This week Politico had a story about Joe Walsh (R-IL) violating the norms of the House of Representatives by introducing a slightly altered version of a bill by Tim Bishop (D-NY) without his consent or even the courtesy of a phone call. While I would be the last one to argue that Joe Walsh is a nice guy, I thought the story deserved some historical context. Have House members always enjoyed property rights over legislation? If not, when and why did they develop?

It used to be quite common for House members to introduce duplicate versions of other members’ bills. As Scott Thomas and Bernard Grofman point out,

In the 93rd Congress, House members introduced 7,275 duplicate bills, each with an average of 6.5 cosponsors. Indeed, 44.2%7 of all House bills introduced in that Congress were duplicates. By the 97th Congress, the number of duplicate bills had been cut to 472.

 Behind this change is the evolution in House rules restricting the practice of cosponsoring legislation, i.e. putting one’s name on a bill introduced by someone else. Some quick history:

  • Cosponsoring was prohibited in 1909
  • In 1967, cosponsoring was allowed, with a limit of 25 cosponsors per bill
  • In 1978, the cap on cosponsors per bill was completely lifted.

As Thomas and Grofman point out, these changes helped change the culture of House entrepreneurship. Before 1967, if a member liked another member’s bill–or was urged by an interest group to support it–he would casually re-introduce the bill under his own name. This had the disadvantage of wasting a little bit of money, but it also made for a confusing legislative environment–if a bill has dozens of “sponsors” it is not clear who is leading the effort, or who deserves the most credit. Furthermore, when committee leaders agreed to act on a bill, they thought little of introducing their own version to report out of committee so they got the credit for the bill. Nonetheless, the practice of duplicate sponsorship was helpful for members who wanted to take a strong position on an issue, and could always do so by introducing a bill.

Once cosponsoring was allowed without limits, however, members began to claim and respect property rights over ideas. When I was a House staffer, my boss got into a “property” dispute with Bill Thomas (R-CA, on the Ways & Means Committee) over a bill improving the tax treatment of farmers. Thomas decided he liked the idea, so he would take it. In this case, the deciding factor was that the farmer groups who had picked my boss in the first place decided to stick with their initial choice rather than a more powerful member on the committee of jurisdiction. 

This case suggests another reason (among several) why property rights have emerged: interest groups respect the rights of entrepreneurs, even their hand-picked sponsors. Interest groups no longer lobby members to introduce duplicate bills; they solicit cosponsors for bills by recognized sponsors. And, given multiple MCs who wish to work with them on a topic (as was the case with Walsh and Bishop) they usually pick a favorite as a lead sponsor, or coordinate a Democrat/Republican team, often with the majority party member as the formal sponsor.

For more on entrepreneurship and cosponsoring, see my article here.

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Gregory Koger is a professor of political science at the University of Miami. All views expressed are his own.