because of the conclusions Dion draws from the analysis. For example: "The House and Senate operate in a quite similar way" (p. 256). Yet, these two institutions are strikingly different, precisely because of the ways in which the rights of the minority have been treated in the two chambers over time. Indeed, the failure of small majorities (or those of any size) to limit minority rights in the nineteenth-century Senate suggests the limits of Dion's central thesis about majority size and institutional change. Although Dion can show that small Senate majorities tried to limit procedural change in this period, their failure to do so seems problematic. Although Dion's new size principle may travel well with respect to majorities' motives and strategies in attempting to limit minority rights, the successful adoption of such restrictions may require a more complicated theoretical account.
This weakness should not detract from the import of the book for future efforts to theorize about congressional development and institutional change. First, Turning the Legislative Thumbscrew should encourage scholars to question Pareto-optimal theories of procedural choice, as Dion shows the limits of conceptualizing procedural change as welfare enhancing. Second, the book raises flags about the teleological implications of Nelson Polsby's ("The Institutionalization of the U.S. House of Representatives," American Political Science Review 62 [March 1968]: 144-68) account of institutionalization. Third, Dion asks us to consider what he calls the "dodginess of procedural change" (p. 252), the possibility that procedural histories of legislatures are not independent. His findings on this point are mainly suggestive, but they should encourage others to develop more path-dependent models - across both time and space - of institutional change.
Finally, Turning the Legislative Thumbscrew is a great read, in fact, downright funny. Most authors check what little humor they may have at the door, or banish their wit to footnotes. Dion does neither, and the result is exactly what he promises: "Not only the byzantine conundrums of procedural debate . . . but also wars, adulteries, revolutions, personal vendettas, secret societies (and parties to oppose them), government repression, good humor, and bad taste - all the candy we have come to expect in our politics" (p. 19). It is a great treat indeed. Dion has raised the bar for creative integration of formal models with historical research; few are likely to reach it.
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|Author:||Binder, Sarah A.|
|Publication:||American Political Science Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1999|
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