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Issues and Institutions: “Winnowing” in the U.S. Congress


  • I gratefully acknowledge the external financial support of the Dirksen Congressional Center and the Caterpillar Foundation. Internal institutional support was also pivotal in moving this research along, and I appreciate the generous assistance of various entities at Arizona State University (Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Political Science) and The University of Oklahoma (College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Political Science, and the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center). Many people have provided helpful comments about this research project at various stages, including the AJPS editors, the anonymous reviewers, Stanley Bach, Frank Baumgartner, Jon Bond, Gary Cox, C. Lawrence Evans, Keith Gaddie, Paul Goren, Patricia Hurley, Richard Herrera, Kim Kahn, Patrick Kenney, Irwin Morris, Ron Peters, Keith Poole, Wendy Schiller, Jeff Talbert, Chris Wlezien, and participants at research presentations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia. I appreciate Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal generously sharing their NOMINATE data. Kim Hohman, Katharine Jordon, Emily Sharum, and Kaci Walker provided capable research assistance.

Glen S. Krutz is Assistant Professor of Political Science, 455 West Lindsey St., Room 205, The University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019-2001 (


“Winnowing” is the pre-floor process by which Congress determines the small percentage of bills that will receive committee attention. The vast majority of proposals languish in this vital agenda-setting stage, yet our understanding of winnowing is nascent. Why do some bills move forward while most fail? I examine that question here by developing and testing a theoretical framework of winnowing grounded in bounded rationality, which includes institutional and sponsor cues and also incorporates the unique issue milieu. A heteroskedastic probit model is utilized to analyze the winnowing fate of all bills introduced across five issue areas in the House and Senate from 1991 to 1998. The findings counter much received wisdom and suggest that the process is indeed cue based. The majority party helps structure this critical process in both chambers, though party effects appear stronger in the House. Contrary to recent work on the rise of Senate individualism, the seniority of the sponsor has significant effects in both the Senate and House, but again exhibits a stronger effect in the House. Surprisingly, presidential proposals are no more likely to survive than typical bills. The findings further suggest that the entrepreneurial efforts of bill sponsors breathe life into this process.

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