A Comparative Approach to Legislative Organization: Careerism and Seniority in the United States and Japan

Kawato, Sadafumi


Journal article written by 1991 Abe Fellow Sadafumi Kawato based on his project “Comparative Study of Legislatures and the Development of Political Parties.” Co-authors include David Epstein, David Brady, and Sharyn O’Halloran.

Theory: This paper provides a comparative study of legislative institutions in the United States and Japan. It explains the rise of committee-based legislative organizations as an institutional choice made by rational legislators deciding how best to regularize their career advancement subject to electoral and constitutional constraints. Hypotheses: We argue that the rise of careerism within a legislature leads to a regularized system of career advancement, or a seniority system. Furthermore, the details of this system depend on the heterogeneity of intra-party preferences and each country’s electoral and constitutional system. To the extent that parties can offer members electoral security and influence over policy, they will retain control over the policy-making process. Otherwise, control will devolve to smaller organizational units, such as committees. Methods: We develop a new measure of seniority within committees. We present statistical evidence linking a rise in average tenure within both legislatures to a regularization of careers, and detailing the nature of committee-based seniority in each country. Results: In the United States, single-member electoral districts, alternating party control, and a separation of powers system gave legislators an incentive to create committee-based policy jurisdictions. In Japan, multi-member districts, single-party control, and a parliamentary system led to a unique two-tiered seniority system in which members rise first through committees and then through cabinet posts.