Dealignment and the Power of Parliamentary Committees

The power of parliamentary committees varies greatly, both between countries and over time. Thomas Fleming analyses committees in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the UK to argue that committee power is influenced by voters’ attachments to political parties.

Powerful committees are widely understood to be a necessary feature of effective parliaments. Yet the power of committees varies greatly, both between countries and over time. What explains this variation? In my new article, ‘Partisan dealignment and committee power in five Westminster parliaments’ I argue that committee power is influenced by voters’ attachments to political parties. In particular, I suggest a link between committee power and partisan dealignment. Where voters have weaker attachments to political parties, legislators have stronger incentives to develop their own ‘personal vote’. Strong committees provide a channel through which this can be achieved. Dealignment thus incentivises MPs to strengthen committee systems.

What shapes how parliaments organise themselves? A large literature emphasises the importance of an ‘electoral connection’. MPs have many goals, but achieving any of them depends on being re-elected. This re-election motive is thus a key influence on MPs’ behaviour, and on their preferences about how parliament should be organised. But the optimal strategy for achieving re-election varies across contexts. In particular, MPs must choose how far to cultivate a personal vote, rather than relying on their party label to ensure their re-election. Parliamentary behaviour can serve this strategy, known as personal vote-seeking, because MPs can signal their individual qualities and achievements by giving speeches, asking questions, or proposing bills. More decentralised rules, which weaken the control of party leaders, give MPs more opportunities for such behaviour. Therefore, MPs with greater incentives for personal vote-seeking should behave in more personalised ways, and should prefer more decentralised parliamentary rules.

This argument has been used to explain the powerful committee system of the US Congress. A candidate-centred electoral system gives members of Congress an incentive to cultivate a personal vote, and strong committees give them the means to do so. In part, this is because membership of a more specialised, powerful committee enables legislators to more credibly claim to have influenced policy in ways beneficial to their constituents. More generally, legislators are more likely to get attention for what they do in committees when those committees are more specialised and more influential. In such contexts, strong committees become valuable resources for legislators who wish to signal their personal qualities or their positions on certain issues. Other work in a similar vein has drawn a link between candidate-centred electoral systems and greater decentralisation of speaking rights and law-making powers.

In my article, I suggest committee power may also be influenced by another source of MPs’ personal vote-seeking incentives – partisan dealignment. Drawing on earlier work by Christopher Kam, I argue that when voters have weaker ties to political parties, members of Parliament are less able to rely on their party’s ‘brand’ to ensure re-election, so have greater incentives to develop their own individual reputation. Previous work has suggested that dealignment affects parliamentary behaviour, making MPs more likely to rebel against their party. I build on this, suggesting it may also affect parliamentary institutions, leading to stronger committee systems. In short, if dealignment gives MPs more incentives for generating a personal vote, and stronger committees give more opportunities for doing so, dealignment should push MPs to strengthen committees.

I test this idea using new data on post-war committee systems in five countries with so-called ‘Westminster’ parliaments – Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Using historical editions of each parliament’s rules, together with a range of other sources, I calculate the number of committees in each of these parliaments over time. I use this as a proxy for committee power; having numerous committees is necessary for those committees to be specialised, and therefore for them to make effective use of whatever formal powers they are granted. I thus test whether partisan dealignment is associated with larger committee systems, and with expansions of committee systems.

My results, based on an analysis of committee systems under 105 different cabinets, support my expectations. I find that when fewer voters have strong partisan attachments, parliaments have greater numbers of committees. Higher levels of dealignment are also associated with larger increases in committee numbers. This finding persists even after controlling for a range of variables commonly argued to affect committee power, and stands up to various robustness tests. Partisan dealignment, then, is associated with more powerful committee systems, and with reforms that increase their power.

The article’s findings have important implications for our understanding of the balance of power between the executive and the legislature in so-called Westminster parliaments. More broadly, they suggest a previously overlooked link between voters’ changing attachments to political parties and how parliaments are organised.

Notes:

Thomas Fleming is a doctoral candidate at Nuffield College and the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. This blogpost is based on his recent article, ‘Partisan dealignment and committee power in five Westminster parliaments’, published in the European Journal of Political Research.

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