Stiff party competition, modest salaries good for state government, Stanford researcher says

When a state legislature is not dominated by one party, and the salaries are modest, legislators waste less time on bills that benefit only their own districts, according to researchers at Stanford and the University of Rochester.

Vigorous two-party competition provides the best guarantee for meaningful, broad-based governance, and modest salaries for lawmakers add a second protection against narrow-interest legislation, according to researchers at Stanford and the University of Rochester who studied 120 years of state lawmaking.

Although government critics often call for transparency, executive vetoes and professional pay to curb pork-barrel legislation and other bills that benefit only one lawmaker's constituents, the study published in the February issue of American Political Science Review finds that sharp competition and lower salaries are better remedies.

"For healthy policy, an ounce of competition is worth a pound of cure," said coauthor Gerald Gamm, associate professor of political science and history at the University of Rochester. "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."

In highly contested states, politicians "may be uncivil to each other, but they are getting things done," said coauthor Thad Kousser, a visiting associate professor of political science at Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West and a fellow at the Hoover Institution. "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, which focuses on a specific locality rather than the entire state.

When the majority party held 25 percent of legislative seats, 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, according to the study of 13 states.

The effect of more lucrative pay is surprising, Gamm points out, because good government advocates have long argued that professionalizing state legislatures – by 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.

So why do larger salaries lead to more narrowly focused laws?

"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," Kousser said. "That often means district legislation."

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.