Government & Politics

Keith Krehbiel: Why the Cost of Vote-Buying Favors Moderate Policies

A Stanford political economist predicts that the new Republican Congress won’t overcome the “gravitational pull to the center” in U.S. politics.

February 03, 2015

| by Edmund L. Andrews


A man looking at newspapers hanging on the window of a newspaper stand

Government shutdowns make headlines, but such extreme political standoffs aren’t actually that common. | Reuters/Gary Cameron

Now that Republicans have majorities in both the Senate and House, this might seem like the moment for a sharp shift to the right in government policy. The conservative wish list is long, from repealing “Obamacare” and passing new abortion restrictions to curtailing the Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet the GOP’s first legislative goal in 2015 was far from bold: getting approval for the Keystone XL pipeline. When House Republicans tried to pass a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, female GOP lawmakers forced them to retreat. And instead of trying to abolish Obamacare, Republican leaders are trying to chip away at details incrementally.

For Keith Krehbiel, a professor of political science at Stanford Graduate School of Business, this is no surprise. In a new paper with Adam Meirowitz of Princeton University and Alan E. Wiseman of Vanderbilt University, he argues that the cost of vote-buying — anything from earmarks and horse-trading to outright bribery — reinforces a natural “gravitational pull toward the center” that favors moderate policies and the status quo.

That remains true even though both the Republican and Democratic parties are pulling further away from the center and are arguably more ideologically at war with each other than ever.

“My prediction is that not much will change, in spite of Republican gains in both the Senate and House,” Krehbiel says. “The Senate and House medians have probably shifted to the right a bit, which at the margin makes it easier and cheaper for them to pass Republican-favored legislation. But has the partisan balance shifted enough to make a big difference? Probably not.”

The Political Cost of ‘Vote-Buying’

Krehbiel’s thesis, in a nutshell: If the minority party has at least some ability to woo moderate lawmakers from either side of the aisle, the majority party will have to pay a higher price to preempt the minority’s possible counter-offer.

The further that a majority party’s agenda veers to the hard right or the hard left, the more expensive it becomes to corral the necessary votes. Indeed, the researchers argue, that can be true even if the minority party doesn’t have financial resources, such as earmarks, to buy votes. Even if the minority party has nothing more than the right to offer centrist amendments, it can credibly threaten to poach moderates and thereby force the majority party to pay for keeping all its members on board.

Krehbiel and his colleagues argue that this model of “competitive partisanship” helps explain both the gridlock in Washington and the surprising persistence of moderate policies.


Most pundits and many political scientists regard polarization and partisan bickering as contributory factors to gridlock.
Keith Krehbiel

“Most pundits and many political scientists regard polarization and partisan bickering as contributory factors to gridlock,” says Krehbiel. “My view is that the importance of polarization is overblown and that the more likely causes of gridlock are more subtle: the high cost of vote-buying and super-majoritarian procedures such as the presidential veto and the Senate’s filibuster.”

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

For years, many political scientists have assumed that the majority party has almost unlimited control over the legislative agenda, because, they claim, it has a monopoly on doling out rewards and it controls the procedures for deciding what comes up for a vote. According to this “monopartisan” school of thought, the party in power will pull status quo policies away from the moderate center to advance its own ideology. In other words, monopartisan theory implies that there is a natural tendency toward the majority party extreme, and that policy will leap back and forth across the political spectrum as Democrats and Republican take turns in the majority.

Krehbiel and his colleagues say the reality is usually different, especially in the United States. Party control is important, they agree, but the minority party usually has at least some resources to buy votes and some ability to offer amendments. Krehbiel and his colleagues offer an alternative theory, which they argue comports better with the facts than the monopartisanship theories.

This alternative approach illuminates the majority party’s high cost of vote-buying if the party insists on extreme policies. If Democrats (now in the minority) offer a counter-proposal that would make a Republican bill more centrist, they can potentially pick off GOP moderates who think their own party’s bill is too extreme. Republican leaders would then have to “pay” the moderates such exorbitant prices to win them back that it would actually be to their advantage either to settle for a moderate bill in the first place, or to leave the moderate status quo policy as it is.

These dynamics make non-moderate power grabs by a new majority leader all but impossible to carry off.

The more radical or further from the center a bill is, the more costly it is for the majority party to keep all its members in line. It’s not just that greater numbers of wavering lawmakers want to be “compensated for their complicity,” Krehbiel says. He and his colleagues also find that, as more and more extreme bills are proposed, the “cost” of each lawmaker goes up as well.

For example, when Democrats were the majority party, trying to pass their health care reform bill, they offered up the so-called “cornhusker kickback,” a special Medicaid deal for Nebraska to win the last Democratic holdout, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. They also hammered out scores of special deals with both industry groups and other lawmakers, abandoning several cherished provisions that would have given the federal government more power over insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

“Extreme policies that might otherwise have been passed by a powerful majority party are instead sucked back to the center,” says Krehbiel.

In many cases, of course, the cost of buying all that support simply isn’t worth it. That’s when and why gridlock takes hold.

Krehbiel and his colleagues have developed a theoretical model for mapping out the incentives in a variety of situations. In their model, they assume that the minority party has either some resources to buy votes or the ability to get a vote on at least one amendment to each bill.

Does all of this constitute a reason for greater optimism about the legislative process? Krehbiel says it depends on your point of view.

“Political gravity is a good thing if you like moderate policies and if you are OK with making those moderate policies very difficult to change, fine-tune, or update,” he says.

That leaves activists on both the right and the left with a hard reality: At the end of the day, the calculus of vote-buying and/or a modicum of minority party rights favors the status quo.

A Theory of Competitive Partisan Lawmaking,” Working Paper, November 2014, by Keith Krehbiel, Adam Meirowitz and Alan Wiseman. The article appear in Political Science Research and Methods in January.

Keith Krehbiel is the Edward B. Rust Professor of Political Science at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Adam Meirowitz of Princeton University and Alan Wiseman of Vanderbilt University both earned their PhDs at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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