Harris School professors study the lifespan of legislation

Federal programs are more vulnerable to being altered or killed when Congress changes party control, especially if they’ve been on the books for less than 10 years, according to new research by Harris School political scientists Christopher Berry and William Howell.

With the winds behind a new GOP majority in the House, the study suggests that programs created in the first two years of Obama’s presidency are the most likely to get tossed overboard.

Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics and Co-director of the Harris School’s Program on Political Institutions, said this study amends a common misconception in academic research about the durability of legislation—that once bills are enacted, they are basically immortal.

“That’s not right,” he said. “Congress confronts lots of programs not of their own design, and it’s really important to ask how they respond.”

In one of the first attempts to study policymaking from this perspective, Howell and Berry sized up all 2,059 federal programs established between 1971 and 2003, finding remarkably high rates of program cuts, alterations and outright eliminations. This change occurred at a higher rate when control of Congress switched from one party to another.

The first year of the Reagan administration, for example, saw a spike in program deaths at the same time the GOP took back 35 seats in the House and gained control of the Senate. It happened again in the 1990s, when a jump in cuts correlated directly with a new conservative majority.

In all, Berry and Howell estimate that when previous majority parities lose an average of 10 percent of their Congressional seats, spending on programs declines around 4 percent.

“We’re not entirely held hostage to the past,” Howell said. “Congress can do, and does do, something about the programs they inherit, especially ones that were created by legislators with very different preferences than their own.”

Those preferences are key to predicting which programs might be targeted. If there’s a large ideological gap between the incoming Congress and the Congress that passed whatever program is in question, there’s a greater probability of that program getting the chop, Howell explained.

But there’s also a time limit to that vulnerability. In the first 10 years of its life, a program has a 4- to-5 percent chance of either mutating or dying and a 1 percent chance of outright termination every year, the study shows. Having survived for roughly a decade, however, programs become increasingly more immune to change, in part because they have more time for external interest groups and internal bureaucracy to build up and protect them.

That puts many policies from the Clinton era virtually out of reach even in the new Congress, where nearly 25 percent of the Democratic Party’s House seats have shifted to the Republicans, the largest turnover since 1948. Given the GOP’s control over Congress and the White House throughout most of the 2000s, spending cuts will likely be confined to programs passed during the first two years of Obama’s presidency, Howell noted.

“But the Democrats still hold control of the Executive Branch,” he said, adding that he and Berry are working on another paper that investigates a president’s role in distributing and influencing federal outlays. “It’s hard to say, but Obama may to be able to stanch the bleeding.”