A central issue in contemporary democratic politics concerns the agenda-setting stages of the legislative process. Although the legislative branch is generally responsible for determining which policy positions should be crystallized into law, the construction of the bills that the legislators actually vote on can begin long before they reach the legislative floor. By the time the legislators see the items that are up for debate, a long list of civil servants, constituency representatives, party leaders, and other stakeholders will typically already have had their say and contributed towards defining the problems and solutions that the legislators must now assess. Indeed, for many of the political controversies that may appear up for legislative debate, the core issues will already have been vetted and effectively decided. Because the initial preparation of legislative proposals in many ways sets the stage for the remainder of the legislative process, a proper understanding of how modern democracies actually work also requires a proper understanding of how they manage their legislative agendas—the procedures that surround them, the issues that constitute them, and above all, the political interests that control them.
In this project, we will investigate how elected representatives manage the legislative agenda using novel data from the Swedish government. As in many other parliamentary democracies, the Swedish parliament relies heavily on the cabinet ministers to introduce bills for legislative consideration. Before the cabinet submits a bill to the parliament, however, the ministers may also enact a special committee to prepare the bill’s contents, formally referred to as a Commission of Inquiry. The commission’s primary functions are to investigate the stakes of the matter and produce an authoritative policy report on the government’s behalf. The report’s most central item is a concrete policy recommendation for the cabinet to consider in their legislative proposal. If the cabinet decides to accept the commission’s recommendation, then the recommendation will also enter the parliament and potentially become law. Alternatively, if the cabinet decides to reject the recommendation, then the ministers must either invest time, effort, and resources in formulating their own proposal, or remain content with the legislative status quo. By tracing the complete sequence of legislative decision-making—the cabinet’s initial delegation, the commission’s policy recommendation, the cabinet’s agenda curation, and the parliament’s final confirmation—we can construct an unusually clean test bed for modern theories of delegation and legislative organization.
Theoretically, our working hypothesis is that the parties in power control the entire legislative process, with appreciable implications for both the cabinet’s delegation strategies and the sort of policy positions that are likely to enter the statutory rulebook. The traditional view of the Swedish Commissions of Inquiry depict them as prototypical examples of impartial and technocratic institutions. Much of the international literature that has developed over the past few decades, however, emphasize the many ways in which partisanship can distort the legislative process. In particular, scholars of the US Congress have long suggested that party leaders can face strong incentives to block policies that might upset a majority of their party’s members. If the cabinet ministers believe that a given policy recommendation might split their parliamentary base, for example, then it would certainly be well within their rights to reject the recommendation. Similarly, scholars of the US Presidency have also long suggested that party leaders can face strong incentives to pack advisory bodies with co-partisans in order to stack the recommendations in their party’s favor. If the cabinet ministers mistrust the commission’s policy priorities, for example, then it would also be well within their rights to fill the commission with party loyalists from the outset. Our overarching ambition is to probe the effects of partisanship throughout the legislative process, from the cabinet’s initial design of a given commission to the parliament’s final passage vote.
Empirically, we propose to construct a comprehensive database with detailed information on all Commissions of Inquiry and legislative bills between 1971 and 2021. We will collect data on the commissions’ institutional designs and policy recommendations from a series of annual cabinet reports, along with the individual commission reports. Among many other factors, the reports describe the commissions’ compositions, their recommendations, and whether any of the commissioners opposed the recommendations. We will connect the commissions with the cabinet’s agenda curation through the bills that the ministers submit to the parliament. The bills contain explicit references to the policy reports that they build on (if any), which allows us to link each commission’s design and recommendations to a variety of legislative activities—including third-party communications from affected stakeholders, professional assessments from the Council of Legislation, and of course the final passage vote. Because of the vast amount of information that we will need to process in order to realize our theoretical ambitions, we plan to rely mainly on machine learning and text analytic methods to assemble the database. We will make all data available to the public via the Quality of Government Institute website upon project completion.
The results will speak to both national and international audiences. Whether politicians really can control the numerous acts of delegation that they authorize throughout the legislative process is a staple concern of contemporary political science, and we will engage directly with classical debates regarding the distribution of influence between elected representatives and the administrative agents that they rely upon for advice and support. At the same time, much research has also shown that excessive political control can have adverse consequences for the efficiency of government decision-making and the quality of the outputs, and our database will permit us to explore the potentially impairing effects of partisanship in an unusually detailed manner. In the Swedish context specifically, academics, journalists, and pundits alike have long raised concerns that the Commissions of Inquiry may have been stealthily transformed from arenas for compromise and rational problem solving into mere instruments for the parties in power to buttress policies that they have already decided or, alternatively, bury policies that they resent. By performing a detailed case study of Swedish lawmaking, then, we hope to contribute towards a better understanding not only of the peculiarities of the Swedish case, but also of the internal operations of modern democratic governments more generally.