Does Legislative Gridlock Cause Scandal?

On Tuesday, the blogger Nicholas Beaudrot suggested that the lack of legislative productivity in Congress was an underlying cause of the frenzy over Rep. Anthony Weiner’s online behavior:

A conversation with a friend of mine helped me put a finger on just why it is that DC news coverage has felt like it’s had zero redeeming social value of late. The basic problem of the current situation is that nothing is getting done, and nothing probably will get done, until at least the next election, if not longer. But reporters still have to fill the same number of column inches, and the same amount of air time, as they did when the much more energetic 111th Congress was actually trying to pass bills. So we spend about a week talking about the sexting habits of a New York Congressman who’s not in the Democratic leadership, just to have something to talk about.

As a student of scandal, this struck me as a claim we can assess empirically. One of the most widely accepted measures of legislative productivity is David Mayhew’s data on important laws passed by Congress, which he uses in his book Divided We GovernU.S. Politics Books). We can compare the number of laws passed in each congress with the number of ethics investigations conducted by the House Committee on Ethics, which is one measure of the attention given to Congressional misbehavior. It’s not ideal — some Congressional scandals are never investigated, and some investigations are not widely publicized — but it’s the broadest publicly available measure of highly salient Congressional misbehavior.

When we examine the relationship between the two variables, we see no clear pattern. With the exception of the 104th Congress of 1995-1996, which was a massive outlier in terms of the number of ethics investigations, there is no relationship between Congressional ethics investigations and the passage of important laws.*

Ethics-laws2

There’s not a positive bivariate association between presidential scandal and the passage of important laws either. Here, for instance, is a plot comparing the passage of important laws and the volume of front-page scandal coverage in the Washington Post that I use in my article on presidential scandal (PDF):

Ethics-scandal

As Jonathan Bernstein wrote, I think a better way to think about scandal coverage is that it’s competing with all the other available stories, not just insider political news. And in that sense, Weiner was unlucky. My article (PDF) finds that congestion of the news agenda has a powerful effect on presidential scandal onset and intensity. Similarly, Weiner’s scandal hit during what seemed to be a slow news week, which helped drive the saturation coverage he received.

* The linear fit excludes the 104th Congress since it is an outlier.

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com]

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.