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Why Congressional Reforms Fail

Reelection and the House Committee System

For decades, advocates of congressional reforms have repeatedly attempted to clean up the House committee system, which has been called inefficient, outmoded, unaccountable, and even corrupt. Yet these efforts result in little if any change, as members of Congress who are generally satisfied with existing institutions repeatedly obstruct what could fairly be called innocuous reforms.

What lies behind the House’s resistance to change? Challenging recent explanations of this phenomenon, Scott Adler contends that legislators resist rearranging committee powers and jurisdictions for the same reason they cling to the current House structure—the ambition for reelection. The system’s structure works to the members’ advantage, helping them obtain funding (and favor) in their districts. Using extensive evidence from three major reform periods—the 1940s, 1970s, and 1990s—Adler shows that the reelection motive is still the most important underlying factor in determining the outcome of committee reforms, and he explains why committee reform in the House has never succeeded and probably never will.

263 pages | 8 line drawings, 22 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2002

American Politics and Political Economy Series

Political Science: American Government and Politics


“Adler has done a remarkable job in tying together his own research and the extensive scholarship on congressional reform. . . . A first-rate work of political science [that] should be read by all serious students of the inner workings of the United States House of Representatives.”

Thomas A. Bruscino, Jr., | H-Net Book Review

“This book is a high-end piece of scholarship—as potent in its descriptive, qualitative elements as it is rigorous in its empirical sections. Adler’s review of the existing scholarship is nothing short of stunning. It is a must-read for anyone interested in subtle yet powerful forces at work in the legislative process.”

Daniel M. Shea | Perspectives on Politics

“This is a fine piece of research that deserves to be widely read and discussed. The empirical elements are truly impressive. . . . The discussion of the three reform efforts is rendered in a new and theoretically interesting light. It is a fine and painstaking piece of work.”

Christopher J. Deering | Journal of Legislative Studies

“Adler’s book is a strong addition to the growing literature on institutional change and development and will find a place in graduate congressional institutions courses for years to come.”

Jeffrey A. Jenkins | Political Science Quarterly

Table of Contents


1. Introduction: Why Is Congressional Structure So "Sticky"?
2. Understanding a Gains-from-Exchange Theory of
Committee Structure and Change
3. Demand-Side Theory and Congressional Committee
Composition: A Constituency Characteristics Approach
4. Distrubitve Politics and Federal Outlays
5. The Postwar Failure of Congressional Reform:
The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946
6. Protecting Turf in a Reform Era: Distributive
Politics and Congressional Committee Reform
in the 93rd Congress
7. Committee Reforms under Partisan Politics
8. Conclusion: Beyond "Instituational Navel Gazing"



American Political Science Association: Alan Rosenthal Award

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