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Policy Substance and Performance in American Lawmaking, 1877–1994


  • John S. Lapinski is associate professor of political science, University of Pennsylvania, 208 S. 37th Street, Room 217, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6215 (

  • The author would like to thank Ira Katznelson and Joshua Clinton, who have been invaluable collaborators on related work. Many others have been particularly helpful, especially David Mayhew, Gregory Wawro, E. Scott Alder, David Bateman, Eldon Porter, and participants of the American politics workshops at Brown University, Columbia University, Northwestern University, and MIT, Cal Tech's political economy workshop participants, and participants in NYU's Wilf family politics workshop. The three anonymous AJPS reviewers are also thanked for helpful and insightful suggestions as well as the Russell Sage Foundation's Scholars in Residence Program for a conducive environment for some of the early research on the project and the National Science Foundation (SES 0318280), the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University, and the Christopher H. Brown Center for International Politics at the University of Pennsylvania for financial assistance for the data collection and analysis effort.


This article reconsiders the importance of including policy issue content and legislative significance in our study of lawmaking. Specifically, it demonstrates theoretically why lawmaking might vary by policy substance and empirically shows how incorrect conclusions would be drawn if lawmaking is studied by pooling enactments instead of disaggregating laws by policy issue content. It accomplishes this by bringing new tools, including a policy classification system and a way to measure the significance of public laws, to help overcome an array of measurement-related problems that have stymied our ability to better understand lawmaking. The policy coding schema introduced is applied, by careful individual human coding, to every public law enacted between 1877 and 1994 (n = 37,767). The policy issue and significance data are used to construct a number of new measures of legislative performance and are useful to test hypotheses within studies of Congress and American Political Development.