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"Staggered Membership Renewal and Differential Time Horizons in Second Chambers"

The project on “Staggered Membership Renewal and Differential Time Horizons in Second Chambers” (funded by the German Research Foundation) sets out to investigate a phenomenon that has so far been neglected in both the literatures on legislative cycles and on bicameralism: What happens when the time horizons of one group of legislators within one chamber do not match the horizons of their colleagues? More precisely, do organisation and behaviour mirror the more frequent elections? Further, what happens in bicameral systems when the legislative cycle in one parliamentary chamber is desynchronised from that of the other?

The literature on the effects of staggered terms expects, either implicitly or explicitly, that partial renewal of the membership of an institution (be it a legislature, central bank board, or, e. g., a supreme court) leads to outcome stability, as the impossibility of wholesale replacement of the institution’s members will make sudden changes in the policy direction of the institution likely. While this expectation, ceteris paribus, is correct, it is based on the unstated assumption that those members up for re-election or re-appointment will not seek to influence their own chances of a renewed mandate.

That said, the extensive literatures on the political business cycle and on legislative cycles strongly suggest that politicians routinely seek to influence their own chances of re-election through the use of public policy to curry favour with the electorate, be it through legislation or public spending. It is therefore to be expected that a parliamentary chamber in which there exist multiple non-aligned terms of office will also exhibit multiple policy cycles.

In order for these cycles to successfully manifest themselves, however, it is necessary for them to overcome the policy inertia created by the differential time horizons also present in a parliamentary chamber with staggered terms. This can happen in two ways. First, there may be “class effects”, as parliamentarians of the same electoral class (and so having the same time horizon) ally across party-political lines in order to improve their collective chances of re-election. Such an effect is facilitated by a cross-temporal logroll with the parliamentarians of the other electoral classes, on the understanding that they will be afforded the same privilege when they are up for re-election. Second, there may be “partisan effects”, whereby the majority party or coalition (in the first or second chamber – or indeed in both) attempts to influence electoral outcomes across all the policy cycles.

The project is exploring these effects from a cross-national perspective, comparing four countries which are both parliamentary in nature and have upper chambers with staggered membership renewal: Australia, France, Germany and Japan. Further, as the institutional power of the upper chamber varies across these four countries, the project will be able to analyse the extent to which the effects discussed above are conditional upon the institutional power at stake in the upper chamber elections. The project seeks to collect behavioural data at both the individual and group levels, such as legislative initiatives, amendments, resolutions and speeches, and to link them to data on patterns of parliamentary staggering.

The project seeks to discover whether staggered membership stabilises or destabilises institutions – in other words, is the policy stability afforded by partial membership renewal outweighed by the instability caused by the more frequent recurrence of incentives to pursue short-term policies aimed at re-election? The answer to this question is of importance not only to the study and design of parliaments, but to all political institutions whose members have the ability to influence their own chances of re-election or re-appointment.