By Christopher W. Larimer, University of Northern Iowa Professor of Political Science
It’s that time of year when people start asking about what we can expect from the state legislative session which begins on Monday. While we have more data than ever about the policymaking process, the predictions stemming from this line of research are vague at best.
Let’s start with two things most people would say are important to the development of public policy: public opinion and interest groups. In the most extensive and randomized study of these two factors at the federal level, Paul Burstein finds little to suggest that either are correlated with policy outcomes. Similarly, looking at the congruency between public opinion in state legislative districts and state legislators’ roll call votes, Steven Rogers finds that votes cast in opposition to constituent opinion have little effect on legislators’ reelection chances.
Legislative bodies are reactive institutions, responding to societal conditions. Yet, even here, so called “focusing events” (as described by John Kingdon) seem to be mattering less and less. Indeed, as David Brooks recently wrote, “Events don’t seem to be driving politics. Increasingly, sociology is.”
In short, the three things that are often cited as being crucial to the policymaking process fail the empirical test. This is not to say that public opinion, interest groups, and focusing events never matter, but rather that their reliability as key factors in the agenda setting process is mixed at best.
So, what should we expect in the 2020 legislative session? Probably the following: unified Republican control means the majority party will pursue a conservative agenda; party-line voting will be the norm; controversial legislation is unlikely given that it is an election year; a bill will be passed that was completely unexpected. Yes, these are vague, but they stay within the bounds of existing data.