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A new national study spanning 120 years of state lawmaking finds that in highly contested states, politicians “may be uncivil to each other, but they are getting things done,” says coauthor Thad Kousser. “In states where you don’t have a filibuster, partisanship does not lead to gridlock; it leads to broad legislation.” The study shows that the larger the majority party’s control, the more parochial legislation a state produced. (Courtesy: iStockphoto)

U. ROCHESTER / STANFORD (US)—Government critics often call for more transparency and less pork barrel legislation, however, a new study finds that vigorous two-party competition and modest salaries for lawmakers provide the best guarantee for meaningful, broad-based governance.

“For healthy policy, an ounce of competition is worth a pound of cure,” says Gerald Gamm, associate professor of political science and history at the University of Rochester and coauthor of the national study spanning 120 years of state lawmaking. “Stiff competition gives political parties a greater incentive to build their collective reputation with statewide legislation and less incentive to focus on localized, non-programmatic politics.”

Findings were published in the February issue of the American Political Science Review.

In highly contested states, politicians “may be uncivil to each other, but they are getting things done,” adds coauthor Thad Kousser, visiting associate professor at Stanford University. “In states where you don’t have a filibuster, partisanship does not lead to gridlock; it leads to broad legislation.”

The research found that the larger the majority party’s control, the more parochial legislation a state produced. When the majority edge was less than 20 percent of seats, legislators typically devoted only 5 to 15 percent of bills to district legislation. When the majority edge was 75 to 25 percent, fully one-third to one-half of bills were local.

With a century-long perspective, this relationship between party control and lawmaking holds true “both in the one-party Democratic states that once characterized the South and in the once-Republican (and, more recently, Democratic-dominated) states of the North,” the authors write. And it holds true for historical as well as contemporary sessions, they add.

Along with one-party dominance, higher lawmaker salaries are linked to policies targeted to a particular local interest, the study of 13 states reveals. The effect of more lucrative pay is surprising, Gamm points out, because good government advocates have long argued that professionalizing state legislatures—increasing the length of legislative sessions and providing hefty salaries—would give lawmakers the time and financial freedom needed to focus on broad legislation, bills that often require study and expertise to understand and coalition building to pass.

Why then do larger salaries lead to more narrowly-focused laws instead? “By paying people more and making them really want to keep their job, you are motivating them to respond to voters in the most direct and transparent way possible. That often means district legislation,” explains Kousser.

The authors note that New York and Massachusetts, historically the home of two of the nation’s most professional legislatures, “have long waded through swamps of district legislation,” with parochial bills constituting 29 percent of legislation in New York and 23 percent in Massachusetts. By contrast, district bills made up less than 10 percent of legislation in Nebraska, Montana, Illinois, and Washington, where representatives’ salaries are low.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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