The ability to prevent undesired policy changes is a fundamental source of political power. In a series of recent publications, Cox and McCubbins have identified a key mechanism to block policy shifts in modern legislatures: the design of the legislative agenda. A major conclusion resulting from their research is that in most modern legislatures the majority party or coalition is granted the exclusive right to block bill access to the floor. Further, they explain that the need to solve coordination and cooperation problems within their ranks is what drives majority parties to seize all positions with agenda-setting authority in legislatures as diverse as Japan, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and the U.S. House and Senate. These authors recognize that in some legislatures scheduling rights are also granted to minority and opposition parties, an agenda-setting structure that they call consensual. However, they do not explore the characteristics of this type of agenda-setting configuration or the conditions that explain its emergence.
This study aims at filling this gap using Argentina as a case study. It examines two types of evidence: the congressional rules that distribute formal gate-keeping authority over the legislative process, and patterns of legislative behavior consistent with one or another model of agenda control. The analysis focuses first on the landmark procedural reform that in 1963 created the scheduling committee, or Labor Parlamentaria, which I argue was critical in establishing a Chamber which both in norm and behavior conforms to the consensus agenda model. By granting small and large legislative blocs equivalent representation in Labor Parlamentaria, as well as equal voting power in its procedural decisions, the new scheduling committee amply distributed veto rights over the plenary schedule to majority and opposition parties. Further, measures for centralizing gate-keeping authority in the parties' leadership were passed to facilitate the inter-party negotiations that sustained the effective functioning of a consensual process of agenda formation. The analysis also identifies an explanation for the emergence of consensual agenda control, arguing that this institutional choice was the result of a ruling party who, unsure of its long term majority standing in the electorate, limited its own immediate power in the legislature to promote minority-protecting rules that would benefit it in the future. Over the intervening decades these rules have been locked-in, and they have long outlived the specific political situation that made them relevant.
The analysis later examines behavior consistent with a consensual process of agenda formation, by adopting Cox and McCubbins' roll rate as a measure of agenda control by legislative parties. Contrary to traditional approaches that identify partisan rolls by observing legislators' behavior on the floor, the present study calculates roll rates using a new dataset of legislators' endorsements of alternative bill reports in committee. A great strength of this measure lies in the fact that, in the Argentine context, committee behavior is a better source than are floor votes for estimating the true policy preferences of legislators. Roll rates are computed for the main government and opposition parties in the Argentine Chamber of Deputies using an original dataset of every law passed between 1983 and 2002. The analysis shows that, consistent with the theory, the design of the legislative agenda in the Argentine legislature operates consensually.
Finally, this study explores the effects of presidential decree authority on agenda-setting behavior within the Chamber of Deputies. Using a simple spatial model of legislative decision-making, it shows that, under certain distributions of preferences and status quo points, the threat of a decree, and more specifically, the credibility of such threat, alters the parties' strategic decision whether or not to block unwanted bills from reaching the assembly floor. The empirical results show that when the credibility of a decree threat is high--for example, on presidentially-initiated bills--the roll rates for the opposition party increase, suggesting that, on occasion, the president can seize the power to determine the congressional agenda from the legislative parties.
In sum, this study shows how a specific set of legislative procedures, introduced under distinctive political circumstances in 1963, have been reproduced over nearly five decades, long outliving those circumstances. The legacy has been a form of legislative politics in Argentina, based on the joint design of the legislative agenda by majority and opposition parties, in which neither sees legislation passed that makes them worse off.