Congressional Vote Options

41 Pages Posted: 16 Feb 2000  

David C. King

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Richard J. Zeckhauser

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS); National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: September 1999

Abstract

Among political practitioners, there is conventional wisdom about the outcomes of critical and salient legislative votes. 'This vote,' we hear, ' will either win by a little or lose by a lot.' Real-world examples suggest coalition leaders purchase 'hip-pocket' votes and "if you need me" pledges, which are converted to favorable votes when they will yield a victory. When the outcome is uncertain, such a process -- securing commitments in advance and calling them in if necessary -- is advantageous relative to traditional vote buying. Excess votes are not bought, nor are votes purchased for a losing effort. In effect, the leader secures options on votes. Given uncertainty, buying vote options yields two outcomes in conceivably winnable situations, one a narrow victory, the other a substantial loss. Such a distribution of outcomes is not explicable in a traditional vote-buying framework. We look for evidence of this pattern -- the tracings of 'if you need me pledges' -- by examining all Congressional Quarterly key votes from 1975 through 1998. On these critical and salient votes, narrow victories are much more frequent than narrow losses. Furthermore, when leaders lose key votes, as predicted, they lose by bigger margins than when they win. Finally, we discuss leadership strategies for keeping 'narrow wins' from unraveling into 'big losses.'

Suggested Citation

King, David C. and Zeckhauser, Richard J., Congressional Vote Options (September 1999). NBER Working Paper No. w7342. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=195934

David C. King (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-1665 (Phone)
617-496-5960 (Fax)

Richard J. Zeckhauser

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-1174 (Phone)
617-496-3783 (Fax)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-1174 (Phone)
617-384-9340 (Fax)

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