You better find something to do : lawmaking and agenda setting in a centralized Congress




Lewallen, Jonathan Daniel

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



The U.S. Congress has significantly curtailed its lawmaking activities in recent years, and many commentators, scholars, and legislators themselves point to a decline in the institution’s output. Two trends blur this focus. First, the number of substantive (non-commemorative) laws enacted by Congress did not significantly decline until very recently. Second, that the roots of this decline have been growing for several decades, in the committee system. Data from 1981 to 2012 show that congressional committees have significantly shifted their activity towards oversight and other non-legislative policymaking at the expense of advancing legislation. Congressional committees act as Congress’s agenda setting capacity by determining what issues the institution can and will address and how it does so. Any explanation for a decline in congressional lawmaking, therefore, must begin with committees. I develop a theory of committee policymaking in this dissertation based on the limited agenda space decisionmakers face. Making policy through legislative or non-legislative means involves opportunity costs, and committees face uncertainty about whether their legislative work will bear fruit. With this theory as a guide, I test three explanations for the longitudinal shift in committee activity away from legislation. While current and former members of Congress, commentators, and other observers blame political gridlock and an expanding executive branch, I find that changes made to the legislative process itself have altered the incentives for committees to compete for agenda space and make policy through legislation. Members of both parties have centralized agenda setting responsibilities under party leaders over the last three decades, which has altered the contours and availability of legislative authority. My findings have important implications for Congress’s role in the policy process and how scholars and citizens evaluate the institution, including the importance of committee incentives and capacity for congressional agenda setting.



LCSH Subject Headings