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The Institutional Foundations of Legislative Speech

Final Report Summary - LEGISLATIVE SPEECH (The Institutional Foundations of Legislative Speech)

This project examined from a comparative perspective how political institutions and electoral dynamics influence the ways in which politicians participate in legislative debate. Democratic parliaments are open forums where elected representatives engage in arguments over policy. Parliamentary debate, therefore, is a fundamental part of democratic law-making - in all parliaments, bills are debated before they are voted upon. Because they are public, debates provide members of parliament (MPs) an opportunity to represent the views of constituents on the floor, and give voice to voters' concerns. In the interest of democracy, we might expect all MPs to demand and receive equal access to the floor of parliament. But this is rarely the case.

Speaking on the floor of the legislature constitutes a prominent communication channel for legislators who are subject to two institutional constraints. On the one hand, MPs seek to keep their office and remain in parliament, and they must gain the support of the electorate as well as the party that nominates them as candidates. On the other hand, MPs seek to implement policies, preferring some policy outcomes over others, and therefore must make political compromises during the legislative process.

A basic expectation in this project was that parties and their MPs shape legislative debate as a function of political and electoral institutions. In some political systems, parties have a greater incentive to closely monitor their MPs' speeches than in other systems. In political systems where electoral institutions provide parties with incentives to present the voting public with a unified front, parties actively monitor their MPs to ensure that they do not stake out positions on the floor of parliament that run contrary to the party line. In other political systems, electoral politics means that MPs must create a name for themselves to win a parliamentary seat. In these systems, parties make fewer efforts to control their MPs when giving floor speeches. This dynamic has implications for the procedural rules for debate in parliament, how the party leadership interacts with backbenchers, and how MPs represent voters.

The theoretical model developed as part of this project predicts that strategic calculations by party leaders and backbenchers lead to substantial selection effects in the choice of speaker and the content of the speech. As a party becomes ideologically more polarised, party leaders give more speeches representing the party line and delegate less often to members, in particular in systems where party unity matters for electoral success (as in proportional representation systems such as Germany). These selection effects, however, are mitigated by political institutions; speeches may better reflect the heterogeneity of parties in some parliaments and countries than in others. In political systems where party unity matters less, but developing a personal reputation in parliament is essential for re-election (as in the United Kingdom (UK)), parties develop rules to allow party members with dissident views to take the floor.

The project generated a new dataset on debate participation in Germany, the UK and in the European Parliament. The empirical analysis conducted provides evidence for the strategic perspective of parliamentary speech. In systems which create strong electoral incentives for parties to protect the party image, parliamentary rules of procedure provide party leaders with privileged access to the floor of parliament. In contrast, in systems where there is a strong incentive to cultivate a personal vote, parliamentary rules of procedure allow backbenchers to take the floor without party approval. Parliamentary party leaders closely monitor and control what is said on the floor of parliament, but this varies across parties and countries, as well. Party leaders in Germany are more likely to give a speech than party leaders in the UK. Party dissidents, on the other hand, are more likely to give a speech in the UK and the European Parliament, compared with Germany. These results are consistent with the theoretical expectations that speech behaviour varies with electoral incentives.

Regarding the European Parliament, conventional wisdom suggests that the European Parliament, despite its status as an institutional veto player in the European Union (EU), continues to be a multilingual talking shop. But speeches are strategic in the European Parliament as well and give party members an opportunity to explain themselves to their European political group, thus avoiding possible conflicts within the parliament. At the same time, they provide members with an opportunity to create a record of positive activity for their national party to further their chances for re-election. When national parties have more control over candidate selection at election time, members of the European Parliament have an even greater incentive to give a speech and go on the public record.

The results of this project will be of interest to the wider public interested in the functioning of democratic institutions. The project offers new insights into political institutions, intra-party politics, electoral politics and legislative behaviour by developing and testing a comparative institutional theory. It offers a rational explanation for why some MPs are more active than others, and why parliamentary speeches represent the range of ideological viewpoints more accurately in some political systems than in others. For scholars interested in party politics, the project provides a theoretical model that explains how strategic considerations can lead party leaders to control their party's message on the floor of the legislature despite the popular notion that legislatures are open deliberative forums. For scholars interested in legislative institutions, the project shows that legislative debates are governed primarily by partisan rules that are endogenous to the electoral context. And, finally, for scholars interested in using political speeches as data, the project results suggest that careful attention is necessary when using the data to estimate intra-party cohesion.


Contact information:

Sven-Oliver Proksch
Research Fellow
Mannheim Center for European Social Research (MZES)
University of Mannheim
A5, 6
68131 Mannheim, Germany
Email: proksch@uni-mannheim.de
Web: http://www.mzes.uni-mannheim.de/