How Legislatures Bring Stability to the Decision-Making Process


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D.George Mason University

Imagine the US Congress debating over something complicated and doesn’t know how to bring stability to the decision-making process. There are so many details and choices to make, and the combinations of how to assemble it all are seemingly endless. To solve problems of this type, Congress uses a dictator to bring stability. Whether the dictator is benevolent or not is up to the dictator.

The Capitol building in Washington DC at sunset.
To bring stability to decision-making, Congress uses a dictator. (Image: lunamarina/Shutterstock)

The Task for the Legislatures

One possibility is that the group could use an agenda-setting function. Legislatures do this all the time by using committees, party leadership, and calendar functions to help them make choices about which bills to bring up, in what order, and when. If everyone agrees the order of the voting was done without bias, and the voting has transparency and integrity, then the outcome is perfectly democratic and will have authority. No one objects.

This is basically what legislatures do. If legislatures voted on each detail using all the people’s preferences, there would be no outcome. Or if there was an outcome, no one would accept it because it would be apparent that some other majority prefers something else.

So, legislatures set up their rules specifically to avoid such chaos. By agreeing on the rules of the lawmaking process, the committee system, the party leadership system, the agenda-setting rules, and so forth, they inject stability and legitimacy into the process.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US GovernmentWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Congress and the Democratic Outcome

When Congress manages to produce a bill that receives a majority of votes, it is accepted as the “will of the Congress”. But everybody knows it is not. Rather, it is “a will” of the Congress. There are probably others, but they can not be observed because the lawmaking process does not allow to reveal all the possible preference orderings over all the possible policy combinations.

One way to think about this is that a particular outcome in Congress is democratic because it was produced in a democratic process, but it is not the only possible democratic outcome that could be produced. If everyone accepts that the will of the people may not exist, then they are better off having a stable system that produces something that they accept as legitimate rather than nothing at all. 

Reason Why People Need to Accept the Rules

If people stopped accepting the outcomes as legitimate or argued that the rules were not fair, then the system would lose its stability and veer toward chaos because the institutions, or rules, would no longer be able to shield them from realizing the incoherence of the group.

It’s not so much that democratic institutions close people’s eyes from knowing other outcomes. It’s that as a society, people need to accept the set of rules, institutions, and procedures that make up the government. In this way, democracy is not so much about finding the will of the people, as it is about agreeing on the set of rules everyone uses to make decisions for themselves. 

One might even say that in some ways, it’s more important that people agree on the rules for making group decisions than the substance of the decisions themselves. When people stop agreeing on how the institutions function, or the rule of law, or the set of procedures for ensuring liberties and equalities, then the institutions will fail to prevent the chaos that is natural in a pure democracy.

Learn more about the pros and cons of organized interests.

The US Election of 1912

In a unanimous group, it really doesn’t matter how the votes are counted because one should always get the same outcome. But when people have varied preferences, the method of vote counting can make a big difference. To see this, let’s take a look at the election of 1912. 

An image of President Wilson throwing out a ball
In the 1912 election, Woodrow Wilson won 435 electoral colleges and became the President of the USA. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

It’s an interesting case because four legitimate candidates were running for president that year. First, there was the incumbent president, Republican William Howard Taft. Then there also was a former president in the running, Theodore Roosevelt, who was identified as the leader of the Progressive Party, which had split off from the Republican Party. Then there was the challenger from the Democratic Party, the governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson. 

Finally, the Socialist Party nominated Eugene Debs as its candidate. Wilson, Roosevelt, and Taft ran a tight three-way contest, with Debs as a sort of spoiler. Ultimately, Wilson won in a landslide, winning 40 states and 435 electoral college votes.

Learn more about the powers granted to the US president by the Constitution.

Imagining a Different Result of the 1912 Election

Wilson was one of only two Democrats to win the presidency in the period between the US Civil War and the Great Depression. He won about 42% of the popular vote. Roosevelt and Taft wound up splitting the votes of those who leaned Republican, with Roosevelt winning about 28% of the vote and Taft 23%. Debs got about 7% of the popular vote. 

Now, imagine that instead of using the electoral college system to settle this election, some other system of counting votes was used. To see how that might have turned out, scholars have used evidence in the historical record to identify the rank order of preferences of voters who supported each candidate.

Among Wilson supporters, their second choice was Roosevelt, third choice Taft, and least of all, they liked Debs. If the Roosevelt supporters weren’t going to get their first choice, then they liked Taft, then Wilson, and least of all Debs. The Taft Supporters’ second choice was Wilson, then Roosevelt with Debs last. And the Debs supporters liked Roosevelt second, Taft third, and Wilson last. If this system was used, Roosevelt would have become President of the United States.

Common Questions about How Legislatures Bring Stability to the Decision-Making Process

Q: How is it possible to bring stability to decision-making process in a democracy?

There are several ways to bring about consistency to the decision-making process in a democracy. One is the utilization of agenda-setting functions. People also need to learn to obey the law and accept the rules set by legislatures. This way, the government can avoid instability and chaos within the society.

Q: Why should people accept the rules set by institutions?

As a society, people are obliged to accept the laws set by the institutions. Of course, this does not mean ignoring the will of the people, but in order to make the decision-making process easier, it is better for the people to follow the laws for the benefit of society.

Q: How were votes counted in the 1912 US election?

In the 1912 US election, the votes were counted using the electoral college.

Keep Reading
Federal Bureaucracy in the US: Challenges
The US Cabinet Departments: Divisions and Functions
The Federal Bureaucracy in the United States