Congressional Vote Options

David C. King, Richard J. Zeckhauser

NBER Working Paper No. 7342
Issued in September 1999
NBER Program(s):Public Economics

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.'

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w7342

Published: King, David C. and Richard J. Zeckhauser. "Congressional Vote Options." Legislative Studies Quarterly 28, 3 (August 2003): 387-411.

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