Is the House of Representatives deinstitutionalizing?

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The following post was co-authored by R Street Governance Policy Director Kevin Kosar.


In an important recent paperJeffery A. Jenkins’ and Charles Stewart III re-evaluated Nelson Polsby’s classic analysis that concluded the U.S. House of Representatives was becoming more “institutionalized.”

Jenkins, of the University of Virginia, and Stewart, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argue that some of the trends Polsby observed have since reversed themselves, suggesting a possible “deinstitutionalization” of the House. It is a timely study, particularly in light of recent concerns expressed by Jonathan Rauch and others about legislative dysfunction.

Polsby considered an organization “institutionalized” when:

  1. [I]t is relatively well-bounded, that is to say, differentiated from its environment. Its members are easily identifiable, it is relatively difficult to become a member, and its leaders are recruited principally from within the organization.

  2. The organization is relatively complex, that is, its functions are internally separated on some regular and explicit basis, its parts are not wholly interchangeable, and for at least some important purposes, its parts are interdependent. There is a division of labor in which roles are specified, and there are widely shared expectations about the performance of roles. There are regularized patterns of recruitment to roles, and of movement from role to role.

  3. Finally, the organization tends to use universalistic rather than particularistic criteria, and automatic rather than discretionary methods for conducting its internal business. Precedents and rules are followed; merit systems replace favoritism and nepotism; and impersonal codes supplant personal preferences as prescriptions for behavior.

Institutionalism matters because it is the means through which an organization becomes capable of consistently doing what it is expected to do. In the case of a legislature, this means responding to the diverse demands of groups that satisfy them.

When Polsby applied this framework to the House of Representatives, he saw an institutionalized organization. House members had overcome a challenging barrier to entry and tended to make careers out of legislating. Leaders were inevitably individuals with long service in the chamber (factor No. 1). The chamber also showed internal complexity for doing its work in the form of the committee system, floor leadership and management of the House’s operations generally (factor No. 2). And the House had standing procedures to decide committee leadership and contested elections (factor No. 3).

With a surfeit of empirical data, Jenkins and Stewart reapply Polsby’s metrics and find:

pathways to party leadership have become more porous, previously automatic systems (such as seniority) have been undermined, staff and budgetary support for committees have diminished, and loyalty to the body itself has waned. Yet, as we shall show, when we simply revisit Polsby’s measures of institutionalization and continue them to the present, many of the trends that Polsby analyzed have continued unabated, or at least have not reversed course. (There are notable exceptions, of course.) Objectively, the House may be less institutionalized (as Polsby defined it), but it is still highly institutionalized compared to its own history and, presumably, compared to other national legislatures.

The House, then, is changing. Whether it will continue to deinstitutionalize or reorganize itself remains to be seen. Regardless, it is a concerning development, as the House of Representatives is the institution most directly connected to the public, and must absorb its discordant demands.

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