USU study details how U.S. House politicians have changed the rules for their own political gain

A Utah State University professor says the committee system in Congress has evolved over the years, shaped by individual “political entrepreneurs” who realized they were going to have to change the rules to push their own pet projects and policy changes through the system.

Public Choice, a top academic journal, has recognized Dr. Diana Thomas, an assistant professor of economics at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, with a “best paper” award. Her study of the evolution of the House committee system found major rule or policy changes that impact all of Congress were sparked by individual politicians she calls “political entrepreneurs” who were seeking out their own best interests or those of their special interest constituents.

The first congress had no standing committees making it very difficult for anyone to get legislation passed, Dr. Thomas said.

“What we are showing in this paper is that the rules that govern committees in Congress have changed over time to make it easier for individual politicians to seek legislation that would benefit their constituents,” she said. “Whenever they encountered road blocks, they would just change the rules of the political game and that has had a long-term impact on the way things work in Washington, D.C. For example, these rule changes have made it easier for politicians to trade votes and for lobbyists and special interest groups to influence legislation made in the nation’s capital.”

Dr. Thomas was notified recently that she and her co-author Dr. Adam Martin won the Gordon Tullock Prize for the best paper published by younger scholars in 2013. The paper was called “Two-Tiered Political Entrepreneurship and the Congressional Committee System.”

Gordon Tullock, who is a retired professor of law and economics from George Mason University School of Law, was one of the first academics to look at political actors as individuals motivated by their own self-interest, much like economists do when they analyze individual behavior in markets. Until 1962 most of the thinking in political science was focused on parties and organizations and how they behaved as groups, she said.

Tyler Bowles, the head of the Department of Economics and Finance, said this is a prestigious award that recognizes Dr. Thomas’s “thorough, in-depth research.”

“Dr. Thomas is a great example of the kind of quality research our professors are doing and this award indicates that the outside academic world is noticing what’s going on here at the Huntsman School,” he said. “The Gordon Tullock Prize is a wonderful accomplishment for Dr. Thomas and we are proud of her contributions to the school and our students.”

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