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This Week in Political Science

- September 23, 2011

THE DEFICIT  SUPER COMMITTEE.  A few weeks ago, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction began meeting for the first time. However, recently journalists reported that until the first hearing the co-chairs of the committee had not met before. Does  strong relationships between legislators make for the greater likelihood of compromise? In the most recent issue of the Journal of Politics (gated, ungated), Justin Kirkland addresses how different kinds of relationships  in Congress lead to changes in the outcomes of legislation. Kirkland uses co-sponsorship data from the House of Representatives to measure the strength of a relationship: the more direct co-sponsorships, the stronger the ties. Having strong ties means having cosponsored a bill together, weak ties are forged through non direct  co-sponsorship connections to other legislators. Kirkland finds that:

The weak ties we observe between legislators are strategic attempts by legislators to alter their base level of support and increase their legislative success…By generating ties to legislators with dissimilar qualities, new avenues of influence and support can be created.

He concludes that:

Legislators interested in increasing their chances of achieving their own agendas best accomplish this through cooperation with legislators unlike themselves. Highly clustered or polarized chambers provide little opportunity for the bridging ties necessary for legislative success.


The execution of Troy Davis last week in Georgia became a worldwide news story and debate about the use of the death penalty in the American penal system. Political scientists Frank Baumgartner, Suzanna De Boef (now Linn), and Amber Boydstun published a book in 2008 entitled The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence, seeking to explain why the use of the death penalty is at such a historic low. Despite the fact that a majority of people support the death penalty and politicians seek to be tough on crime, the framing of the debate on the death penalty to focus on  the possibilities of error in the system has shaped attitudes about the death penalty in specific cases.

Despite Davis’s execution bringing the death penalty to the forefront of public consciousness, this book provides concrete evidence that the use of the death penalty  is diminishing and may be on its way out.


Last week, Ohio Republicans released a preliminary version of its decennial redistricting plan.  Political controversy and fervor is likely to ensue as more and more states release their newly drawn out districts. Michael McDonald, writing in PS earlier this year (gated) made several predictions of the possible results of those plans:

At present, the Republicans are not in a dramatically better position than they were 10 years ago, which is surprising, considering the magnitude of their electoral victory in 2010. The reason for this lack of change is that Republicans were also in a great position 10 years ago. Now, they control only three more critical states–North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee–than they did 10 years ago (numerically, they control more states, but these three are the most consequential).

Republicans however, will have to deal with the possibilities of more wave elections in the next decade:

A major change of the past decade is that electoral volatility has increased. As a consequence, less certainty exists about what constitutes a safe district. A Republican incumbent will want a seat that can withstand a 2006 or 2008 electorate–years favorable to Democrats–while a Democratic incumbent will want a safe district for a 2010 electorate–a year favorable to Republicans

Democrats can still be hopeful:

Democrats control the Department of Justice for the first time during a redistricting since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The Department of Justice’s judgment regarding what constitutes an effective minority district could affect the overall political character of redistricting plans, and it may be able to bring suit under Section 2–a general prohibition on voting discrimination–of the Act.


Earlier this week, President Obama promised to veto any deficit plan that didn’t include some kind of tax increases. As political scientists Charles Cameron put it his book Veto Bargaining: The Politics of Negative Power. By setting a formal ‘veto point’ in which he promises to use his veto, President Obama is attempting to constrain the possible outcomes of policy to fit to his liking. Cameron finds, the threat of the veto is powerful, especially under divided government. It is unclear whether Congress will heed President Obama’s threat, but as Cameron shows, from the time period from 1945-1992, 80% of vetoed bills included the provision the President wanted concessions to be made on.