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Legislating in the Slump: The Politics of Economic Policymaking in Congress During Recessions, 1946-2009

  • Author(s): Newsome, Scott
  • Advisor(s): Wirls, Daniel
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

How has Congress responded to recessions during the era of presidential/executive power? My dissertation explores this question through the analysis of an original dataset and case studies to examine economic policymaking in Congress during recessions in the post war era. Four findings are the result of this study. First, while both Congress and the president were more evenly matched from 1946 to 1974, the legislative initiative shifted to Congress during recessions since 1974. Second, congressional responses to recessions tilted heavily towards targeted group benefits. That is, Congress distributed benefits to groups much more often than it did to geographic areas or the general public. Third, the magnitude of benefits Congress distributed during recessions increased substantially after 1974 when measured in real terms. Fourth, Congress has increasingly used taxes and the private sector, rather than a former emphasis on federal spending and the private sector, when distributing benefits to individuals since 1974.

My dissertation makes a two-part argument. First, it argues that the organizational structure of Congress helps explains these patterns in congressional behavior. Congressional initiative in the legislative process and how Congress made economic policy during this period depended in part on whether power in committees was concentrated or not, decision-making on spending levels, taxation levels, and regulation was concentrated or not, and whether committee chairs or the Speaker held power over floor scheduling in the House. Second, my dissertation argues that party control of Congress impacted how Congress made economic policy during recession. Congress only used taxes to distribute benefits when the Republican party controlled at least one chamber and the benefits it distributed were on average larger. When controlled by the Democratic party, in contrast, Congress used a mix of tax cuts, the private sector, and federal spending to distribute benefits and the benefits it distributed were on average smaller.

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