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Representation and lawmaking in the United States Congress and the Canadian House of Commons McAndrews, John Russell

Abstract

This dissertation considers two aspects of legislative representation: (1) how citizens use information about legislative activities and outcomes to assess the performance of the US president and the congressional majority party, and (2) why Canadian MPs debate government bills—even when the government controls the outcome. An investigation of these questions is divided into three principal chapters. First, I examine the effects of legislative outcomes on citizens’ assessment of the president and the majority party in Congress. Prominent theories of legislative behavior argue—and media pundits often assert—that Americans reward these actors if they succeed in passing their bills. But what if the bill is divisive, as is likely the case with well-publicized legislation? Using survey experiments, I show that, on average, citizens still express greater approval for the president and the majority party if Congress passes their ideologically contentious bills—compared with if Congress does not pass them. However, I also find that this reward is typically concentrated among those who already favor the underlying policy change; among policy opponents, the effect is often statistically indistinguishable from zero. Second, I investigate the sophistication of citizens’ judgments of legislative performance. Specifically, do inferential biases—common in other domains—interfere with how citizens evaluate the president and the congressional majority party in light of bill failure? Again using survey experiments, I find that citizens avoid the serious inferential mistake of treating these actors as if they had performed poorly. Instead, I show that their assessments—even in the absence of diagnostic information about those involved—are broadly consistent with realistic beliefs about legislative performance and the obstacles to success in Congress. Third, I explore why Canadian MPs debate government bills. Whereas recent research tends to emphasize legislative speech as a means of communicating with the electorate, the particular rules of government bill debate—coupled with the relatively low visibility of such deliberations—suggest alternative motivations. Using an original dataset of 53 debates, I find no evidence of personal vote seeking; instead, I find patterns of debate participation consistent with attempted obstruction by bill opponents and attempted persuasion by bill proponents.

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